Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling

brave movie poster

Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.

A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.

Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.

THE MAGICAL STORYWORLD OF BRAVE

“I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.”

@LizzRoinett, Twitter video

A fantasy medieval Scotland. This is ancient Scotland in the same way Princess Mononoke is ancient Japan — it’s a vision of the past according to a contemporary audience, when we imagine the world really was ruled by magic. In both Brave and in Princess Mononoke, you’ll find magical spirits in the woods. Here they are known as ‘wisps’ and they play a critical role in the plot, leading Merida first into the witch’s cottage, next on her journey of discovery as she finds out what happened to that guy who asked the witch for strength. (He turned into a bear and stayed like it, upping the stakes for the mother.)

I think this part aspect hits on why I found Brave lacking as a satisfying story: First the audience is told that we must believe in magic. I have an issue with this general ideology. Merida’s father says he doesn’t believe in magic. He is proven wrong as the audience is shown the wisps on screen. “Well he should because it’s true,” says Merida, our viewpoint character. Of course, she means it’s true within the world of this particular story. But I feel we have a problem with magical thinking across contemporary society, and it bothers me when a sympathetic viewpoint character in a story basically tells the audience that you’re fool for not believing in magic. There are ways  of writing magic into stories which don’t chastise anyone for failing to trust and believe. I prefer those ones.

That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?

Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.

Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.

“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.

I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form  is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.

This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.

Merida’s anagnorisis —  that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.

William Powell Frith - The Fair Toxophilites 1872
William Powell Frith – The Fair Toxophilites 1872

STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.

Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”

Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.

When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.

Brenda Chapman, after her firing

It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.

Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.

Tharini Viswanath

Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.

Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:

In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the  multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:

These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Possible reasons suggested by Myers:

  • The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
  • Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.

I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.

Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:

While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.

1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES

These stories are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother.  These stories tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.

Examples:

  • Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
  • Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
  • My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.

There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.

2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother. The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.

Examples:

  • Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
  • Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume
3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories. In these stories, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother. In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.

So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:

  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc?
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy - The Daughters of Atlas 1896
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy – The Daughters of Atlas 1896

BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE

The story in a nutshell:

Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.

Tharini Viswanath

SHORTCOMING

This is not a story in which a repressed female character with no voice learns to discover her voice. Merida knows her mind from the beginning of the story, which is exactly the thing that makes Brave a slightly different take on the Female Maturity Formula:

Merida … clearly has a voice early in the film. And by standing up to her parents and refusing to go through with the betrothal, it does seem as if she has both agency and an established subject position as a headstrong tomboy. She uses her mother’s language – ‘That’s what you’ve been preparing me for’ – against her, to establish her own position on the issue. Merida represents the capacity to act independently of social restraint: her vehemence at the idea of marriage does, in a way, make the viewer question dominant social ideologies, especially as Merida opposes the marriage plot trope, where Disney Princesses before her rarely question the concept of falling in love and/or getting married. (As a matter of fact, the heteronormative romance between princesses and young men they hardly know drives the plot of almost every Disney film.

Tharini Viswanath

Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.

DESIRE

Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.

‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.

Merida in a voiceover

Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.

OPPONENT

Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.

The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.

PLAN

As I mentioned above, Merida’s plan is pretty terrible. Her initial plan works.

“I’ll put a spell on my mother and then she won’t make me get married.” In other words, I’ll change my mother rather than sacrifice my own bodily autonomy. After that her plan is to follow the magic.

BIG STRUGGLE

The most irritating thing about this movie — to me — is the elongated male big struggle scene going on at the castle all the while Merida and her mother are on this emotional journey, into the subconscious symbolised by the forest. There’s a real ‘boys will be boys’ ideology going on here. Of course men fight each other, that’s what men do… Isn’t it funny watching them go at it, though?

Merida herself encounters a variety of big struggle scenes, escalating in stakes:

  • Fights with her mother about being ladylike, in a montage sequence
  • Fights with her mother at the dinner table about ladylike amounts of food
  • Fights with her mother about getting married
  • Faces the witch in the forest, who seems amiable but turns out to be an opponent later — a false ally opponent, who in the end turns out to have done the right thing for Merida. Good-bad-good witch.
  • The mother turns into a bear. This is an annoying turn of events because she could have told her father what had happened and what she’d done. He had the power to stop the men marauding the bear, were they to find her. Instead, Merida confides to her three little brothers, and none of them thought to tell the father, either. Presumably this is because the father is pretty useless. Hence, unsatisfying.
  • In the forest, Bear Elinor fights the baser nature of herself while Merida helps her through it.
  • After Merida’s big speech, in which she and Elinor have part of their anagnorisis, the story should really be over now, but no. The writers didn’t have a movie-length amount of material, so what did they do? Wrote another elongated rough n’ tumble big struggle scene, centring on the men marauding around the castle after the bear. The stakes are ostensibly very high — if they catch Elinor they will kill her. But this entire sequence feels like a carnivalesque insertion into a story which started off as a mythic journey, and I’m not sure it works to pad a mythic story out with carnivalesque hi-jinx. It feels like… padding.

Here’s a typical reaction from one reviewer:

The film takes an odd turn and seems to lose momentum temporarily once the spell is cast.

Reelmama

What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.

ANAGNORISIS

I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the  mother-daughter relationship?

One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.

Tharini Viswanath

BRAVE AND THE STORYTELLING ROLE OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

Why does Elinor transmogrify into a bear? Why indeed? It’s a little scary for the  youngest viewers. My daughter was scared by this scene when she saw it in 2012, though the rest of the story is set in a kind of forest utopia.

First there’s the story reason for why she turns into a bear:

The fact that Elinor gets turned into a bear comes as no surprise: the witch’s cottage Merida stumbles upon is full of bear carvings. On a superficial level, the viewer is expected to read the figure of the bear as being synonymous with the body: the bear is unruly, large, disruptive, and in need of direction, and Mor’du, the demon bear, supports this description.

Tharini Viswanath

Dig a bit deeper though, and transmogrification itself seems to symbolise the changing state of the female body, especially as she becomes a mother:

As a woman, Elinor signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, and as a bear she is able to restrict the shaping, manipulation and stereotyping of the female body. […] Reduced to her body, the once articulate Elinor is defined by her animalistic needs. Elinor-asbear embodies monstrous motherhood. She is physically overwhelming, monstrous in shape and size, and dominates space and situation; in short, she is too large and too powerful to ignore.

Tharini Viswanath

Importantly, only Merida is able to see that the bear is her mother:

[A]nd with good reason: Elinor’s inability to control her fertility (Merida’s three younger brothers eat some of the abject cake and turn into bears as well) and repress her sexuality make her ‘monstrous’ in male eyes.

Tharini Viswanath

Transmogrification demonstrates the centrality and importance of language, and of communication in general, because if you won’t listen to each other, you might as well be unable to communicate:

Until Elinor transforms into a bear, the two women talk past each other, and may be speaking two languages as different as English and Bear. As McCallum notes, ‘meanings are always, to some extent, culturally constructed, and the learning of another language entails learning the cultural codes through which a linguistic community represents and makes sense of the world’.  Both Elinor and Merida need to learn to speak each other’s ‘language’ in order to communicate, a task they are able to achieve only when faced with dire consequences. Arguably, this language difference is also one of intergenerationality.

Tharini Viswanath

Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.

Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.

NEW SITUATION

Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.

Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:

Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.

Tharini Viswanath

By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.

My questions revisited:
  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.

RELATED

What does it really mean to be ‘brave’? Could we be wrong about its definition? I definitely think the concept needs an update.

I’ve written much more about how Brave is not a successful subversion of gender tropes in this post.

The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes for a long time.
The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes of masculine mythic stories for a long time.

Lizzie’s Tiger by Angela Carter

Lizzie's Tiger

Have you ever run away from home? I tried at the age of two — so family legend has it. I escaped the house and ran, fast as my chubby legs would carry me, to the main road. I wore nothing but a nappy and bib. (The streaking part is always emphasised in retellings as if this is especially egregious.) When my parents found me they demanded to know where I was headed. So I told them like it was obvious. I was off to see the lions.

After reading Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” I’m glad I never made it to the circus. Things might’ve turned out very differently for my parents if I had. Instead, my father built a massive gate between house and road — inaccessible from both sides to a small person. This gate terrified me in a way lions didn’t. A few years later, when I started school, I made it my morning mantra to ask for the gate to be open in time for my return. (Five year olds used to walk our own selves home back then.) I was terrified my mother would forget, in which case I’d be locked out forever. Obviously. My mother was actually pretty good at remembering to open the gate. She forgot just the once. I screamed and screamed and the entire neighbourhood thought naturally of blue murder. Eileen Austing from across the road came to my rescue. I could not be consoled. I even wet my pants.

But lions though? I had no problem with them. Lions and tigers are the stuff of fairytales — to a child they may not even be real.

Angela Carter’s fictional characterisation of a young Lizzie Borden felt the same about tigers as I did of lions. Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” reads almost like a child’s fairytale — until it suddenly doesn’t:

  • The main characters are two little girls who we meet at the ages of 13 and 4.
  • They’re freshly orphaned, like many fairytale children.
  • The youngest has a childlike desire — to see the circus for herself.
  • The adult in her life — the father — refuses to help her, so like any good child character, she sets out on her own, into the world — her own mythic journey.
  • Angela Carter’s story is almost like the inverse of The Tiger Who Came To Tea — in the picture book, a tiger comes to the house. Tiger and child indulge in a carnivalesque adventure together. In this short story for adults, a child leaves the house to find the tiger, who is not the slightest bit anthropomorphised. This is a proper tiger. Child Lizzie is at an actual carnival, but one of the adult, debauched kind.

STORYWORLD OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Angela Carter had the gift of turning setting into character.

That cottage on Ferry — very well, it was a slum; but the undertaker lived on unconcerned among the stiff furnishings of his defunct marriage. His bits and pieces would be admired today if they turned up freshly beeswaxed in an antique story, but in those days they were plain old-fashioned, and time would only make them more so in that dreary interior, the tiny house he never mended, eroding clapboard and diseased paint, mildew on the dark wallpaper with a brown pattern like brains, the ominous crimson border round the top of the walls, the sisters sleeping in one room in one thrifty bed.

On Ferry, in the worst part of town, among the dark-skinned Portuguese fresh off the boat with their earrings, flashing teeth and incomprehensible speech, come over the ocean to work the mills whose newly erected chimneys closed in every perspective; every year more chimneys, more smoke, more newcomers, and the peremptory shriek of the whistle that summoned to labour as bells had once summoned to prayer.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

Note various other techniques.

  • First point — a lot of writers advise against using adjectives. But count the adjectives and tell me Carter didn’t deserve to use every single last one.
  • Imagine a camera. Carter starts off with a long shot of the cottage, slowly zooming in from large furniture right down to mildew. Then back out to include the inhabitants of the bed — including our heroine. Why did Carter zoom in on the very small? Because Lizzie herself is very small.
  • ‘Pattern like brains’ and ‘diseased paint’ not only carry the negative connotations of axe murder, foreshadowing an event which is not included in this particular snapshot of Lizzie’s life, but also personify the building itself in classic gothic fashion. In Gothic literature, houses are alive. They will swallow you up, absorb you into the walls, and provide shelter to beasts.
  • In the following paragraph Angela takes the camera high above in an establishing shot — usually, in film, we get the establishing shot first. But in writing the camera is far more fluid. A fictional camera is like an electron, jumping from place to place. This foreshadows Lizzie’s journey from the shelter of her own home — her own bed — into this wider world containing people reminiscent of pirates. Why the focus on the chimneys? Because this is a view from above. Again, with focus on the miniature — a small town containing an even smaller girl, who will do big things.
  • Again we have the personification of the town in the ‘shriek of the whistle’. This phrase is idiomatic so it’s easy to gloss over, but it’s typically people who shriek — not whistles.
  • In the final sentence of this description of setting, Carter reminds us of the fairytale, timelessness of this event. This may be about a particular event in a particular year, but by reminding us that this is a town which has recently transitioned from an early modern town ruled by the church into an industrialised centre of manufacturing. This is the story of a girl in flux; it’s also the story of a town in flux. The most interesting stories happen in times of big change. This is a story set in the stages between 2 and 3.
FOUR STAGES of civilisation
  1. The Wilderness (e.g. the forest of fairytale, caves, deserts)
  2. The Small Town or Hamlet (civilisation on the edge of wilderness)
  3. The City
  4. The Oppressive City (which includes suburbs, which often looks like utopia until the ‘snail under the leaf‘ is revealed.)

Why is this connection important to the story? Because Lizzie herself is in transition. This is presumably her first foray out into the world, from the ‘village’ of the home into the ‘city’ of the circus, which collects a wide variety of characters and shoves them together.

The snapshot continues:

The hovel on Ferry Road stood , or rather leaned, at a bibulous angle on a narrow street cut across at an oblique angle by another narrow street, all the old wooden homes like an upset cookie jar of broken gingerbread houses lurching this way and that way, and the shutters hanging off their hinges, and windows stuffed with old newspapers, and the snagged picket fence and raised voices in unknown tongues and howling of dogs who, since puppyhood, had known of the world only the circumference of their chain. Outside the parlour were nothing but rows of counterfeit houses that sometimes used to scream.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter
  • When writing from a child’s point of view it’s essential to describe the world as a child would see it. Hence the gingerbread, straight out of a fairytale. Later, we’re told ‘a hand came in the night’ to hang up posters advertising the circus. This too is very fairytale-esque — to young Lizzie there is no person attached to actions. She hasn’t learnt to humanise people, and evidence may point to her never learning this skill. Moreover, this depicts Lizzie’s view of the world as full of bugaboos. The phrasing also suggests she’s drawn to these bugaboos rather than driven back into the house.
  • I had to look up bibulous: ‘excessively fond of drinking alcohol’. This is a form of pathetic fallacy. The people inside the houses drink. Not the houses themselves: human attribute transferred to nearby object. Carter makes use of this same technique when she tells us the houses scream. This works because to a small child, it would seem the houses scream. A small child may not think any further.
  • The lean-to houses remind me of an illustrated picture book of The Pied Piper which sits on our shelf. It also reminds me of Tim Burton’s sensibility, but most of all, this is how buildings really were built in the medieval era. Before modern building standards, houses really did lean into each other. The roads between them were narrow, and they often held each other up. They collapsed. This would have felt very precarious, but maybe not to them. As for me, if I could time travel for a day back to the medieval era, I’d be very wary of setting foot inside the buildings!

The buildings of medieval Troyes have been restored to meet modern standards, but I’ve seen old photos in books which show us genuinely medieval buildings leaning into each other. A contemporary snapshot offers a little insight into the leaning nature of medieval streets. Even now, this street seems to lean into itself.

Troyes Champagne Street Scene

SYMBOL WEB OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Of all the stories I’ve studied, I’m reminded most of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

  • Both are about a young female character who leaves her home on a mission
  • To end up in a foreign part of town
  • Coming face-to-face with death.

The similarities might come partly from the details I read about Fall River. At the time of the murders, Fall River was starkly divided into the rich people who live on ‘The Hill’ and the (largely) mill workers who lived down below in a much more culturally diverse mix. This rich/poor divide doesn’t come to the fore — dig down another layer yet — this is about the powerful versus the powerless. Lizzie is powerless because of her size, but her temperament will later compensate. We are told she is not a fearful child.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

“Lizzie’s Tiger” is a classic mythic structure and I’ve written so often on that I feel I know the main (masculine) variety inside out and back to front. This time I’ll zoom in on the most unusual points.

Like all heroes embarking on a big journey (big mostly because Lizzie’s so small), Lizzie meets a variety of characters — some help her but end up contributing to her downfall. (The group of street kids.) Another sexually abuses her. (The lion tamer.) Another man, this time benevolent, helps Lizzie to achieve her goal of seeing the tiger.

The interesting structural aspect of this story is the anagnorisis phase. On the one hand, Carter is really clear that some kind of anagnorisis has happened:

Lizzie’s stunned little face was now mottled all over with a curious reddish-purple, with the heat of the tent, with passion, with the sudden access of enlightenment.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

But none of this makes complete sense until the final sentence, when we get a big revelation. (Big revelations are known as ‘reversals’ — we’re encouraged now to see the entire story differently.) Perhaps you know more about the Lizzie Borden case than I did, and you picked it up much earlier. As for me, I had to look this person up online to check she was who I thought she was. Angela Carter seemed fascinated by Lizzie Borden — and I don’t know when she wrote them, but the fascination may have spanned years. Lizzie Borden was the main character in “The Fall River Axe Murders”, included in Black Venus (1985), and this one was included in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993).

In a nutshell, Lizzie Borden entered pop culture as the notorious main suspect in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. This happened in the beautifully symbolically named Fall River, Massachusetts. She was acquitted, as it happens. In any case, if you know that about Lizzie Borden, you know what the character’s revelation was in this short story: Hypothetical young Lizzie has realised that she contains great power within herself. She is the tiger. In fact, you don’t need to know about Lizzie Borden to have picked that much up. It’s clear from various clues within the text that the tiger is Lizzie’s animal analogue:

  • Lizzie is strangely entranced by it
  • Both she and the tiger are abused by the tamer (though at this point, only the tiger has exacted any sort of revenge, in the form of scars)
  • Lizzie ends up wearing a similar mottled pattern to the tiger.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Roald Dahl wrote a similar story about Adolf Hitler as a baby. When he reveals the identity of the baby in the story, the writer asks us to examine whether we still have sympathy for this small child. If we saw Adolf Hitler as a baby and knew what he’d turn into, would we save his little life?

Likewise, an episode of Black MIrror asks us to examine our empathy after withholding the culpability of the empathetic main character until the last few minutes of the story.

These imaginings of notorious people as children are always about empathy. Do horrible adults deserve empathy? How much? Are any of us really responsible for the things we do, or do life circumstances send us forth along a path which seems full of choices but is actually more fatalistic?

Some reviewers have complained that Angela Carter treated her characters like specimens for analysis. Lizzie’s Tiger may be a good example of that. Stories like these are inevitably about the role nurture in shaping personality, sometimes attempting to home in on the moment in which a good child turned bad. In reality, there are rarely such defined moments. We like to think there are. We like to see them in fiction.

SEE ALSO

The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter

How can setting be a character?

setting as character

When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?

When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.

At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.

But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:

  1. PERIOD — a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
  2. DURATION — a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting.
  3. LOCATION — a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGSforests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

If applied to Breaking Bad:

  1. PERIOD — The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
  2. DURATION — Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
  3. LOCATIONAlbuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization

If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:

  1. PERIOD — The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
  2. DURATION — Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
  3. LOCATION — The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Midwest plains
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.

The cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.

Robert McKee

GENIUS LOCI

When talking about places as characters in literature, the Latin term Genius loci is useful. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.) Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.

If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A butsudan is a corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)

But in the West we mostly refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding.

The term used to refer specifically to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.

"Autumn Leaves", Cover of Collier's Magazine, by illustrator Franklin Booth. November of 1911
“Autumn Leaves”, Cover of Collier’s Magazine, by illustrator Franklin Booth. November of 1911

SETTING AS CHARACTER

Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.

What do people mean when they talk about setting as character?

To the list above, let’s add the following of any work:

  • Who else is there (apart from the main character)?
  • How are these characters interconnected?
  • What values do they share and disagree on?

Now to that fourth dimension: How is the setting a character in its own right? Let’s start with what makes a ‘character’.

Let’s address these specifically human attributes one by one, as applied — this time — to a setting.

How does a setting want something?

Unless you subscribe to an olde worlde religion where you believe spirits exist in the river, in the mountains, in the trees, you probably agree that a physical setting doesn’t want anything — it just is.

However, there are certain aspects of setting — such as weather events — which can take on the persona of a monstrous character. A tornado behaves like a horror villain in its ‘single-minded’ wish to follow its course, caring not for the havoc its wreaks upon those in its path.

Hollywood is fond of odd-couple films, so you’ll be familiar with stories in which two contrasting characters are stuck together to achieve some kind of goal. Lethal Weapon, The African Queen, and Rush Hour are stand-out examples of that genre. Sometimes you get an odd-couple film which doesn’t contrast two characters — instead, it contrasts a character with their setting. This is known as a fish-out-of-water story.  Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers, Splash and so on.

When a setting is used to contrast a human character, the setting itself seems to take on human qualities, turning a story into a different take on the odd couple story. Hero against setting this time. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and sometimes it really does seem like nature itself is against you. In reality, the setting doesn’t ‘want’ anything, but when it rains six weekends in a row and you want to get out into the garden, it can seem like the weather has some sort of vendetta against you.

Writers can utilise the cognitive bias of anthropomorising natural events by juxtaposing the main character’s goals against natural events in the environment. Weather is a great one, but it might be a forest which characters can get lost in, or something much less dramatic, like a tall building which prevents an old man’s yard from getting any sun, thereby affecting his tomatoes.

How does a setting have a psychological shortcoming?

The only way a setting can have a psychological shortcoming is if we’re talking about the collective shortcoming of the people who are there — its visitors or inhabitants. For instance, the insularity of a community who is forced to accommodate strangers, or the lack of community of a big city which is later forced to band together to fight a common evil.

The concept of pathetic fallacy is crucial here.

If a setting is ‘gloomy’, that’s because the viewpoint character feels gloomy. Of course, in real life, a setting just is. If everything around you seems gloomy that’s because you’re seeing it that way. In fiction causality is presumed to work backwards — a character feels gloomy because the setting is gloomy. In earlier times in history, people really did think backwards in this way.

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.

from “America’s Enduring Caste System”, NYT. A beautiful example of a house as metaphor for human history.

How does a setting have a moral shortcoming?

How does a setting treat ‘other’ characters badly? Your human characters can feel let down and abandoned by their home environment if they’ve dutifully tended to the land only to be faced with a drought which renders them unable to survive. In this way, farms can ‘betray’ farmers. Of course, it’s the farmers feeling this emotion. It’s entirely one-sided. That doesn’t matter in fiction.

How does a setting get caught up in a big struggle?

In a disaster story like Twister, the setting creates the big struggle. But it doesn’t have to seem ‘proactive’ — a desert just sits there minding its own business, but because a desert is inhospitable to human life, any human who tries to walk across desert sands is going to find themselves in a big struggle against the desert.

How does a setting have a anagnorisis?

Since this stage is inextricably linked to the ‘psychological shortcoming’ part of a story, the same holds true. A community of people can realise something at once, after some common big struggle. Or, maybe the community doesn’t realise anything, but the reader does.

How does a setting undergo a character arc?

To sum up, this portion of  Cheryl Klein’s newsletter explains what most people mean when they talk about ‘setting as character’:

I would love any tips on how to make the setting come alive. Seems sometimes the setting is like a character.

I’d say treat the setting like a character, and try to develop it the way you would a character. Some questions to contemplate:  What is the history of this place? Write out a timeline of it. What did it look like before any beings lived on/in it—its landscape, its climate? If it’s a human-made place (e.g. a house or a business or a town), who built it, and for what purpose, and why at that location? Who has occupied this place since, and how have they used it? If there were a “spirit of the place,” what would that spirit be like, and how would it have reacted to each of these occupants? Think of at least three specific details for each of its historical iterations:  the kind of flora and fauna that dwelled there, a game played there, the surnames of the families that lived there. Which of those details have survived into the present day of your story?

FOR WRITERS

BRINGING A SETTING TO LIFE

  1. Write about the people who live(d) there.
  2. Write about how the setting either props up or opposes humans who enter its territory.
  3. Personify the setting at a line level. (I write about the difference between personification and anthropomorphism in this post.)

Individual writers create their own regular tricks to evoke the feeling that a setting is alive.

Annie Proulx is a master at this. For example, Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit. Below she describes a snowy, sleety, windy scene in which a family of men are about to go out hunting:

Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.

A Run of Bad Luck

Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but Proulx using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive, and also like it’s antagonistic. I’d say the technique of manipulating standard grammar is related to personification, but not quite.

Animation cel of the witch from Walt Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) witch apple
Animation cel of the witch from Walt Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937).

FURTHER READING

comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

If you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Matt Bird has a blog post about why (rather than how) Westover turns her mountain into a character.

For a different take on the exact same topic as this post see Person, Place or Thing?: Characterizing Setting by AYŞE PAPATYA BUCAK at Fiction Writers’ Review

The Earth Is Just As Alive As You Are from the New York Times

“The history of life on Earth is the history of life remaking Earth.”

A Meditation on Our Relationship to the Landscapes We Inhabit from the New York Times

“Lessard devotes much of the book to exploring what she terms America’s ‘atopia,’ our vast, seemingly unplanned, inchoate, exurban sprawl, which remains to her largely inscrutable and tragic. She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault.”

The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.

SEE ALSO

Buildings As Character In Fiction

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter and Mise-en-abyme

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

Peter and the Wolf is a Russian fairytale for children, with musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This fairytale is much newer than most it dates from 1936. This makes it far newer than the Grimm tales, which all predated the Grimm Brothers themselves and newer than the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. This one is unusual of its type, because it was written with a specific educational purpose: to introduce children to various instruments of an orchestra.

The copyright history of Peter and the Wolf makes for an interesting and frustrating read. In the middle of the 20th century, schools (and anyone else) were free to use this story and music as they saw fit either in remixes or as it is. Then in 2012 the American Supreme Court judged that previously copyright free works could, at a later date, become copyrighted. This big struggle had been going on for some time, at least since 1994.

None of this affected what Angela Carter did in her short story of the same name, regardless of what year she wrote it. Titles are not subject to copyright, and Carter’s is a completely different tale about a different Peter and a different kind of wolf altogether. The title encourages readers to consider that the Sergei Prokofiev story might have been different, but that’s where the analogy ends. The Wikipedia entry for the orchestral original offers a good summary of Prokofiev’s plot, for anyone interested in a closer comparison.

There’s also the 2009 short film which got in before the ruling, directed by Suzie Templeton, written for screen by Marianela Maldonado. In this version, the national enemies of the Russian original have been personified by a gang of street bullies. But the brutality of the duck murder is preserved, making for a story much darker than most Pixar-raised contemporary kids are used to. It disturbs my daughter no end, especially as the murder comes right after a slapstick scene which has a child audience giggling.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PETER AND THE WOLF BY ANGELA CARTER

SHORTCOMING

The clear main character of Angela Carter’s story remains Peter. She hasn’t switched the viewpoint over to the wolf, which would be another fine option for a re-visioning. She does switch our empathy, however she does something more difficult. Carter helps us to share it between Peter and The Wolf. This is another excellent option for any re-visioning, because the message is always this: Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do.

The original Peter, being a child, has the usual child shortcomings: He is reliant upon his caregiver (the grandfather) to care for him. Angela Carter, who famously translated the Charles Perrault fairytales into English, was undoubtedly influenced by him, even though she used him as a negative example for how to depict women, in particular. Here she goes the Perrault route, and in writing this fairytale she begins a generation beforehand. In order to understand an individual, it was once thought, we must first know who their parents and grandparents were. We no longer think that, culturally. Or, if we do, we keep it on the down-low. We like to think or to imagine that we are not held hostage by our genetics and our ancestry. That anyone can become anyone else, so long as they work hard and be good.

Carter does actually start with the Wolf girl, which might trick you into thinking the girl is the main character. I’ve written before that it’s not always easy determining who the main character is in a story. I always come back to this: Who has the revelation at the end? In other words, who gets the character arc? That’s your main character. The Wolf girl is interesting, she is necessary, and big things happen to her in this story, but the revelation belongs clearly to Peter. She aids him in this. Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is technically an example of The Female Maturity Formula, and I point that out because yes, even feminist writers use it my critique of this arc refers to the canon. Individual stories are absolved.

Peter is introduced in the fifth paragraph quite a way down, considering this is a short story. Peter is revealed to be smart good at deduction but what is his shortcoming? If in doubt, look at the revelation. HIs shortcoming is that he has been taught to fear the wilderness, and anything that cannot be tamed. Carter tells us clearly:

When the eldest grandson, Peter, reached his seventh summer, he was old enough to go up the mountain with his father, as the men did every year, to let the goats feed on the young grass. There Peter sat in the new sunlight, plaiting the straw for baskets, until he saw the thing he had been taught most to fear advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Fair enough, we should all be wary of wolves. Maybe. But as the story progresses, and we see Peter’s reaction to the rescue and abduction of the Wolf girl. Fear of life, and of nature in general, far outsizes reason. Guilt and fear paralyse him.

What Angela Carter does so well across all of her stories is link woman to nature. This isn’t Carter’s invention she is drawing on a long, long history of misogyny, in which men are closer to God and women are closer to the Earth, and can never rise above. This is due to the unmistakable and harrowingly messy process of childbirth and reproductive cycles cycles which were far more visible until the twentieth century. If women are close to earth, only men can be close to God, and only men can run the entire show. For more on that sorry history, which spans the last 3000 years at least, Marilyn French wrote a comprehensive history of misogyny in her book Beyond Power. Also a feminist, living in the same era as Marilyn French, Angela Carter critiques that same history that women are to be considered abject because of our strong links to the Earth, and the cycle of life itself. She also makes the link between this view and organised religion, which in earlier times was inextricable from the rest of human thought.

DESIRE

Peter is a fairly passive character the viewpoint character, in fact. With a character who looks on and observes events, you’ll need the strong, obvious Desire to come from someone else. In this case it’s clearly the Wolf girl, who is captured, but wants to break free from the humans. This desire is so ferocious that she creates a violent big struggle scene in the house.

Afterwards, Peter is left with a desire of his own, but this desire is far more subtle. Wolf girl’s desire is on the surface; Peter’s is under. He doesn’t know himself what he wants. He wants to assuage his generalised anxieties.

OPPONENT

The opponent is not the Wolf girl. Even in many orchestral versions, the Wolf and the Boy are pitted against each other, presented as equals at one point. In the 2009 short film, this is most clear when wolf and boy are each dangling from different ends of the same rope, eye to eye, each reliant upon the other for escape.

But it is enough to say that Peter is his own worst enemy? This never makes for a satisfying if that’s the only thing you’re doing, but it does work if there are other big struggles raging. You’re more likely to pull it off in a short story than in a novel, which can’t sustain that level of big struggle, unless it’s something like Fight Club, in which we are presented with a clear opponent, even if that opponent is revealed to be illusory.

Peter is his own opponent because he clings to a system of rituals which aren’t going to help him break free of his fears. You could say the church itself is his opponent, though it would be more accurate to say it’s the culture. Carter says ‘he had been taught’, passively, suggesting he’s learned this response from all sides. Again, church = culture, and culture = church in a setting such as this.

PLAN

Peter and Wolf girl are presented as diametric opposites consider them different sides of the same personality, in the same way the Winnie the Pooh characters can be considered different aspects of a child’s traits and emotions. Wolf girl models one possibility you can rage against the machine and take off to live your own life, literally in the wild, in her case. Or you can buckle down and be a good boy, doing everything expected of you and more.

Peter takes the latter route.

The boy became very pious, so much so that his family were startled and impressed.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

THE BIG STRUGGLE PHASE AND MISE-EN-ABYME

The big struggle scene in which the wolves come to rescue their girl is ‘a big struggle scene’ (better to call it a ‘fight scene’), but for plot purposes it is not The Battle Scene. This is a crucial distinction, and failure to see it can really muck up a story if you’re trying to write one. Peter’s Battle is far more quiet. The Wolf girl crouches before him, uninhibited by her nakedness.

It exercised an absolute fascination upon him.

Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered hm, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open one upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The word ‘devastating’ feels like it’s almost cull-able, but it’s not. This is Peter approaching his own kind of spiritual death. ‘Fascination’ is also important. Today, to be fascinated by something is a good thing we’ve probably achieved a pleasant ‘flow state’. But that’s not where the word comes from, and in re-visioned fairytales, it pays to consider the medieval meanings of contemporary words. In the 1590s ‘to fascinate’ meant to  bewitch or enchant. The word comes from Middle French, Latin and possibly from Greek as well. In any case, you didn’t want to be ‘fascinated’ by anybody in the 1500s, and you didn’t want to be accused of it, either, lest you end up burned for witchcraft.

An understanding of church teachings are necessary before understanding this story, and I think we all know it sex is sinful. It still is, according to the major religions, outside marriage. Even in (most, I’ll not say ‘dominant’) secular culture, sex is unacceptable outside mutual consent. There’s something icky about the one-sided viewing this is not consent, exactly. There is a single participant subject vs object. But Carter inverts the gender of the usual victim in such one-sided experiences. It is Peter who remains affected by it.

The piousness itself is also a near death experience, but literally:

In Lent, he fasted to the bone. On Good Friday, he lashed himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

If you’d like to drive your point home, make like Angela Carter and include but a psychological AND a literal near death experience, rammed home by the actual death of a few characters close to the main one. (Mother figures and male best friends are common victims.)

MISE-EN-ABYME IN STORYTELLING

Using Angela Carter’s excellent example, I’d like to look into the mise-en-abyme technique which I’ve been noticing for a while in various stories. Only a writer such as Carter would take the vulva and vaginal opening and turn that into a mise-en-abyme metaphor; others have found different analogies.

What is mise-en-abyme, exactly?
mise en abyme

I would describe myself as the kind of person who describes himself as the kind of person who would describe himself.

@Demetri Martin
  • In Western art history, mise-en-abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
  • In graphic art, it might be a painting of a painting, which has another painting inside itself.
  • Stand in a dressing room lined with mirrors and watch the mise en abyme effect. Do you remember the first time you did this? Or maybe you don’t remember the first time, but still recall standing as a child between two mirrors and marvelling at the effect? Did this get you thinking about some pretty bizarre stuff, bigger than yourself? How there might be more than one of you, or how far the little versions of you might extend? Was it this that got you considering the concept of infinity, by any chance? It’s a powerful effect. It distances us from ourself. Which one are we? Are we all?

The song Green & Gold by Lianne La Havas is about that moment of being a little kid, looking in ‘the mirror whirl’ and wondering if it goes on and on forever. As an adult she looks back on her six year old self she’s since had the revelation that ‘those eyes you gave to me’ let her see where she’s come from her own heritage. Possible subtext: She sees she’s part of one long chain of peoples, stretching in both directions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnogG7IMj8o

When used in storytelling, mise-en-abyme is regularly linked to a ‘vertiginous’ sensation (quoting Carter directly), which in turn starts this spiral of questioning the main character will probably see themselves as a very small part of something much larger. (Or they’ll remain blind to it, if you’re writing a tragedy. I wrote this kind of tragedy in our illustrated short story app, Midnight Feast.)

Mise-en-abyme and its link to Death

In No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner describes the macabre Medieval tradition of death art on church walls, and actual dead and decaying bodies within abbeys, as mise-en-abyme in nature. An example is The Hours of Simon Vostre, a text printed in Paris in the early sixteenth century. The text contains engraving of the danse macabre (Dance of Death) showing working women in various trades and working men. It was also customary for the spectre to wear a tatterdemalion (deliberately tattered) version of the costume of his prey and to imitate with grotesque exaggeration the victim’s usual activities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM

What’s all this for?

To show that Death is a double; each of us has our own death in the mirror. Death is oneself on the other side, beyond reach.  The macabre implicates us in mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarization, it offers the capacity for self-examination. Many of the tombs in which the deceased was shown devoured by worms were actually commissioned and carved during the subject’s lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body not he tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense, nor prayer, but to provoke the pondering of self. It leads to the Anagnorisis phase of a story.

Mise-en-abyme in the Plot Structure

The story-within-a-story is a plot structure rather than a system of imagery, but might equally result in a mise-en-abyme effect for the reader. I’ve found good examples in children’s literature.

In Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the new mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending, which describes the wrapper story itself. What if there’s another book within the book within the book?

Mise-en-abyme is sometimes used in comedy as a gag. SpongeBob and Patrick try to make money reselling chocolate bars but end up getting duped by a fish who first sells them bags for their chocolate bars, then sells them bags to carry their new bags. This is funny to us partly because the characters are stupid, but also partly because this could go on and on forever — hyperbole, in other words, without needing to go all the way. The SpongeBob example is also an example of character humour — most people can relate — we’ve all noticed that the more things we buy, the more things we need to buy for the bought things (new bookshelves for new books, a bigger garage for a new car). The purpose of this gag is the same as any other example of mise-en-abyme that I’ve seen: Its purpose is to get us to look inwards, stepping back, critiquing our own selves (and in this case, learning to laugh).

MISE EN ABYME AND PSYCHEDELICS

For reasons yet to be fully explored by science, a mise en abyme experience seems fairly common to those who take psychedelic drugs.

John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged [from a psychedelic experience] with “his sense of the concrete destabilised,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmologythat there is a world beyond this one”.

Another subject from Pollan’s book, Boothy, reminded me very much of Angela Carter’s description of the vulva:

This place in which I seem to find myself, already enormous, suddenly yawns open even further and the shapes that undulate before my eyes appear to explode with new and even more extravagant patterns. Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity. I joked to my wife as she drove me home that I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.

Michael Pollan adds:

Boothby had what sounds very much like a classic mystical experience, though he may be the first in the long line of Western mystics to enter the divine realm through that particular aperture.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
Other Terminology

This terminology isn’t always used by storytelling experts when talking about the same thing. Some people talk in terms of ‘miniatures‘. But it is the same thing. By presenting the reader with the very large and the very small, you as writer are encouraging The Overview Effect. This will lead directly to a Anagnorisis pertinent to the story at hand. What writers need to decide: What is this character going to realise after their near death experience?

ANAGNORISIS

So, Angela Carter’s Peter is basically disturbed by the infinite mise-en-abyme effect of a girl’s vulva/vagina. He doubles down to prove himself a good boy, according to his culture and church. (His Plan.)

Where does this get him? Well, nowhere good. Angela Carter’s ideology regarding church conformity is foreshadowed by imagery:

[The wolves] left behind a riotous stench in the house, and white tracks of flour everywhere.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

‘Stench’, or any kind of smell, in a story generally, refers equally to an emotional state. ‘Black sticks of dead wood’ are a pretty obvious clue that Peter has been through some kind of spiritual death. The grandmother’s bitten hand ‘festers’. Infections fester, but we also use the word to refer to inner states which we can’t shake. Then, there is a death. Not Peter’s, but his grandmother’s. Note: Peter loses a female caregiver in a direct reflection mise-en-abyme reflection of the Wolf girl, who lost her female wolf caregiver.

Hopefully the reader is undergoing a revelation at this point: Peter and the Wolf girl are different sides of the same wild coin. There’s a bit of wild in all of us, and it cannot be tamed. Peter’s comes next. (Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a picture book with a very similar revelation phase… and  therefore ‘theme‘.)

Rivers are often associated with revelations. This has a long history in the churches, and no doubt long, long before. Water literally makes a body clean, so the link between rivers and mental cleanliness is a natural one.

At the end of his first day’s travel, he reached a river that ran from the mountain into the valley. The nights were already chilly; he lit himself a fire, prayed, ate bread and cheese his mother had packed for him and slept as well as he could. In spite of his eagerness to plunge into the white world of penance and devotion that awaited him, he was anxious and troubled for reasons he could not explain to himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Sometimes revelations happen while bathing in the river less obvious is when they come after. The river does nothing for Peter. The ‘liquid’ is described as ‘cloudy’. No, he requires the wild Wolf girl to aid him in his embrace of his baser self she is his (extreme) model for how to live a good life. So he sees her once more this is some years later and again we have the whole mise-en-abyme / reflection imagery going on, because that’s not finished until the Anagnorisis phase is finished. (Writing note: If you start a strong system of imagery, take it to its conclusion. Don’t abandon it partway.)

She could never have acknowledged that the reflection beneath her in the river was that of herself. She did not know she had a face; she had never known she had a face and so her face itself was the mirror of a different kind of consciousness than ours is, just as her nakedness without innocence or display, was that of our first parents, before the Fall.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The Wolf girl is innocent to the extreme, animalistic degree Peter watches her and realises that he, too, is innocent. By bearing witness to the violent episode of his youth, he has done nothing wrong, and needn’t spend the rest of his life paying penance.

Carter finishes off her system of imagery with this:

For now he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. / He experienced the vertigo of freedom.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

In this particular story, the mise-en-abyme effect = a glimpse into possible freedom.

Related and interesting: Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is basically a Being-toward-death revelation, seen often in young adult stories.

And if we still haven’t got it:

The birds woke up and sang.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Carter is, of course, satirising fairytale conventions she uses pathetic fallacy and bombastic onomatopoeia with intent. These birds are a form of pathetic fallacy a technique in which the environment around a character emulates their own inner state. But it works. When the character arc is a bit under the surface, a bit unusual when your theme and ideology isn’t the expected one, it’s not a bad idea to go the super obvious, slightly satirical route. Otherwise a huge chunk of readers won’t pick anything up at all.

NEW SITUATION

Angela Carter also finishes off in classic fairytale fashion, with a nudge towards the metafictive:

Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

As the Grimm brothers wrote, for instance, the narrator often likes to sign off by reminding the audience that this is a story, separate from the logic of real life. But the word ‘story’ is also used in contemporary English to refer to phases of real life, which is why I call it a tiny and subtle ‘nudge’. Carter does something clever with her final line:

‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt’.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

She thus avoids a big character arc, which readers have less time for: People do change after experiences, but a little at a time. Peter has entered the very initial stages of questioning certain ideas conveyed by the church, but there’s no way he’ll shuck it all off and become an actual Wolf man. He must find his own balance.

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