Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a silly, fun film, designed to appeal to an audience of teenage boys. The film was produced by Judd Apatow. The script was written by its star, Jason Segel. Some critics have applauded the film for turning the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope on its head.
I don’t aim to review the entire film because then I’d have to watch the entire film, but I’d like to offer a single scene as an example of storytelling which can have damaging real life consequences, depending on what the audience brings.
In common with all Judd Apatow movies, beautiful young women are found at every turn and they all seem to find the underdog Joe Shmoe lead attractive. A classic male fantasy, it would seem.
The problem with this scene, even as fantasy: Jason Segel’s character appears before the receptionist as a stranger. He ‘just so happens’ to be holidaying at the very same resort. Next (as shown in the clip) he makes an awkward (but also really creepy) ironic joke about coming to the hotel to kill his ex-girifriend. Then he laughs, because OBVIOUSLY, that’s just a joke, right?
Any intelligent woman in Mila Kunis’s position would hear alarm bells. She already knows he can’t afford the only room available. She would back away from the desk and hope he leaves soon.
The statistics around stalking and real world intimate partner violence should shock us all. The most dangerous time for a woman — the time she’s most likely to be killed — is when she has just left a man who was formerly an intimate partner. (Rachel the receptionist knows exactly when this pair of strangers broke up because she’s just been told.)
Stalking is still not illegal in many countries, but this is slowly changing. Stalking became an offence in England and Wales in 2012. “About 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year.” Here in Australia, stalking laws were first introduced in the 1990s, but it has always been very difficult to prove someone’s behaviour constitutes stalking. “Stalking, as a discrete concept, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, relatively unknown until towards the end of the 20th century.”
In Western society, we have a very strong cultural belief in the romance and intensity of unrequited love as a narrative that conveys magnificent emotional intensity of which humanity is capable. Whether this narrative ends in the object appreciating and reciprocating the love, or the subject dying nobly through loss of this love, the general theme is one which has gained cultural reification across the centuries, enough to be celebrated in literature, performance art and the continuation of historical accounts.
The audience of Forgetting Sarah Marshall knows that Jason Segel’s character is not stalking his recent girlfriend. We know it’s a complete coincidence that he’s at the same hotel. There’s even a setting reason given for the coincidence.
But sometimes, in real life, like the receptionist in that scene, we encounter someone desperately looking for a family member. “Have you seen this woman?” he asks. “I’m so worried about her. I haven’t seen her in a week. I’m worried she may have done something stupid…”
If you ever encounter someone asking you that, I want you to use Rachel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as your negative role model.
Never give details of a woman’s whereabouts to a man who is looking for her. She may have left him for a damn good reason. You can’t tell whether a man is dangerous from his affable Hawaiian shirt, his underdog sob story or his everyman looks. If you’re in attendance for an estranged couple’s encounter, do what you can to keep the woman safe. Maybe don’t check in her former boyfriend if you’re running a resort… because statistics.
It’s also possible a woman doesn’t need help in keeping safe. The backstory might be completely different. But that’s for the authorities to work out. In this scene, the look on Kristen Bell’s face offers more than enough information about her discomfort, and an empathetic character such as Rachel the receptionist would have picked that up.
I haven’t forgotten that these are fantasy women, written, directed and produced by men.
And if everyone watching that scene understood all of that about women and who tends to stalk and murder who, I might accept Forgetting Sarah Marshall as pure entertainment. Instead I worry that movie scripts function as subconscious real life scripts.
“Her First Ball” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921. Though this story is nigh on 100 years old, it’s a tale of pick up artist culture, and reminds of the ‘toolies’ who attend Schoolies Week here in Australia.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “HER FIRST BALL”
Leila has turned 18, so must now attend balls in order to find a husband. Her city cousins, The Sheridans, introduce country-girl Leila to this exciting, dream-like world.
The story opens like this…
Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.
… which reminds me of a classic writer’s problem: Where does this story begin? This is a problem faced by anyone who’s ever recounted an incident. What was the inciting incident? Peter Selgin writes about that here.
Mansfield decides to open “Her First Ball” in the cab on the way to the ball, which Leila shares with her cousins Meg, Jose, Laura and Laurie. Later she’ll include a flashback to Leila’s anxiety, as she sits on the bed pleading with her mother not to go at all.
Another iconic New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, didn’t think much of this story. He didn’t accept the overarching shortcoming of Leila:
… the title by itself almost tells the story. A young country girl is staying with her town cousins who take her to a drill-hall ball. It is all very much indeed in the feminine tradition. Dresses, gloves, powder, flowers — and all the similes come tumbling out: A girl’s dark head pushes above her white fur like a flower through snow … little satin shoes chase each other like birds…. But later on we come to the point of the story. The girl, Leila, bewildered and enchanted by it all, is breathless with excitement. How heavily, how simply heavenly! she thinks. She dances with young men with glossy hair—and then with an older man who is both bald and fat. He perceive stat it is her first dance and tells her that he has been doing this sort of thing for thirty years. Then he goes on and pictures Leila herself in years to come. Her pretty arms will have turned into short fat ones, he says. And she will be sitting up on the stage with the chaperones while her daughter dances down below. And his words destroy her happiness. The music suddenly sounds sad. And she asks herself an agonising question: Why doesn’t happiness last forever? ‘Deep inside her’ we read, ‘a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed.’ And of course she hates the bald fat man.
Now I don’t know how my listeners will feel about this story, but for me it just doesn’t come off. It is, no doubt, tru e enough of many young girls, but for my part I’m afraid I can’t help making some comparisons. For instance, had any of Shakespeare’s young heroines (wonderful ones, say, like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Marina in Pericles)—had they encountered that elderly bald fat man, and had he told them that shocking truth—well, I don’t know, but I fancy they would have just laughed and asked him why he wanted to say anything so obvious. In other words, young female character can be made of somewhat sterner stuff, and there is something in my make-up which refuses to accept the suggestion that that particular trying moment in the girl’s life was really so important and significant as it is intended to be.
Sargeson seems to have forgotten the final paragraph of this story, in which Leila forgets all about it, but he taps into something that’s been a more recent conversation among bookish and film-loving types: Why do female characters always have to be so kick ass and confident? Lack of diversity among female characters is a big part of the problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’. Why do girls always have to be so damn strong? This is the problem boys have faced since forever… Is it girls’ turn now?
I can’t say I’ve had the exact experience Leila had. But I can give you two personal examples which resonate:
The first is from watching TV. Most of TV is forgettable, and the vast majority of TV dating show interactions are equally forgettable, but a few years ago I was watching that Chinese dating show on SBS when one bachelor rejected an interested young woman by telling her, “I can imagine what you’ll look like when you’re old.” She seemed taken aback and replied with something like, “I can see what you’ll look like when you’re old, too.”
I took a close look at this young woman and I really couldn’t see what he was seeing. Of all the insults hurled on that show, the accusation that she already, as a young woman in her prime, masked the shadows of ageing, seemed to me about the worst thing someone could say to another person in a dating context. (My take on it: She reminded him vaguely of someone he knows in real life who is actually old, and he blurted it out awkwardly.)
When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy who worked as an artist in the shed attached to my rented converted barn (long story) turned up one night when I was making a funny video starring my workmates. I was doing some last minute editing because I had to show it to my audience the following day. But I had run out of storage space on my laptop and I showed him what I was doing. He volunteered to pop down to the supermarket and pick up a spool of CDs.
First, I showed him what I was doing. I’d taken a video of my boss — an experienced, capable and very kind French teacher, who was speaking to her class at the time of filming, in what I assume was a fairly boring vocabulary exercise — one she’d done a thousand times. She wasn’t exactly animated. She sat hunched on her stool, with a look of middle-aged concentration.
I was the other languages teacher in our department, about 25 years younger than my head of department. Alistair next door was a young looking 39, but 39 nevertheless. Whereas women consider ourselves old around the time of our 30th birthday, he considered himself well-and-truly in his prime. “Oh. You’re hot,” he mused, looking at the video I’d made, “but I guess you’re gonna look like her one day. Such a damn shame.”
It’s worth pointing out, though Frank Sargeson was not your stereotypical privileged macho man owing to his being gay in an anti-gay era, he did not experience life as a woman, either. He wasn’t a product of a culture which tells young women that the most important thing about us is the beauty which comes only with healthy, fulsome youth, and that when our beauty is gone, there’ll be nothing at all left to replace it. (In fact, Frank was well-known for his lack of attention to aesthetics. His house was a hovel — he cared only about his vege patch.)
Having been on the receiving end of comments like that, I have more empathy for Leila than Frank did.
By today’s standards, Laurie’s a little weird with his sister Laura, calling her ‘Darling’ and possessively telling her he’ll dance the usual two dances with her. Meanwhile, country-cousin Leila is noticing every detail, wanting to keep the rubbish tissue paper out of Laurie’s new gloves as keepsake.
Leila doesn’t know what to do, so she follows her cousins. Once at the ball, the girls go straight to the toilet/dressing area, where young women crowd around the mirror. This is exactly what it’s like:
And everybody was pressing forward trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.
I once wrote a short story in which this happens at a school ball, and a male critique partner expressed his skepticism, not believing that women’s toilets are like that at all. I’ve since concluded that “Her First Ball” is a particularly feminine story, more generally relatable to woman readers.
Mansfield herself sees the ridiculousness of the dressing room situation:
“How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hair-pin.”
Meg introduces Leila to her friends in a rather condescending way, turning herself into a mother hen. The girls respond with etiquette but are obviously more interested in the men, standing on the other side of the room. The men are the romantic opposition, and one man in particular.
Though Leila hasn’t got a clue what the formal proceedings are, the men all cross the parquet floor at once and fill up the girls’ dance cards. Failure to fill up a dance card felt like a serious rejection. The dance card culture lasted in New Zealand until about the 1950s, when dating started to become more informal. The wars changed culture a lot — women would have fun dancing with each other when there weren’t enough men to go round.
In 1921, the girls don’t have much say in who they get to dance with. If they don’t want to dance with someone, they’re unable to decline:
“Let me see, let me see!” And he was a long time comparing his programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. “Oh, please don’t bother,” she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man wrote something, glanced at her again. “Do I remember this bright little face?” he said softly.
Because in this social milieu, it is men who do all of the choosing. It’s not up to Leila to make any plans. Instead she is swept along with the proceedings, on a treadmill (the first step on the moving walkway towards boring middle age). The ‘whirlpool’ sensation we get from Mansfield’s imagery, with ribbons flying and streamers and elongation describes most literally the sensation of being spun around during a dance, but it also symbolises being swept up into a culture of matrimony which begins with one’s first ball and ends with the women dressed in black (as the chaperones are — as a clear sign they’re not ‘on the market’ — but this is of course symbolic of death). By going to your first ball, you’re now on that inevitable decline. For Mansfield, beginnings are reminiscent of endings. She can’t enjoy a beginning without also thinking of its ending.
There’s a flashback to Leila’s boarding school, where she learned to dance but under completely different conditions — staid and without the sexual tension Leila had not anticipated.
In the brief moment where her designated partner doesn’t come to collect her, Leila thinks melodramatically that she’s going to ‘die’. But then he does come and they make small talk as they dance. This hooks into the ‘treadmill towards death’ idea.
The second dance partner also opens with a comment on the floor. Leila wonders if this is customary. Like the previous one, this young man asks if Leila had attended a certain party the week before. The conversation with the second young man is revealed to be exactly the same as that with the first. This is significant. The night now has a fatalistic feel to it — as if everything is playing out according to some supernatural rulebook — the characters might be automatons, and there’s something creepy about robotic behaviour. (That’s why they’re used so often in horror.) Within the world of the story, these boys attend many balls, saying basically the same thing to most of the girls, and are bored by it. This juxtaposes with Leila’s excitement at the novelty, serving to emphasise it. (This boy takes her to eat an ‘ice’ — a novelty people had fridges and freezers in their homes. Such products had to be delivered right before they were consumed.)
Now that Leila has experienced two identical interactions, she’s expecting the same again. So are we, due to the Rule of Three in Storytelling, but at the same time, we know our expectation of sameness will be subverted.
Leila’s third dance does not go as the first two did. The old fat man turns out to be even older than she thought.
As reader, I am annoyed with this man. What the hell is he doing, inserting himself into a social event designed for young people? He reminds me of the 29 year old men who insist on attending Schoolies Week year after year after year. (Here in Australia these men, mostly men, often in their 40s, are known as ‘Toolies’.)
This guy seems to get off on shit-talking to young women — the younger and more naive she seems, the more he enjoys it. These days there’s a word for it: Negging. In its most basic form, a man insults a woman hoping to elicit a strong reaction, because a strong reaction is — for him — better than no reaction. He then has something to ‘work with’, and his next task is to simply flip that negative strong emotion into a positive one, which according to pick up artists, actually sometimes works.
Because Leila has been culturally conditioned to be nice to men, she looks at his bald head and feels ‘quite sorry for him’.
Sensing this, the middle-aged man negs Leila by pointing out that the rules are different for women, who must modify their behaviour as they hit middle age, unlike himself, who continues to dance, since he feels like it:
“Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache.”
The middle-aged man has been doing this for so long, he knows the exact kind of scripted small talk Leila has already been exposed to. He mentions the floor, but points out her feelings will have changed towards it, almost as if he’d been listening intently to Leila’s first two conversations:
And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.
The man’s omniscience almost turns him into a kind of evil fairy godfather — a ghostly figure whose only purpose at the ball is to ruin Leila’s night.
Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.
Leila has had one of those epiphanies like Sun of “Sun and Moon”, in which the much younger Sun also realises that perfect evenings can never last forever.
Leila continues to smile, because that’s what you’re required to do at a designated ‘happy’ occasion, but her feelings on the inside are quite different:
But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?
Then the middle-aged man pulls out a classic pick up artist (and also a classic schoolyard bullying) technique — he tells, “you mustn’t take me seriously, little lady.” He was just joking, see! JOKES! If Leila took him seriously it’s all on her! Why can’t young ladies grow a sense of humour? Sheesh.
The ending is similar to that of “The Doll’s House“, in which the underdog girl has something horrible happen to her, but almost with determination, she’s resolved not to let it bother her. Like Else Kelvey, Leila forgets all about her dance with the horrible, middle-aged man, but the reader knows that even if she’s ‘forgotten’ the incident, the epiphany remains with her.
I expect one day, when Leila sits up on the stage watching her daughter, she will recall her first dance and she will recall that man.
What do you make of endings in which the character ‘forgets’ the bad thing and moves on?
I use the same epiphany sequence in “Midnight Feast“. Roya sees the impact of climate change when she finally takes a peek out of her own kitchen window, but she’s unable to sleep until she forgets she’s ever seen it.
Header painting: Louis Haghe – The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856
It’s almost impossible to read Katherine Mansfield’s “The Escape” without linking back to the author’s own biography. But perhaps we shouldn’t look to Mansfield’s relationship with a man in order to understand where this story might have come from. Biographer Claire Tomalin has said this about Mansfield:
[Mansfield] was a liar all her life — … and her lies went quite beyond conventional social lying. Whereas Murry “forgot” things or distorted subtly, she was a bold and elaborate inventor of false versions. A charitable view of the origin of this habit could be that it was a bid for attention, a response to feeling obscured and overlooked in a large family with an inattentive mother; this may then have developed into a pleasure in dramatising for its own sake, making herself into the heroine of the story. If the truth was dull, it could be artistically embroidered; and if she was the heroin of her own life story, lies became not lies but fiction, a perfectly respectable thing.
A Secret Life
I don’t necessarily believe we need to go into a person’s childhood to understand why they do the things they do. The Internet phenomenon of Catfishing has taught us that sometimes drawing others into our fantasies makes our fantasies even more fun. Couldn’t it simply be that?
Whatever her reasons for invention, Mansfield had first hand insight into fantasists. “The Escape” is the ultimate fantasist story, evident from the title.
There’s more to this story than ‘insight into a fantasist’, however. That alone would be quite boring — like hearing all about someone’s dream.
Mansfield seems to be conducting an experiment: What if an author gave silence to a man and speech to a woman?
Much has already been said on Mansfield’s life and her intimate relationships, so I’d like to focus on the story structure of “The Escape”, which is a classic example of a story in which ‘nothing happens’. It’s often said that Mansfield didn’t write plots.
Of course, that’s never true of any enduring tale, and it’s not true here, either. “The Escape” conforms — with subtlety — to standard story structure.
‘The plots of my stories leave me perfectly cold.’ They tend to begin at the heart of a situation, without preamble (although flashbacks and reflection feature), and frequently they end abruptly. Primarily, Mansfield is concerned with the psychology of her characters, many of whom are isolated, frustrated and disillusioned. She moves between them, using focalisation and free indirect speech to communicate their thoughts. Often they feel that they have ‘two selves’ and, repeatedly, there is a sense of wasted potential and a yearning for escape.
Characters remain unnamed in “The Escape”, which keeps the reader at a distance and also tells a story of ‘people’ rather than of ‘individuals’. Writers sometimes avoid naming characters in an attempt to say something universal about humanity.
As far as moral shortcomings go, this woman is full of them. She’s not sympathetic at all. Whatever’s going on with her, you can bet your bottom dollar it runs deeper than ‘missing the train’. But Mansfield doesn’t let us in on any of her history. There are no flashbacks to earlier that week, when her husband really did do something to make them miss a train, which meant they missed their connecting train… we get no solid clue that the man is the problem. This is interesting, because another writing choice would have been to include that. Mansfield was not especially concerned with making her characters ‘likeable‘, not even her female characters, for whom the likability bar is set higher.
The woman is also shown to be melodramatic — the unseen narrator is in on her melodrama, sensing it along with us, the reader.
The husband, even at this point in the story, imagines his wife as dead, as if a Queen in Egypt.
Whenever there’s focus on a woman’s handbag in fiction, there inevitably comes some judgement with that: We are told about her make up and other female fripperies.
What is this detail designed to do? Are we meant to judge her as insubstantial because these things are ultimately superfluous? There is a long history of judging women based on female accoutrements. For more on that particular type of misogyny, see the work of Julia Serano, because it really comes to the fore in discussions of transmisogyny.
But it’s equally possible to read that detail as the husband emphasising the importance of her handbag contents:
[I]t could be that he is emphasizing the importance of the trivial objects in her bag, since they are presented as equivalent to the treasures which Egyptians were buried with. Thus,Mansfield’s symbolism presents the husband as viewing his wife, and her handbag’scontents, in a way which is potentially both elevated and trivial, in one short sentence.
However, there is a scene later where she complains about his smoking, so it is very possible that the broken cigarette in her bag is not hers. Maybe it is a cigarette which she took from him and broke in a fit of anger. If this was so, she could have thrown it away immediately, but instead she keeps it. This suggests that she does not intend (or even want) to separate from him, and that maybe she will be with him to the grave like the treasure of the Egyptians, although she is constantly irritated by his overly relaxed attitude and actions.
On the surface, the woman wants to be in time for her train. She’s perseverating on this, and no one around her is moving fast enough. Her inner turmoil is at odds with the holiday feeling around her.
Underlying her wish for others to hurry, I sense an imperative personality, who needs to control others around her as a proxy to controlling her own inner turmoil, whatever that is. This is an another story of repression, probably. I see her irritation directed at the driver as misplaced irritation she feels in regard to her husband. But because she’s married to her husband, she can’t direct her frustration directly at him.
Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows this dynamic well: The quietly simmering couple, one of whom will find something terribly wrong with your service, for some strange reason…
The ‘escape’ of the title, to me, is about this woman’s wish to escape the difficulties of her own marriage.
The reader doesn’t even know where this couple is going. We deduce they’re on holiday — wealthy enough to spend months at a time doing not much at all except ‘have fun’ in each other’s company. Perhaps they’re even on honeymoon, trying to come to terms with each other’s vastly different travelling styles — his laidback, hers highly structured.
The woman’s subconscious plan is to direct her frustrations away from her husband, but it needs to come out somewhere. It comes out on someone working in the service industry.
Another story in which service workers bear the brunt is John Cheever’s “Reunion”.
Insofar as “The Escape” is a road-trip journey, something needs to happen which leads to the woman’s (or the reader’s) revelation. This doesn’t need to be some big big struggle, and Mansfield never wrote your classic, masculine mythic structure anyhow.
But what? What happens in this horse-and-cart seaside journey to change the emotional valence?
The precious parasol falls off the cart. Parasols, I suspect, were important to Mansfield. There’s emphasis on the umbrella in her story “The Voyage”. One’s umbrella/parasol was almost a part of a woman’s self — as integral to her identity as her handbag.
In any case, the woman realises it fell off, then the cart driver reveals he knows it had fallen off but didn’t stop because no one said anything. He was in a bit of a bind really, because he is also expected to hurry. The real problem is that he’s not on his customer’s wavelength at all: He doesn’t understand her wish to hurry; nor does he understand the importance of a parasol.
At this point, Mansfield’s ‘camera’ stays with the cart and viewpoint switches to the husband who until this point has been absent in his presence.
We learn his way of dealing with his wife is to pretend he’s basically dead. He becomes a fiction.
In fact I wonder if one legitimate reading of this story is that he actually did die in cart, and his wife is so preoccupied with getting from here to there, and on her precious parasol, that she wouldn’t even notice if he were dead.
In that case, the revelation would go something like: If you spend your entire life focused on the small things you miss the really big things, and take people for granted.
But since this is a Mansfield short story, the tree is important. Extreme noticing of a tree is also important in another story, “Bliss” (that masculine pear tree). Here, by Mansfield’s description, it’s probably a beech tree. Unlike in “Bliss”, this tree offers the husband nothing positive. As used here, the usual tree symbolism (as life giving) is wholly inverted: These trees are portrayed as suffocating. In this example of pathetic fallacy, a character feels suffocated (by marriage), so everything he sees around him seems to suffocate him.
Mansfield doesn’t let us know. The scene therefore functions in a similar way to her child-elderly character duos in stories such as “The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon” — the reader is encouraged to see time as a series of moments in a life rather than focus on the sequential, linear nature of time. Our experience of life as lived is less linear than it is like that, especially for the imaginatively capable, in which it’s possible to live a number of different lives, including our own, owing to the power of the mind to jump backwards, forwards and sideways.
The man has developed the ability to separate mentally from his wife. This may be the first moment he did this, or it may be his usual mind trick. In an era when divorce was rarely an option, I expect this couple will live out their lives together in body but completely apart in spirit.
The final statement of the story can be read as sardonic: “so great was his heavenly happiness as he stood there he wished he might live for ever”.
In the end, what position does Mansfield take on this fictional fantasist? She seems to be arguing that not all fantasies are acceptable. Fantasies can instruct but also mislead. They can accurately represent alternatives or they can do the opposite. Sometimes, fantasies can simply reconstruct the limits of the status quo. But they are at their most seductive when they seem to promise escape.
“New Dresses” is nowhere near as accomplished as Katherine Mansfield’s later short stories as it lacks focus and appears contrived. “New Dresses” is a different sort of story altogether from the Prelude trilogy, and we need a different yardstick. That said, The Carsfield family is said to be the prototype of the Burnells who we meet later in Prelude, At the Bayand The Doll’s House.
I’m interested in why “New Dresses” is considered ‘contrived’. What makes one story feel contrived and another natural, given that both are made from scratch, technically making one as contrived as the other?
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEW DRESSES”
“New Dresses” is the story of a family and the family’s toxic dynamics rather than the story of an individual. In these cases, the narration will be a fairly distant third person, ducking from one character’s head to another.
This is a story about parenting. Especially by today’s parenting standards, the Carfield adults are terrible.
“New Dresses” is valuable as an historical document of parenting practices common in early 1900s New Zealand. My own grandparents — and to a lesser extent my parents — were certainly brought up with some of the practices seen in “New Dresses”:
The belief that corporal punishment is an effective way of stopping unwanted behaviours. Also: That delayed corporal punishment has an even stronger effect, because the child must spend time dreading it, which is supposed to give them extra time to ‘mull it over’.
The belief that if corporal punishment is dished out alongside exchanges of love, the child will not be damaged. This view of parenting is still disturbingly common, but if adults hurt their children while requiring the child to tell them they love them, or when telling the child that they are loved, the adult is preparing that child for a
Lack of understanding about neurodiversity, and in this case the idea that stuttering is an affectation — that when children are ‘different’ they’re doing it because they’re attention seekers.
Overt favouritism between one’s own children, predicated on an old-fashioned view of genetics — that some children are just born better than others, and that your treatment of them has nothing to do with anything.
The sympathetic adult is the doctor. The doctor is also the viewpoint character, and viewpoint characters tend to automatically align with the audience. The doctor is the only reasonable adult in the story. We are encouraged to side with his point of view and with his actions. It is especially easy to side with him as a modern reader, since the culture of parenting has changed considerably.
Also by today’s standards, it’s odd and borderline creepy for a man to make off with a little girl’s dress, even if his intentions with it are honourable.
The doctor is the character who has the revelation at the end and, for my purposes, that makes him ‘the main character’ as well as ‘the erstwhile viewpoint character’.
“New Dresses” is divided into two quite distinct parts:
The conversation between Mrs Anne Carsfield and the grandmother as Mrs Carsfield makes the dresses on the sewing machine. This scene exists to show the family’s dynamic, though ‘showing’ is via dialogue.
The scenes including the children and the doctor, whose lively personalities make for a much more engaging read.
It’s possibly a mistake to have started where Mansfield did. She needed some way of conveying to the reader:
The favouritism. Helen is insecure within the family structure.
The mother’s irritating emphasis on image and dresses
The grandmother’s way of deferring. Although Helen’s grandmother understands, the elderly woman is powerless to act.
But in general, writers need to trust readers to pick up subtleties, and I believe it was possible to convey those ideas in a shorter scene, or to combine them into a subsequent one. I believe this is one major reason why “New Dresses” feels contrived to some readers.
The shortcoming of the family: The parents can’t see their children equally.
The shortcoming of the grandmother: The first scene shows us she’s powerless within the family structure, but the doctor’s anagnorisis will show us there’s a little more to it than that.
There’s plenty to be said about gender roles in this story, too. If these characters weren’t victims of a strict delineation of gender, they’d all be a lot better off:
Although women of this class aren’t even allowed to work for money, and although unpaid the labour of shopping and sewing falls upon them, Mrs Carsfield is roundly criticised for performing her wifely role. And as part of that criticism, her husband talks about ‘his’ money, as if it doesn’t belong rightly to all of them. The reader doesn’t know if Mrs Carsfield has flagrantly spent money they don’t have — she thinks to herself that they have more than enough and that her husband is treating her like a child. I’m inclined to go with that, because of Henry Carsfield’s attitude towards ownership of the finances, and also because he seems to think making trousers out of old ironing material is prudent. He doesn’t seem to realise, as his wife does, that there would be a social cost to such frugality.
Whereas the girls are required to be still, ostensibly to protect their expensive dresses, boys are expected to behave in a rough, and probably very annoying, manner. The Boy (unnamed, since his gender is the main point as far as Mansfield is concerned) bangs a spoon for a solid five minutes. Instead of a reprimand, the father says, “Go it, old man. Tell Mother boys like to kick up a row.”
Mrs Carsfield wants to dress her children in pretty clothes for church, but of course it’s not about the clothes, per se. Her deeper desire, so we can deduce, is for her family to look good in the eyes of the community.
She could not help thrilling, they looked so very superior.
(Superior to who? To their former, undressed selves, or to certain other social classes in their community?)
For an image conscious mother such as Anne Carsfield, a daughter like Helen is a curse. Helen is hardly boisterous by her little brother’s standards, but she is not a naturally clean and tidy girl, which embarrasses her mother. Mother and daughter are the main opponents here, though Henry Carsfield and the grandmother could nip this in the bud if they had a mind to.
It feels good to write a story and then send a capable character in to save an underdog. Here we have a doctor who steps in to save Helen. Mansfield gives the reader enough information to know what he’s done — he’s taken the dress, and we can guess he’s going to have it fixed.
Meanwhile, Helen’s father plans to punish his daughter with corporal punishment.
The Grandmother isn’t happy about this, but we learn later that she deals with these parenting decisions by buying presents for her grandchildren after they have been roundly whipped. She has consoled Helen with this. (I can’t think of many worse ways in which to ruin a child.)
An underdog character is about to get a whipping for something that isn’t wholly her fault. (Expensive material shouldn’t rip so easily, especially not when the child is doing a regular childhood thing, such as sitting on a swing.)
The natural Battle scene in a story like this is the whipping scene itself, but Mansfield knows this isn’t the interesting thing. Writers don’t have to write the most obvious scene.
That said, we can’t skip any part of compulsory story parts either, and the Battle stage is not optional.
So what’s the Battle stage in this particular story?
The discussion in the girls’ bedroom in which Helen denies doing anything with the dress, and in which Henry refuses to believe her, forms the first part of the Battle. The second is the visit from the doctor to the grandmother, which leads right up to the doctor’s anagnorisis.
When the doctor hears the grandmother’s response, and laments that she can’t give her granddaughter the new doll unless she ‘earns it’ by enduring the whipping, he knows the problems in this family run much deeper. He had mistaken the grandmother for someone who understands the toxicity running in the family, assuming her simply powerless to intervene. But now he realises she doesn’t understand at all, in which case she is useless to Helen, and to the doctor’s own wishes to act.
The reader may realise something at this point, too. By trying to help, the doctor may have made things worse. Helen has sworn to her father that she left the dress in her bedroom, but the doctor has taken it, and the story is that Helen took it to school. It now appears that Helen has lied as well as torn her dress.
I fully expect that Helen will receive her whipping — possibly a double dose — and the grandmother will give her the doll.
Helen will learn that whenever good things happen in life, she doesn’t fully deserve them until enduring terrible experiences first. Her natal family is preparing Helen for a subservient role in an abusive marriage.
What do you make of the ending? Do you think the doctor took the dresses, or do you think his story about Lena, and Helen taking it to school saying she’d grown out of it, is true? Do you think Helen will escape a sound smacking if the grandmother tells Helen’s parents she found the dress under her dolman? (What’s a dolman? It describes any number of loose robes, based on the Turkish model.) I’m pretty sure a mother who makes dresses will notice if one of her creations has been sewn up.
Perhaps part of the problem with this ending — and its contrivance — is that we’re not sure if Mansfield herself had all of this straight in her head.