The Weirdness of Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba 1 cover

The other day someone in a book recommendation group wanted suggestions for a 10 year old who loves Hayao Miyazaki movies.

This basically describes my own kid, who’s been a Miyazaki fan since the age of three, before she even knew transmogrification wasn’t a thing. My kid enjoys Yotsuba&! (among other things, so I recommended that.

Yotsuba&! is a manga series which has been translated into English to capture an international market. We can deduce: Yotsuba&! is actually one of the least ‘weird-to-Westeners’ stories produced by Japan.

Someone else said, “Oh I love Yotsuba! She’s so cute.” Another person mentioned the general weirdness of Japanese media for kids. (It’s worth mentioning at this point, our kids generally love this stuff. Adults find it weird.) In any case, I should probably have recommended the series ‘with reservations.’

Because of my interest in storytelling, I wondered if I could attempt a theory on why, so often, adult English speakers find Japanese stories so… inexplicably weird.

  • What do we mean when we call something ‘weird’?
  • Why does a culture find some story elements ‘plausible’, but elements from another culture ‘weird’?
  • What are the different expectations of ‘a story suitable for children’?

Any insight I have on this subject comes from 10 years of Japanese study, including a couple of years living in Japan — first as a high school exchange student living with a host family, next at a Japanese university living in a dorm Then I taught Japanese at high school level, though I’ve had little to do with Japan since the 2000s. I can only guess at the general trajectory, as more and more young Japanese people spend part of their youth abroad, many learning English to a high level which no doubt leads to a more internationalised Japan.

Conversely, is the West becoming a bit more accepting of Asian entertainment? I know white people who listen to nothing but K-Pop, and others who spend a lot of time playing Nintendo games from the 80s and 90s. Western fans of Japanese entertainment tend to be uber fans.

Japanese Weirdness and the Western Media

My general thoughts on Japanese ‘weirdness’ is this: Our Western media loves to paint Japanese people as downright quirky. We’ll pick up any out-there news article and disseminate it with glee, to bolster our view that these people are somehow ‘Other’. Oftentimes, our media’s ‘proof’ of Japanese weirdness is a complete misunderstanding of intent — Japanese people love to poke fun at themselves. Where they’re poking fun, we’re imagining they are taking themselves completely seriously. Either that or we can’t possibly see the joke because jokes are so culturally specific.

Yotsuba&! is a great introduction to Japanese ‘weirdness’.

YOTSUBA&!: A CASE STUDY IN WEIRD

Yotsuba&! is centered on Yotsuba Koiwai, a five-year-old adopted girl who is energetic, cheerful, curious, odd, and quirky — so much so that even her own father calls her strange. She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings.This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

Wikipedia overview

Yotsuba means ‘four leaf clover’ in Japanese, which explains the green hair and four pigtails.

THE TITLE

Well, the first weird thing is the title. An English speaker would not shove an ampersand into that title unless it meant ‘and’. What’s it doing there?

Well, that symbol means ‘and’ in Japanese, too. It’s just used a little differently here. Japanese orthography doesn’t put spaces between words (because there are three different ‘alphabets’ and it doesn’t need to).

The phrase Yotsuba to means “Yotsuba and,” a fact reflected in the chapter titles, most of which take the form “Yotsuba and [something].

Wikipedia
LANGUAGE

First of all, Yotsuba&! is full of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is amazingly rich in Japanese. The English version keeps the Japanese (written in Japanese) and adds its English transcription in small letters. For an English speaker, this still won’t be enough. We do fine with the echomimesis, but need further translation for ideophones such as ‘kuru’ to represent the turning of something. (This comes from the Japanese verb form of ‘to turn’, thus making perfect sense to Japanese readers.)

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Japanese is so different from English that wordplay never translates. Yotsuba is young and gets words wrong, which presents a problem for the translator to the point where jokes simply do not work. Sometimes the translator gets around this by describing the problem in marginalia. In Yotsuba&! number one, Yotsuba mistakes her father’s job ‘translator’ for ‘jelly maker’. This works in Japanese because the words sound very similar. (Even the translation of ‘jelly’ doesn’t work — konnyaku is not what Westerners think of when we hear the word ‘jelly’ — it’s a grey, black flecked substance made from potato starch.) On a meta-level, it’s ironic that the character of the father is a translator, yet the joke about his job simply doesn’t translate.

THE CHARACTER WEB

The fictional child orphan is a very American trope. Yotsuba as a character doesn’t fit this trope at all, though. This backstory (such as there is) feels foreign. The father just kinda picked her up from someplace.

Yotsuba is not really a… real child? She’s more like Ponyo of the Hayao Miyazaki film — someone who just turns up and joins the family. She seems to have come from a different planet. In the world of the story, she’s understood to simply be ‘foreign’:

She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings. This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

This particular character trope isn’t entirely foreign to a Western audience. We’re seeing a lot more comedy about characters who don’t seem to know what on earth is going on around them. Some of these characters are coded as autistic, which I go into more thoroughly here.

Because Yotsuba has no mother, and because her adopted father is so useless, the girls next door step in and they perform much of the emotional (and housework) labour a mother would otherwise provide. I don’t believe this is a specifically Japanese phenomenon at all, but it is an unusual family set up to see in contemporary Western children’s literature. Hopeless Dads are dime a dozen, but Dads who kind of fall in lust with their children’s informal babysitters next door? Not so much. (See below.)

SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE SYMBOLISM

In Yotsuba&! volume one, the story takes place over summer. Summer in Japan has its own specific atmosphere — after the rainy season of June comes a very hot and humid time, and unless you live in a very built-up area, summer sounds like cicadas. (Cicadas and frogs.) A ‘typical’ Japanese summer includes eating watermelons with family, wind chimes and festivals. This summer experience is depicted clearly in Yotsuba&!, though may not be coded as specifically ‘summer’ by readers who haven’t experienced the specifically Japanese summer. My Australian summer includes many of those things, too, but an Australian ‘vision of’ summer is different: the beach, swimming, surfing, shorts, sunscreen, icy-poles, thongs, beer. Each culture has its own Symbolism of Seasons, and Japanese symbolism is a little different even when summer itself is basically the same.

SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE CULTURE

As a high school exchange student, I was surprised to see teachers thwack students across the head. Touching the head is taboo in my own culture, especially when it’s a teacher to a student. Yet I saw it done mostly in jest.

Likewise, in Japanese entertainment, when one character hits another over the head, this is coded by the audience as funny. It’s one character ‘owning’ the other, usually as the conclusion (or as the main part) of a joke.

This joke is used numerous times in Yotsuba&!, first with one sister hitting the other on the head in the chapter where Yotsuba thinks she’s being abducted by the girl next door. (She doesn’t know that yet.) Later, Yotsuba insists everyone goes cicada catching. She jokingly ‘Catches an Ena’, which involves capturing her neighbour’s head in a net.

In another gag, Yotsuba’s father ends up with underpants on his head and pretends he’s some kind of underpants monster. This version of the joke translates the best out of all of these ‘head’ gags — probably because a young Western audience is also laughing at the inversion of a clothing article meant for the butt ending up on the head. For a Japanese audience there’s an added layer of embarrassment around showing your underwear to someone in your out-group — for girls and women especially, this is taboo. While modern attitudes are various, some Japanese women will never, ever show anyone their underwear, to the point where they won’t hang underwear on the line. (Therefore, a joke about the father’s underwear exposed to a non-family member works as a joke, but I doubt it would work if the underwear belonged to a girl.)

There’s a huge irony in this, which I’ve never been able to reconcile: Whereas the underwear of a post-pubescent Japanese female is absolutely taboo, the white, voluminous underpants of a little girl is considered cute, whereas in the West, adult women get to show their bodies as a form of empowerment, but when it comes to little girls, we are very protective of them. Pixar would never show the underpants of a little girl flying on a broomstick or falling comically from a height, but Hayao Miyazaki has no such qualms.

In Yotsuba&! we see examples of butt shots used comically:

funny butt

But my Western sensibilities come to the fore in the relationship between Yotsuba’s ‘father’ (according to the story he simply found her and decided to keep her), and his reaction to the triad of adolescent/teenage sisters who live next door.

In the first, minor example, the comically inappropriate Yotsuba refers to one of the sisters next door as the pretty one, the other as the ‘not pretty’ one. The father says, “You’re right, but you shouldn’t say it that way…”

not so pretty

My Western sensibility wants a Good Dad to tell Yotsuba that all the sisters next door are beautiful in their own way, but this father is more pragmatic, instead acknowledging that yes, he has noticed and yes, some girls are pretty, others not so much. I’ve noticed in the West, a general lack of willingness to accept that some people fit the Beauty Cultural Norm better than others. The problem with that: Unless we accept Beauty as a concept, we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege. If we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege, we can’t go out of our way to move past it.

Besides, this father is not your typical father. He’s more of a young guy who isn’t quite up to the task of taking care of a kid. This kid regularly finds herself in perilous situations, because the father is asleep or busy working or whatever. A permissive, indulgent parent is useful to a writer of children’s literature, because it’s really hard to realistically get adult caregivers out of the way. Modern kids, in real life, are rarely afforded the opportunity to head off on their own adventures. Not so Yotsuba, who goes off on her own around the neighbourhood. “Don’t worry, she eventually comes back,” says Father to the concerned girl next door. While he’s sleeping, Yotsuba’s getting herself locked in the toilet, then escapes by tottering precariously along the rail of the balcony. Instead of fixing the lock on the door, the father leaves it be, paving the way for further embarrassing window-escape adventures. An adult Western reader may well look at this father-daughter relationship and have grave concerns. Has the creator removed the father from Yotsuba’s life in a way that doesn’t set us on edge? What is he even doing with this little girl? Does her origin story need to be explained a little more? Readers will vary on this point.

More salient: Is Yotsuba&! even for kids? At first glance, of course it is. Japanese publishers have definitely aimed it at a young child market: We know this because they include the ‘kana’ readings over the Chinese characters, which is a sure sign a book is aimed at emergent readers. (Around 5-8.)

The main character, Yotsuba is also five. But Yotsuba is five in the way Junie B. Jones is five — her particular quirks appeal to older readers.

Here’s a scene Junie B. Jones would never include: The father’s friend comes round to the house, sees the girl next door with the father and makes a comment about ‘jail bait’.

jail bait yotsuba

This is icky to me, especially after the way in which this girl is introduced to Yotsuba’s father — and to the reader:

Yotsuba up skirt shot

I’m no manga apologist, but it’s possible that within manga culture this is such a normalised objectification of a teenage girl that it doesn’t really even strike the manga-enthusiast as a sexualised pose. I recall my year as an exchange student, in which I wore the school skirt a lot lower than any of my Japanese classmates. I wore it just below the knee, whereas they rolled theirs up. Some concerned classmates offered fashion advice, and tried rolling it up at the waist to achieve a more acceptable look. The girls themselves have internalised the idea that women’s legs are to be looked at.

To me, this pose is very gazey and, depending partly on the viewer, absolutely sexual. I was prepared to look past it until the ‘jail bait’ section, but considering the story as a whole, the creators are well-aware of their intent: To depict these teenage girls in a sexual manner to appease the male gaze. Although we do see examples of the male gaze in Western children’s literature, it’s been a long time since I saw something this blatant. This is manga culture pulled down into children’s entertainment.

THE STORY STRUCTURE OF YOTSUBA&!

Yotsuba&! is the perfect example of an ‘episodic’ story, found quite often in middle grade fiction, especially that aimed at (and starring) girls. Boys more often go off on linear adventures, but in Yotsuba&!, each chapter is its own self-contained story. Apart from the first chapter, in which Yotsuba moves house and meets new people, any of the others could easily be switched around.

‘Episodic’ is often used as a negative descriptor when it comes to fiction — as a synonym for ‘boring’ or ‘goes nowhere’. Modern middle grade novels in English tend to have a single driving thread even if it includes subplots which seem to take the reader off on self-contained tangents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good example of a Western counterpart. I’m also thinking of Clementine — also about the quotidian life of a girl. The difference is, each of the Clementine books has a single plot thread with means the chapters could not be switched up.

In general, Japanese audiences accept a slower pace. There’s a long history of very long Noh and Kabuki plays, in which the audience happily leaves part way through, goes to eat a meal, then comes back to see the end.

But partly this is because of the huge crossover appeal of its anime, manga and also pop music, which tends to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. To generalise, even children’s media ends up with a more adult pacing:

Toy Story – 76 mins
Brave – 84 mins
Monsters Inc. – 85 mins, 8 secs
Toy Story 2 – 85 mins, 32 secs
Inside Out – 87 mins
A Bug’s Life – 88 mins
Up -89 mins
Wall·E – 90 mins
Finding Nemo – 93 mins
Toy Story 3 – 94 mins
Monsters University – 94 mins
Cars 2 – 98 mins
Ratatouille – 103 mins
The Incredibles – 107 mins
Cars – 108 mins

Pixar Running Times

Summer Wars – 114 mins
Wolf Children – 117 mins
Spirited Away – 125 mins
Paprika – 90 mins
Totoro – 86 mins
Ponyo – 101 mins
Your Name – 106 mins
From Up On Poppy Hill – 91 mins

My comparisons aren’t perfect, because ‘animated’ doesn’t mean ‘for kids’ in Japan. Summer Wars is more for an adult audience despite being anime, in line with Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, whereas all of the Pixar films are made solidly for kids despite humour that only their adult co-viewers would get. Totoro is Japanese anime made solidly for kids, making for a better Pixar comparison, and Totor’s runtime lines up nicely with the films of Pixar. My wider point is: A more diverse story structure is accepted by audiences in Japan, with younger audiences enjoying films of ‘adult length’. (Spirited Away is enjoyed by children, but you won’t see a Pixar film of 125 minutes.)

Why are some Japanese films much longer? Because they are ‘slower’. By ‘slower’ I mean there tends to be more emphasis on scene-setting. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his emphasis on food scenes. Food is important across all children’s literature from any part of the world, but the emphasis on food preparation and the sharing and consumption of food is not something you’ll find easily in the West.

However, emphasis on food culture is not specific to Miyazaki. Keep looking and you’ll find it holds true across all aspects of Japanese entertainment. It’s true of Yotsuba&!, too.

The word ‘pillow shot’ was first used to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu:

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

Although it describes film, I like to apply the word equally to stories comprising static images (e.g. manga) because all the Yotsuba&! shots of first waking up, slurping on food, announcing one’s intention to visit the toilet… these are the quotidian aspects of life more commonly omitted from Western stories, even in stories for children:

I didn’t mean to pick a scene which literally includes a pillow, but there you go.

My Japanese teacher in Japan also taught English to Japanese students (that was her main job). She always found it uniquely Japanese that when asked to write an essay about their daily, her Japanese students would include details English speaking students would not: “I got up, went to the toilet, brushed my teeth…”

I have concluded over time that Japanese natives do a better, more thorough job of noticing the details of everyday life, and this is reflected in entertainment coming out of Japan.

In Sum

As you can probably gather, I have mixed feelings about the Yotsuba&! series as a middle grade text. Yotsuba as a character is a satisfying character for girls in particular — she’s irreverent (especially by Japanese standards of politeness), she’s energetic and her family situation means she’s often out on interesting hi jinx. Yotsuba herself is not sexualised — in fact she’s dressed in hardy shorts and is wholly unlimited by cultural gender expectations.

All of these wonderful things about Yotsuba are undermined by the dynamic between Yotsuba’s young, adoptive father, the father’s creepy best friend and the triad of teenaged sisters next door. I believe the creator has been influenced by manga culture to the point where he perhaps doesn’t even realise this dynamic could be read as anything other than innocent.

I suspect a proportion of Japanese parents would share this view in common with me, and to finish off, I’d like to emphasise that ‘manga’ culture is not synonymous with ‘Japanese culture’.

The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield

Benjamin Leader - A Relic of the Past

“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. This is Mansfield’s most accessible story, and a good introduction to her work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature as well. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps by interpreting imagery. Readers are told exactly what happens.



(It always bothers me that the apostrophe doesn’t come after the ‘s’ in dolls’ house, since more than one doll always lives there…)

STORYWORLD OF THE DOLL’S HOUSE

Schools looked like this around the time Katherine Mansfield was growing up in New Zealand — the New Zealand of her memory.

Opotiki School

New Zealanders have long loved to tell ourselves the myth that New Zealand is without social class. “When Europeans settled in New Zealand, everyone was equal. Everyone started from scratch, and everybody drank at the same pubs, attended the same schools…”

That was never true. My earliest ancestor to New Zealand emigrated as a bannister maker. He went to New Zealand to make bannisters for rich people, who took their servants, their wealth and their attitudes with them. Nothing magical happened on that boat to wipe those slates clean.

It is true that for hard-working early settlers, climbing the economic hierarchy became a genuine possibility, given good luck, white skin and valuable skills. One line of my working-class ancestry managed to secure swathes of farmland, some of it in an area which is now central Christchurch. That land was stolen by a lawyer who duped a new widow and ran off to Australia with the late husband’s fortune. (Women weren’t taught much about money in those days.) My family’s newly acquired immigrant fortune was thereby lost, even more quickly than it was gained. (Back then, Australia might as well have been the other side of the world.) My own family’s example demonstrates the ebb and flow of fortune in a young, new land, but classist attitudes are slower to change.

Do they ever change? Mansfield encourages us to mull that one over.

SYMBOLISM OF THE DOLL’S HOUSE

Doll house stories inevitably utilise one of two literary effects (or even both at once):

  • The miniature effect, in which a story set in a particular time and place represents times and places everywhere. (Click that link, because there are many other uses for it.)
  • The mise-en-abyme effect, which I cover in detail in an Angela Carter short story. In Mansfield’s story, imagine a doll house inside a doll house inside a doll house and so on. This conveys the idea of a never-ending pattern. What’s the never-ending pattern? Classism. Each new generation learns the same old classism from the one before, transmitting it later to their own children. A dolls’ house is therefore the perfect symbol to convey how classist attitudes transmit across generations.

For other examples of dolls’ houses in literature, see this post. (Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903 — was this a favourite of Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield was a teenager by that stage, but Potter’s stories found very wide appeal.)

The central image of “The Doll’s House” is the little lamp, often interpreted as a symbol of light and therefore of knowing. But the lamp is a symbol of tricks, shams and illusions:

It was even filled already for lighting, though, of course you couldn’t light it.

… you couldn’t tell it from a real one’.

This is very similar to how Beatrix Potter uses the doll house in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice“. Potter’s story would therefore make an excellent companion text to this one. Unlike the Burnell children, the two ‘bad’ mice are outraged to learn that the miniature food is fake. They have a tantrum and make a complete mess of the dollhouse. But I find “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” the most affecting of all Potter’s tales — we feel genuine sorrow for the mice, who looked forward to a wonderful treat, only to have their hopes dashed.

Let’s look more closely at the imagistic pattern described in “The Doll’s House”, focusing on the dollhouse itself:

the door was like a slab of toffee
very big, awful smell, big lumps of paint, the hook was stuck fast
as if they had fainted [describing the very stiff dolls]

These details reenforce the basic theme: the gradual revelation to a child of social discrimination and injustice.

Significantly, only Else seems to realise that the rich people’s ‘little teeny lamp’ is a sham.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DOLL’S HOUSE”

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of a community rather than of an individual. This narrative choice fits the theme, because social strata requires an entire community in order to exist. As in “Sun and Moon”, it makes more sense to divide the cast into two ‘main characters’ — adults versus children.

Whenever rich and poor people interact in a story, you get immediate, ready-made conflict. The adults of this rural town resemble rural towns dotted throughout New Zealand today, with the stark division between landed farmers and the service industry workers who work for them, alongside the unemployed. Rural towns are the perfect arena for rich and poor to mingle together. Although some of the rich farmers’ children are sent away to high school, they do still tend to attend the local primary school together. Katherine Mansfield herself was sent away to ‘finishing school’. (My father always used to threaten to send me away to finishing school if I didn’t behave like a proper little lady, though but the 1980s such institutions no longer existed, and I never really understood the empty threat. Even in England, Princess Diana was the very last of the finishing school class of lady, alongside Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born.)

The moral shortcoming of the adults: They have no empathy for people they consider beneath themselves.

The moral shortcoming of the children: The children are emulating their adults, and this story is a snippet of indoctrination. The little girls mimic their mothers exactly, and the in-group, out-group bias is evident in the playground, where niceties are extended in return for social favours. You could even draw parallels between the doll’s house and the housing market, which is even more of a social issue than it was back then, when even the servant class were able to afford their own small cottage. In contemporary New Zealand there is an ever-increasing class divide between those who can own their own homes (and rental properties), and those who will never afford the payments on a the most modest of mortgages. This year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created legislation preventing offshore ownership of New Zealand real estate, in an attempt to put a lid on this problem.

Anthony Browne covered similar issues in his picture book Voices In The Park. Before children learn who they may and may not talk to, they are inclined to talk to everyone. Browne’s book would make a good companion text to “The Doll’s House”.

NARRATION

Another short story master who tends to write communities rather than individuals is Annie Proulx. If you want to create a story with community themes, it’s all in your choice of narration:

Imagine a camera, attached to a silent drone. This drone follows Mrs Hay, who leaves a doll’s house with the Burnells, then flies over to the Burnell children, goes with them to school, flies up to pan out and include the Kelvey girls, who wait in the wings. For the big struggle scene it follows Aunt Beryl, but we accept this change in point of view because Mansfield never settles in on any single individual. Finally, it rests with the Kelvey girls, who are given the final word. This moment of sweetness makes the rest of the story all the worse.

DESIRE

The Burnell children are proud of their new dolls’ house and they want to tell everybody about it.

OPPONENT

The web of opposition is:

  • Children versus adults (though the children don’t realise this — to them, it’s perfectly natural that the Kelveys would be excluded.)
  • The children have their own social hierarchy, and Mansfield does a good job of depicting the hierarchy of a schoolyard, with its false niceties and the ‘designated untouchables’.

For more on that see Bullying In Children’s Literature.

PLAN

The Burnell children scheme between themselves how to milk this doll’s house for all the social capital it’s worth. They decide who’s going to pick friends to come home and view it, how to create momentum. (If the era were different, Isabel would have found great success in a marketing career.)

Little Kezia eventually gets sick of her big sister taking all the glory, and she makes her own plan: To invite the Kelveys to see it. (I imagine everyone else has seen the doll’s house by this point.)

 BIG STRUGGLE

When Aunt Beryl finds the Kelveys in the yard she shoos them out as if they are chickens, later described as rats.

There may have been another reason, apart from the father in gaol/servant reason given, that the Burnell adults refused to allow poor children into their yard, treating them as disease-spreading rodents. The following is a fairly new theory, to do with the discovery that Harold Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield’s father) probably moved the family out to the ‘country’ (now pretty central Wellington) to escape a bacterial plague affecting the old central Wellington:

What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?

Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.

Noted

ANAGNORISIS

I doubt Kezia had any sort of epiphany regarding social class and exclusion and untouchable culture. She most likely learned that the Kelvey girls are too disgusting to enter the yard, and she won’t dare associate with them again.

In this story, the revelation is for the reader rather than for the characters, who are victims of the cogs of the local social hierarchy.

Apart from being asked to offer critique of classism, the paragraph with Aunt Beryl offers an insight into human psychology: Adults get mad at children when their own personal lives aren’t working out. This has nothing to do with the children, but children (similar to the adult servant class) bear the brunt. Or, ‘shit travels down’, as corporate workers well know. (I believe Americans say ‘shit rolls downhill’.)

NEW SITUATION

The ending serves to underscore this: The underclass are learning their place. This isn’t just one-sided, with the upper class learning their place at the top. The Kelvey girls are meek. They don’t complain.

Else is satisfied that she’s seen the little lamp. She’s ‘forgotten the cross lady’. As time goes by, she’ll not necessarily remember the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl at all, and she may barely remember that little lamp. But all of these micro-aggressions add up, and by the time she’s grown, Else will know her place in the social hierarchy: firmly at the bottom.

This ending is similar to that of “Her First Ball” in which an underdog character has an unpleasant interaction then apparently forgets all about it.

There is a concept in psychology known as “relative deprivation

by which disenfranchised groups, having been trained to expect little, tend paradoxically to report the same levels of satisfaction as their better-treated, more privileged peers.

Lili Loofbourow, The Female Price of Male Pleasure

Because the Kelvey sisters are so socially and materially deprived, the opportunity to view a fancy doll’s house makes their day, despite the inevitable (to them) ostracisation which follows.

There are subcategories of relative deprivation. It can work the other way, in which a disenfranchised group or individual looks at far more privileged others around them and this maximises their dissatisfaction. Mansfield covered this variety of relative deprivation in “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Header painting: Benjamin Leader – A Relic of the Past. I chose this painting not because it is set in New Zealand but because of the children playing, and because the angle makes the foregrounded house look so much bigger than the cottage.

Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield

SUN AND MOON

“Sun and Moon” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1918.

The story opens with a description of gold chairs, which reminds me of a totally unrelated Colin Carpenter (Comedy Company) skit: https://youtu.be/LJtNHs4BfYg

And while I’m being random, I read recently in a Marcus Chown science book that tides are caused by both the moon and the sun, with tides of the moon being twice as big as tides of the sun, because the moon is closer.  I had never really implicated the sun into my understanding of how tides work.

Read the story at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

LISTEN to Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield AUDIO BOOK

Lucien Davis — Except on Business
Lucien Davis — Except on Business

What Happens In “Sun and Moon”

  • As the story opens the whole house is involved in preparing for an ostentatious party. (Party preparation also forms the bulk of “The Garden Party”.)
  • Nothing feels norma to the children, named Sun and Moon: Cook is nicer than usual, there is a man come to tune the piano, Nurse is too busy to look after them (when presumably that is her entire job).
  • Cook takes the children by the hand and shows them the marvellous food in the fridge. Sun is taken by the nut which serves as a door handle on the little green house.
  • The children are dressed up to greet the guests. Then they are sent to bed.
  • Their sleep is disturbed by the excitement of the party downstairs.
  • When the guests have gone, Father finds the children on the stairs and brings them down to have some of the leftover food.
  • But when Sun sees the food has all been destroyed he is upset, lets out a loud wail and is sent back to bed.

STORYWORLD OF “SUN AND MOON”

The story takes place inside the house of an upper class family who live like the old aristocracy, with a Nurse to bring up their children, while a large part of their main job is socialising among people of their own class. This is a Downton Abbey setting.

Mansfield spends a lot of time on details, of the flowers, chairs etc. and it’s all from Sun’s point of view. As in “The Voyage”, the reader is forced to notice the things a child would notice.

J. C.Leyendecker c 1932

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUN AND MOON”

NARRATION

Multi-personal point of view records the children’s reactions at various points:

“Oh! Oh! Oh! It was a little house…”

“But – oh! oh! what had happened?”

“broken – broken – half melted away in the center of the table”

The majority of “Sun and Moon” is told in third person limited POV: limited to the thoughts of Sun. This narrative choice encourages the reader to empathise with Sun’s feelings about the green house and the nut. Ideally we remember our own childhoods as we read.

  • Do you have an early memory of a big social gathering which required a lot of preparation?
  • Do you remember the sorts of questions adults would always ask you?
  • Who were your favourite adults, outside your family? How did they treat you differently?
  • Do you remember a time when something you loved was destroyed?
  • What was that thing? Why were you so enchanted by it?
Norman Rockwell – Little Girl Looking Downstairs at Christmas Party – 1964

SHORTCOMING

In common with almost every single young child in a story, the children’s main shortcoming is their powerlessness, owing to dependence, youth and naivety.

Layered over that, Mansfield does an interesting thing with the symbolism: Throughout “Sun and Moon”, the children’s psychological needs are symbolised by hunger. (For another example of the same technique see “A Suburban Fairy Tale”.)

DESIRE

There is no strong, obvious desire line from Sun in this story. Because he is so young, he doesn’t really know what it is he wants.

By the end of the story we know that what he wants is for things to stay amazing, whole and intact. With a crowd of drunk adults around, this is never going to happen…

OPPONENT

Along with “See Saw” and “The Voyage“, “Sun and Moon” is a story which juxtaposes children and adults. The adults are opponents because their party is designed to destroy the entire set up.

Unlike their son, the parents remain in a kind of everlasting innocence in their failure to see his distress. Their drunkenness highlights their regression to childhood; they have become playful with each other again. Mother calls Father a ‘naughty boy’, but as Son realises, she is not talking to him. This is a little perplexing for Son; he is not used to seeing his parents like this.

The parents probably do not spend a lot of time with their own children, addressing them as if they don’t know them very well. Care of the children is spread among the house servants, particularly Nanny, and also Cook, who is the only adult in the story who engages with the children as if she understands them. However, Cook is often overworked and therefore grumpy, as Sun observes.

The other adults are not really very interested in the children, engaging in the kind of small talk usually indulged in with small children by people who don’t know them well.

Moon is Sun’s foil character rather than his opponent. Whereas Sun is sensitive and serious, Moon is dainty, seductive, outgoing, flighty, extroverted and impulsive. When Moon sees the nut she wants to touch the house. This shows she is sensual and tactile. Moon sees the world at surface level, probably because she is younger.

The children’s names, quite obviously, reflect the roles they play. The sun and the moon, for Mansfield, represent ‘The Whole’. (Similar symbolism is found in “Bliss“.)

When Moon takes the nut, she becomes Sun’s opponent.

Symbolism Of The Little House

As the children admire the pre-party set up, the confection house represents a pre-lapsarian innocence in which everything is bliss. The children look forward to the party and are allowed to wait up, full of expectation. The see the feast in all its splendour, and then the guests arrive. Their parents get drunk. The food is spoiled. The children no longer want anything to do with the adult world and demand to be taken away. Perhaps, like me, this house made of sweets reminds you of Hansel and Gretel. As in the fairytale, this artefact seems made to draw children in (even though it’s a party for adults).

The confection house represents an ideal for Sun. When Moon grabs the nut and eats it he feels she has taken a part of himself – his ego – which is further diminished when he is sent back upstairs.

PLAN

The children don’t have the power to make their own plans, propelled along but the plans of their parents. They are dressed up like dolls, are required to greet the guests, then they are required to go to bed.

The parents’ plans take a different turn — drunk and happy, the father gets them up to see the leftovers, though he wouldn’t normally disturb their sleep in the middle of the night. Children are comforted by routine, and this is a deviation.

Saturday Evening Post cover - November 1961
Saturday Evening Post cover – November 1961

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is the part where Sun cries. He’s an overtired child, of course, but that’s only a surface level reading.

He’s crying for another reason…

ANAGNORISIS

Sun’s realisation might be described as a fall from innocence.

When Sun sees the nut he suddenly ‘feels tired.’ Like the whiskered man who attends the party later, Sun is already an old man in his own way; he has already walked round and round the table with his hands behind his back: a grandfatherly sort of body  language. In fact, the grey whiskered man is an elderly version of Sun. Both of them are alone and quiet and both are equally taken with the nut. Mansfield aligns child with an elderly counterpart the way she also does in “The Voyage”. This trick achieves various effects:

  • Time feels like a bit of an illusion. We normally think of time as linear, and the young and old as different species, almost. But by aligning old and young, we are encouraged to think of time in terms of snapshots in a photo album — at any given time you could pull a photo out, and the child version of an old man is as true a version of the man as the elderly version.
  • We’re encouraged to take children seriously. The children are not treated seriously in this story. They are dressed up like dolls and prepped to greet as if they have nothing original to contribute themselves. The adults are irritated that Sun cries. They think they’re doing something special for their children. But they don’t dig deeper into any reason for the distress, in a way we might dig a bit deeper for a fellow adult.

When Moon lets out a wail, he has realised something quite profound.

I’m reminded of a child who spends all day building a house out of Lego. The nature of Lego is that it is meant to be pulled apart — the pulling apart is part of the fun. Without pulling it apart, no more Lego houses can be made.

Sun’s revelation: We work hard to create amazing, beautiful things, but those amazing, beautiful things cannot exist untouched in their pure form. The world, and our lives, are built around the physics of entropy.

The reader’s revelation: This applies to humans, too. We all get older. Boy = old man.

NEW SITUATION

The children are sent to bed and tomorrow their lives will continue as usual — we extrapolate. Sun may not even remember the incident, but he will remember the lesson: That all good things must end.

The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield

the voyage katherine mansfield

“The Voyage” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921.

Katherine Mansfield always disliked intellectualism and aestheticism (one thing she had in common with her husband John Middleton Murray). She strove to combine a realist way of writing with personal and relatable symbols.

“The Voyage” is a good example of her philosophy on that. This is one of Katherine Mansfield’s later stories and was published only after her death, in her 1923 collection The Garden Party. (She died in January of that year.)



Mansfield’s technique can be called impressionist, a term borrowed from art world. (“Impressionist” generally describes the way  19th century painters depicted sensory impressions.) Mansfield mainly aimed to offer the reader a series of interconnected experiences. It’s often said there’s no ‘point’ to her stories other than that. It’s true that Mansfield’s stories were without didacticism (morals). We’re used to that now. It was unusual at the time.

It’s easy to forget how avant garde Mansfield was. You’ll have seen a lot of modernist, impressionist work since Mansfield’s time, and in fact, series of montages with none of the 19th century padding is now the storytelling norm. So I’d like to really emphasise that Mansfield’s impressionistic way of writing was a very new technique back in the 1920s. Katherine Mansfield was part of a movement, and made an important contribution to the development of the short story genre in particular.

Scholars are sometimes keen to point out that Mansfield’s short stories had ‘no plot’, either, comprising nothing but a series of quotidian snippets. Think of the montage technique in film and you’ve got the idea.

I disagree with the view that Mansfield’s short stories are without plot. Her stories are lyrical, but still adhere to conventional storytelling structure, which I’ll show you below.

What Happens In “The Voyage”

A girl of about five (Fenella) travels from Wellington with her grandmother by boat to her grandparents’ home in Picton, where she will live with the grandmother and grandfather. Her mother has passed away and her grandmother now takes care of her as her guardian. It is only halfway through the story when we discover Fenella’s mother is dead, hence the grandmother as new guardian. This information is revealed via imagery rather than via the narration, which emulates the way we learn things as children, before language and explanations even make much sense. It’s likely that Fenella has already been told in words exactly what’s happening, but she cannot really understand her new situation — or her mother’s death — until she feels it.

Setting of “The Voyage”

In the opening sentence we know where this story is set. Picton is a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. If you want to travel between the North and South Islands, that’s where you catch the ferry, which takes you to the capital of Wellington, where Mansfield grew up. Historians and Mansfield’s contemporary readers would know the characters on the Picton side of the trip because of the landing stage:

‘And now the landing stage came out to meet them.  Slowly it swam towards the Picton boat.’

Mansfield was very familiar with the Picton Boat. As a child she visited her Picton relatives many times with her family, and the Picton relatives came often to visit her.

It’s difficult to imagine now, just how dark it was before street lighting. The buildings ‘all seemed carved out of solid darkness’. The area around the Old Wharf is brought to life, with words like ‘quivering’, and the description of how it ‘burns softly, as if for itself’.

Why? Candles are used not only to light spaces but also as meditations. We have a tradition of lighting candles to remember dead loved ones. This is Fenella burning a candle for her early childhood life. We don’t know this yet — this is all foreshadowing.

This was an era when it was believed fathers were incapable of bringing up their own children. I’m sure a few did, but it was just as acceptable to give children to other female relatives if the children’s mother had died. The father walks in ‘quick, nervous’ strides. We’re not encouraged to take a good look into the father’s psychology, but it must have been terrible to lose a wife and then to lose your child, via nothing other than social circumstance.

A Brief History Of The Picton Boat

These days it’s common to take a flight between islands, but of course back in Mansfield’s era, the ferry was your only choice.

Now, a large proportion of the passengers will be travelling by ferry mainly for the tourist experience. The view of the mountains as you sail close to land is magnificent. And if you’re not sick to the stomach from choppy waters, it’s even more magnificent! The Cook Strait is a strip of water above a major network of fault lines — hence New Zealand is chopped in two in the first place!

The ‘Picton Boat’ known in my childhood as the ‘Picton Ferry’ is now called The Interislander, and the journey takes between 3-3/5 hours. But in the early 1900s, this boat trip between islands lasted an entire day. Back then, a trip between islands (a strip of water known as The Cook Strait) was more drama than a trip to Australia is today. Apart from the boat trip itself, you had to make it to the Old Wharf in Wellington, probably by horse and cart, and you couldn’t pay to just leave your horse there. You had to be dropped off. Today, travelling between islands is simple. To call it a ‘voyage’ would be hyperbole. But not for young Fenella, and not back then.

The Voyage Old Wharf
A view of Old Wharf around 1910

Other Setting Details

Without knowing anything else about the story, the reader can deduce the early 1900s setting of “The Voyage”:

  • They use the old British style currency (shilling, tuppence). New Zealand switched to dollars and cents in 1967.
  • Fenella’s grandmother wears restrictive clothing such as stays and bodice. Adults are wearing bonnets and caps in public. Even my mother, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, was required to wear a hat in public. Straw hats were part of her public school uniform. The social revolution of the late 1960s meant people no longer regarded it ‘improper’ to leave the house without wearing a hat. ‘To her surprise Fenella saw her father take off his hat.’
  • The language used by the characters feels dated at times e.g. ‘what wickedness’.
  • Bananas were a luxury product in this era. You couldn’t get them just anywhere, but Picton wharf was one place known for bananas. Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s climate has never been able to support its own banana growing industry. Even so, bananas are cheaply available now. They’re grown in the Phillipines and imported. New Zealand’s cheap bananas have huge ethical implications because the people who grow them are working under slave conditions. When I lived in London in 2006, I noticed Londoners had the option of buying ‘regular’ bananas or ‘fair trade’ bananas. There was never that option in New Zealand and I’d never given much thought to where bananas came from. Ethical bananas have since become an option for New Zealanders who still want to eat bananas.
  • We know the grandmother doesn’t drink alcohol because the staff know her and therefore now it’s hopeless offering. Then she eats wine biscuits, and I realised that’s a word I haven’t heard in a very long time. I grew up in the 1980s with Griffins biscuits, and wine biscuits describe a sweet, plain biscuit with a complicated imprint of grapes on one side. I must have eaten thousands of those. Did they originally have something to do with wine? Probably, given the grapes. Griffins has rebranded them as ‘Superwine’ biscuits. I don’t know what the Picton Boat offerings looked like, and I can’t find a single image of a single Superwine biscuit on the entire Internet! In any case, Grandma was eating a plain, sweet biscuit, probably to settle her stomach.

  • I’ve never booked a cabin on the Interislander. I have slept literally underneath the seats in the main area, on a midnight trip… after having missed my daytime one. According to one reviewer who booked a cabin in 2015: For $40 extra we had our own 4 bunk cabin on the Interislander. It had lovely white sheets, a window, our own shower and toilet. Two free cups of coffee and a newspaper thrown in! It was excellent and well worth the money.’ — Paula from Christchurch

For more on the historical era and the setting around the Old Wharf, see this post by Julie Kennedy.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE VOYAGE”

SHORTCOMING

When the child is a main character, their biggest shortcoming is their naivety and their reliance upon those around them.

Mansfield never lets readers know the exact age of Fenella, but we can guess she is a young child because of the limited understanding she has of different situations.

Mansfield writes this story in free, indirect discourse. Another story written with this narration is What Maisie Knew by Henry James, a description of a divorce but via the limited understanding of a girl about Fenella’s age.

When the audience knows something the character does not, this is a technique known as dramatic irony. Irony describes any sort of ‘meaningful gap’ in a story — in this case between audience and character.

Examples of dramatic irony:

  1. The woodpile is described as a “huge black mushroom”, an image that would perhaps be unusual from an adult’s point of view, but completely understandable from a child’s.
  2. In the middle of the story Fenella is in the private cabin with her grandmother. In wonder, Fenella sees the old woman undress. Until then she had hardly ever seen her grandmother with even her head uncovered. Because this is new and strange to Fenella. We know this is through the Fenella-filter because Fenella does not know the right words to describe women’s clothing:  ‘Then she undid her bodice, and something under that, and something else under that.’ This is Fenella’s introduction to what it would be like to have a woman’s body.
  3. Fenella doesn’t know why Grandma thinks selling sandwiches for twopence is such ‘wickedness’.  She doesn’t understand the value of money.
  4. Also, it is the first time Fenella makes this trip. We can also tell from the images — Fenella’s impressions — the narrator uses to describe the public area on the boat that everything is new to the girl: ‘They were in the saloon. It was glaring bright and stifling; the air smelled of paint and burnt chop-bones and india-rubber.’ An experienced traveler would no longer register this strangeness, but children — in common with adults on psychedelics — notice every new detail around them.

DESIRE

Fenella is a typical child, and small children tend to live in the moment. She’s not fully aware of the significance of this journey and she may not even know where they’re going. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be away from her father.

For this reason, her desires are very much in the moment.

  • She wants to take care of her grandmother’s fetching umbrella.
  • She wants to touch the sandwich, so she does. (She wants to eat it, too, but it’s too expensive.)
  • She wants to take off her lace booties.
  • She wants the soap to lather up, though it doesn’t.

OPPONENT

GRANDMA

Sometimes in a story populated by two people, they are each other’s opposition.

Definition of opponent: Any character who stands in the way of what the main character wants.

It’s irrelevant how kind the opponent is. In this story, grandmother is a caring, kind woman. The way in which she deals with Fenella belies her personality – she tells Fenella she would be more comfortable taking her lace socks off, though doesn’t insist that she do so. She reminds me a lot of my own grandmother.

Yet this loving grandmother is still Fenella’s opponent, because Fenella is a little anxious, and the grandmother is requiring her to do something she’d really prefer not to. The grandmother is taking her away from everything she knew and loved. To a child, who has not yet developed the meaning of permanence, a dead parent might come back at any stage.

The other opponent is that of nature — the inherent danger — or the sense of danger — which attends boat travel.

Grandma tells Fenella that ‘God is with you at sea more than he is on land’, betraying her nervousness, and the possibility of disaster.

The grandmother’s fears aren’t wholly imagined. The most notorious of New Zealand’s ferry disasters is the Wahine Disaster of 1968. My father was living and working in central Wellington at that time. He describes the wind as so strong that day that for a smaller individual it was impossible to stand upright outside. He remembers office workers on their hands and knees, trying to cross the street. 53 people lost their lives. The unbelievable part of it was, the ship was so very close to shore.

The Wahine was not New Zealand’s first maritime disaster. Shipwrecks were common in the 1800s, when this grandmother grew up, and as for this particular route:

On 12 February 1909 the Penguin struck a rock (Maybe Thoms Rock or the floating remains of a wreck) off the Wellington coast of Cook Strait and foundered with the loss of 75  lives.  Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand in July 1908 so it is possible to speculate that if the Beauchamp family had been on the boat New Zealand might have lost its best known writer. She would certainly have been upset about this incident when she heard about it in England.

Julie Kennedy

When Grandma and Fenella first go into the cabin, Fenella feels she has been ‘shut into a box’ with Grandma. The ‘box’ refers equally to a coffin. Mansfield probably thought of coffins whenever she entered small rooms — she uses that same imagery with the same reference in her story Miss Brill, who returns to her small bedsit after a visit to a public garden, in which she realises for the first time that she’s old. (I wonder if Mansfield suffered a little from claustrophobia.)

In any case, when Fenella thinks of grandma, she thinks of death. If they’re both in the coffin-like cabin together, they’re both adjacent to death, together. But then Mansfield juxtaposes this vision of grandma as one-foot-in-the-grave by making her climb nimbly up the ladder to the top bunk. Though this is a juxtaposed image of the elderly woman (who probably wasn’t all that old, given the era — she was probably in her forties, dammit), the story function is the same and therefore reinforces the idea that though Fenella is at one end of her life and grandma is at the other, they are both equal: they are both mortal. They will both die, and whenever that is? That doesn’t matter. It can happen at any time, as it happened to her mother.

If grandmother is an opponent, it’s because she is positioned as Fenella’s older version of herself. Fenella is therefore unable to get away from the concept of mortality.

Mansfield is drawing on a long history of the elder-care in this story, especially upon the history of old women. European fairytales are a good place to look for the contradictory feelings people have always held in regards to the sick, frail and elderly. On the one hand, old people have been given special status and privilege as founts of wisdom. By the same token, once a person becomes senile and can no longer contribute to family and society, they are pushed from this position of honour. In the medieval era, the elderly were oft-times executed or abandoned. Death is often considered a good thing, especially when compared to being old here on earth. When dies and joins her grandmother in Heaven, this is considered a happy ending.

THE LITTLE BOY

The little boy in “The Voyage” functions as more of a foil character than of outright opposition. His circumstances are the inverse of Fenella’s: Fenella’s grandmother is kind to her, but the little boy is jerked angrily along between two parents. Note that he has his parents, so is technically more lucky. But what if your parents are angry types?

PLAN

The plan is made by the adults and Fenella has no choice but to go along with it. That’s the typical case for a naive child character.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘big struggle’ scene isn’t any sort of argument or fight but rather conveyed through an imagistic system of light and dark. (See below.)

ANAGNORISIS

Now’s a good time to talk about the imagery, which links directly to Fenella’s Anagnorisis.

LIGHT AND DARK IMAGERY

There are two themes symbolised by the contrast between darkness and light.  First of all, complete the following chart using quotes and examples from the text.

IMAGES OF DARKNESS IMAGES OF LIGHT
The old wharf is ‘dark, very dark’. (Everything on the “Old Wharf” is dark, and the one lantern with its timid light only seems to underline that sensation.) ‘The lamp was still burning, but night was over’ (Describes the morning they arrive in Picton to Fenella’s new life).
Woodpile looks like a ‘huge black mushroom’. ‘the cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea.  On land a white mist rose and fell’.
grandmother is wearing black clothes ‘crackling black ulster’ Grandma’s cheeks are ‘white waxen’.
Little boy has black arms and legs ‘up a little path of round white pebbles’
Wool shed has a trail of smoke On the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s sits a ‘white cat’.
A ‘huge coil of dark rope’ on the ferry Grandpa has a ‘white tuft’ on his head and a ‘long silver beard’.
‘Dark figures of men lounged against the (ferry) rails’.
The ‘dark round eye’ is the window in the cabin on the ferry
‘spider-like steps’ of Grandma climbing the bunk

This darkness/light imagery symbolizes:

1.  TRANSITION FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD TO CHILDHOOD

There’s a point in our childhoods when we understand the concept of death. Until that moment, we believed everyone lives forever. The death of her mother forces Fenella to confront this fact earlier than she otherwise would have.

In a different story, “The Wind Blows”, Katherine Mansfield uses a ship in the distance to symbolise the later developmental phase — that of a teenager: The realisation that childhood comes to an end. This can feel like a kind of death (in hindsight more than at the time, I think).

2.  LIFE AND DEATH

The sense of darkness may illustrate both Fenella’s uncertainty and  her grief.

Symbolically, these images may indicate a difficult period in Fenella’s life is now behind her. Perhaps there have been years of her mother being ill, and now she has arrived in a new, stable home. (The mother might equally have died in childbirth.) However, it is implied that life will never regain the stability it seemed to have from a child’s point of view. Dealing with the death of a beloved one and becoming an adult also means getting a sense of the irrevocable passage of time. Fenella’s grandparents are obviously no longer young, and a final image, the text painted by her grandfather, underlines the awareness that life is transitory. Fortunately for Fenella, Grandpa looks very happy.

Fenella’s slight maturation over the course of a single night on the ferry is such a subtle ‘Anagnorisis’ that the reader is offered a second one, in the form of the grandmother’s painted message, affixed above the old grandfather’s head:

Lost One Golden Hour
“Lost! One Golden Hour Set with Sixty Diamond Minutes. No Reward Is Offered For It Is Gone For Ever!”

I wonder if this saying is a Katherine Mansfield original. It sounds like a poem that was commonly passed around, but I can’t say either way.

This story is about the inevitable passing of time — the hurtling towards death. When Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Voyage”, she had well and truly faced her own mortality. She would die just a few years later. The passing of time must have felt acute.

NEW SITUATION

The umbrella is important when making sense of the ending.

The umbrella is a repeated symbol throughout “The Voyage”, which technically makes it a motif. Fenella’s grandmother lets Fenella take care of her swan-necked, probably expensive umbrella. At first it seems a burden to Fenella as it is big and awkward (too big for her to manage — just like the notion of death). Fenella focuses on it during the trip, almost as a way of avoiding anxiety. At one point she prevents it from falling over at the same moment her grandmother does.

When they have arrived on the island, Grandma does not even have to say the word or Fenella can confirm she has performed her duty:

“You’ve got my—”

‘Yes, Grandma.’ Fenella showed it to her.”

The umbrella comes to symbolize Fenella’s new sense of responsibility, a process which has been accelerated because of the death of her mother. It surprises her grandfather that Fenella arrives carrying his wife’s precious novelty umbrella.

“Ugh!” said grandpa. “Her little nose is as cold as a button. What’s that she’s holding? Her grandma’s umbrella?”

We have learned, along with the grandfather, that little Fenella has grown up a little — enough to be trusted with a precious umbrella, and enough to cope with the tragic death of her mother. She’s going to be okay.