Jakarta by Alice Munro

“Jakarta” is a short story by Alice Munro, the second in the Nobel Prize winning collection The Love Of A Good Woman. At first it baffles me why this story is called Jakarta as it is not set in Indonesia. Eventually we find out that one of the characters has previously died in Jakarta of a tropical bug. Or has he?

CHARACTERS OF “JAKARTA”

Young Kath Mayberry — has a baby called Noelle. Reads what she likes, e.g. bohemian writers such as Katherine Mansfield. Kath marries the conservative, standard pharmacist, Kent, but is secretly intrigued by how her friend Sonje lives her life. Ironically, Kath has more intellectual freedom while Sonje has more sexual ‘freedom’. We know this from the detail that Sonje has her reading material prescribed by her much older male partner, Cottar, who is full of political opinions and argues as sport.

Older Kath — at first the reader is led to wonder if she is still alive. We are told eventually that she is living in Ontario not far from Toronto. The man she lived with for a long time and built her lake house with is dead.

Young Sonje — reads a book by Howard Fast. because her husband tells her if she’s going to read fiction she should read him. Lives with Cottar in a communal house of communists with an arrangement of partner swapping.

Older Sonje — Cottar has died 30 years ago of some tropical bug in Jakarta. Was a journalist. Sonje looked after her husband’s elderly mother, who was a good friend. She has until recently been a dance teacher. There is a dance studio in her dilapidated beach home. Sonje herself has lost weight, her skin has had skin cancers cut out and she looks like the old lady she is.

Cottar — Sonje’s husband. A journalist. Older than Sonje, Kath and Kent. In his 30s he was ‘tall, narrow shouldered, with a high bald forehead and wispy sideburtns. A rushed, hushed, confidential way of talking.’ Takes delight in winding up conservative types like Kent.

The Monicas — a group of slightly older women who use the beach every day, each with three or four children.

The real Monica — the woman who invited Kath and Sonje to join the other women on the beach. She has a nice house.

Kent Mayberry — Was married to Kath. Has had a full life including multiple families. Was a pharmacist. Kent doesn’t fit in with the Bohemian crew — he is more optimistic about the way the world is being run.

Deborah — Kent’s much younger partner, a physiotherapist, ‘tactful and incurious almost to the point of indifference’.

Amy — the older woman’s husband’s mistress. A lot of make up. Cavalier about rules and health.

STORYWORLD OF “JAKARTA”

I’m unfamiliar with this part of the world and with this milieu in general. By the time I was a young adult it was the height of the AIDs epidemic, which affected the gay community hardest but had wider reaching consequences than that. This story begins much earlier than that, in the 1960s. Most of what I know about this era comes from fiction.

I like the description of Sonje’s beach house, seen via Kent’s point of view as a visitor:

The first thing Kent noticed about the house was that it was chilly. On a bright summer day. But houses in the Pacific Northwest are seldom as warm as they look—-move out of the sun and you feel at once a clammy breath. Fogs and rainy winter cold must have entered this house for a long time almost without opposition. It was a large wooden bungalow, ramshackle though not austere, with its veranda and dormers. There used to be a lot of house like this in West Vancouver, where Kent still lived. But most of them had been sold as teardowns.

The two large connected front rooms were bare, except for an upright piano. The floor was scuffed gray in the middle, darkly waxed at the corners. There was a railing along one wall and opposite that a dusty mirror in which he saw two lean white-haired figures pass.

The house, of course, is an extension of its inhabitant. We see the house from Kent’s point of view and we also see Sonje from Kent’s point of view. See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?

THE FALSE FREEDOM OF THE SWINGING SIXTIES

If we consider this story from Sonje’s point of view, Sonje has been yoked to her controlling husband her entire life, even after his death. This is ironic, since she was a participant in the swinging sixties era.

I recall the book Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein, and the work of Shere Hite, and I wonder how many of the women from that era were truly as liberated as they felt themselves to be. Munro alludes to performative sex — Sonje derived secondary pleasure from her husband’s primary pleasure. We are told she has no sexual release. Cottar tells her this is because there is something wrong with her. She agrees there is something wrong with her, without allowing herself the freedom to accept that she may be naturally monogamous. At the beach party, two women dance together. They dance for as long as they can before men come between them, separating them, choosing which woman they want for themselves.

I tell my students that party scenes are really important in fiction because a party scene can go in any direction. Sex scenes can be similar. You’re putting characters together—what happens as a result?

Carmen Maria Machado

Alice Munro’s assessment of this environment is clear: ‘Sexual liberation’ was better for men overall, disregarding individual cases of genuine freedom. This was a very necessary period, and modern feminism could not have happened without it. But how free were women, really, when a woman couldn’t go to the bank and get a loan in her own name?

The flipside to the destigmatisation of sex for women has been a sense of patriarchal entitlement to sex with women.

Van Badham

THE 1990s

The later part of this story is set in the 1990s. Betsy at the Mookse and Gripes blog has this to say about a particular historical moment of the 90s:

Anita Hill had been mercilessly grilled by United States Senators during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hill argued that Thomas had subjected her to solicitation while she was his law clerk, and asserted that when she rebuffed him he switched to humiliation. Thomas’s Republican supporters in the Senate attacked Hill’s common sense, suggesting that she had made it all up, or that it was she herself who had had designs on the judge. Ironically, after Thomas won and was confirmed, sexual harassment in the workplace became a live wire. Could Munro have been affected by this debate? Perhaps. One other historical note is that Eve Enssler’s Vagina Monologues was first performed in 1996.

Below is a description of this era from a Gen-X American who remembers it:

The Anita Hill hearing was my first encounter with overt feminism. I was 21. I listened as she testified and was vilified by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee and the media. America didn’t believe her. In a 1991 New York Times article, one woman explains why she doubts Anita Hill: “She might have thought some of this stuff up in her head. Women have a tendency to do that sometimes.” Others brushed her off as an embarrassing spectacle. So what if her boss talked to her about porn, bestiality, and pubic hairs. Relax, Anita. Don’t be so uptight. You know you want it.

I was working as a receptionist. A mid-level manager made a habit of bringing his wife’s underwear to work and showing them to me. He carried them in his suit pocket. He’d linger at my desk describing that morning’s copulation. I’d respond in ways the ’80s taught me: Laugh and roll your eyes or make a maternal tsk-tsk face.

Besides, Anita Hill lost. Clarence Thomas was confirmed. The lesson? All you uptight bitches need to take a chill pill. Men like to have a little fun. No harm in that, is there? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Anastasia Basil

Intertextuality is significant in this short story — Alice Munro sometimes tells us what her characters are reading. As a Katherine Mansfield fan, I see the immediate influence of two women sitting together on the beach a la At The Bay, and I also detect an erotic or at least a romantic charge between them.

It’s possible that this particular author (Katherine Mansfield) had a terrific influence on Munro, even though society in general ignored her in favour of guys like Lawrence. “At the Bay” had appeared in Mansfield’s 1922 book The Garden Party. It’s very important that Munro doesn’t mention the author’s name at all, as she thus makes us complicit in the general dismissal of women writers.

In their passing discussion of “At the Bay”, it occurs to Kath that Mansfield’s Stanley Burnell (a husband) reminds her of her own husband. Kath thinks: “[Stanley] is such a boy, with his pushy love, his greed at the table, his self-satisfaction.”

Betsy at the Mookse and Gripes blog

WHAT HAPPENS IN “JAKARTA”

Section 1

Two woman friends, Sonje and Kath, are together on a beach. One of them has a baby. They are invited to join a group of slightly older women with slightly older children but they are repelled by the spectacle of overt motherhood. So after joining them once they hide behind some logs and read. Sonje reads what her husband tells her to read; Kath reads more literary work. Sonje borrows this when she can, but limits herself to one story a day. They are reading Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, which suggests to me that they are attracted to an alternative, bohemian life. This would also explain why the spectacle of motherhood repels them.

Section 2

The viewpoint character is a man called Kent. We learn immediately that he is on his way to see Cottar and Sonje somewhere in Oregon. Kent’s partner is Deborah. They are on a road trip visiting family and friends, on their way back home to Toronto. It is Deborah rather than Kent who would like to stop in and see Sonje.

Munro is sure to tell us that they are all old — much time has elapsed since the earlier scene on the beach.

They approach the beach described in section one. There is now play equipment, ‘swollen out of scale’. Approaching Sonje’s house, Kent makes ‘the usual mistake’ of forgetting how much time has gone by. He wonders why Cottar’s mother is trimming the hedge when she’s blind, then realises he’s looking at Sonje — much older than last time he saw her.

In turn, Sonje mistakes Kent’s partner for Kent’s daughter. Deborah is a year younger than Kent’s daughter Noelle.

Kent observes Sonje’s house, which is just as old as she is. Kent remembers the past, to when they were all about 30 years old — he remembers himself, Kath, Sonje and Cottar in the same room with some other older hipster couple.

It isn’t revealed until section that the combative gathering called by Kent was the first time Sonje met Kent.

Section 3

A flashback to a time when Cottar was headed off overseas as a journalist and Sonje was headed down to Oregon to stay with Cottar’s mother. This section is written from the viewpoint of the absent Kath, which is interesting.

There’s a lot of flower power nudity and chemistry.

A woman called Amy transforms Kath’s face with makeup. Kath is dirty dancing with a man when her husband turns up. Kath doesn’t know which way Kent came in, so doesn’t know if she saw it. Kent is cagey. Kath washes off the makeup in the bathroom.

Section 4

Back in the present, Sonje tells Kent that she doesn’t believe Cottar is really dead. Sonje tells Kent that now her mother-in-law has died she’s going to try and track Cottar down. Kent thinks she’s got a screw loose. But apparently Kent’s mother had the same idea, shared on her death bed. (This could be a folie a deux situation, in which two deluded people egg each other on.)

Cottar hopes Sonje will talk more about Kath. Although Cottar hears about his first wife from their daughter, he wants Sonje to pass on how healthy he looks. But Sonje is a bit obsessed with this conspiracy theory of hers.

Outside the wind rises, matching Kent’s internal state. He’s had his pill, he’s feeling distraught listening to the theory that Cottar might still be alive. Kent also draws a parallel between Sonje’s wish to see Cottar (precisely because he’s meant to be dead) and Cottar’s never seeing Kath (precisely because he could drive to her front door if he wanted to). In both cases, their former spouses are strangers to them.

The story ends with Kent imagining himself staying here with Sonje, listening to her talk about Jakarta.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “JAKARTA”

Kent is the main character — it is Kent who has the Anagnorisis at the end.

SHORTCOMING

Kent is old, his health is failing, and he’s on a road trip to visit people from his past. But he is disappointed at each visit, he tells us, because nobody gives him what he needs.

DESIRE

What Kent wants is left for the reader to work out.

My theory is that Kent wants to feel young. He is still concerned about looking young and healthy to his first wife, who he hasn’t seen in years (and probably won’t see). He has a younger wife. But Alice Munro keeps reminding the reader that he is not young at all. He is reliant upon pills to keep healthy and his younger wife does the driving. This is perhaps his last big trip.

By the time they pass by Sonje’s house, Kent isn’t too keen on going in to visit her. It’s the new wife who suggests it. At first I’m thinking, that’s often the case — it’s often the female half of a partnership pushing for the maintenance of social bonds. But by the end of the story it’s clear that Kent expects to be disappointed by Sonje, because a pattern of disappointment has already been established on this tour.

OPPONENT

Since Sonje is looking so old, and since Kent and Sonje are contemporaries, Sonje stands in the way of Kent feeling young. It’s also possible she’s losing her marbles. This makes Sonje Kent’s opponent.

PLAN

At the start of Kent’s trip, the plan was to visit old friends and family in the hope of reminiscing about the good times and rekindling the feelings of youth.

BIG STRUGGLE

When Sonje tells Kent her theory, Kent thinks she’s off her rocker. He feels ill. Ostensibly this is because he’s due for his pill, but this is surely the feeling of death.

ANAGNORISIS

Kent realises several things at Sonje’s:

  • No one from his past can successfully help him feel youthful again, because age cannot be escaped that easily.
  • At this stage in life the dramas seem lesser, but also less interesting. Everything is starting to feel predictable. (Under the surface, this ‘predictability’ is surely Kent’s acceptance of impending death — the most predictable life event of the lot.)
  • Although Kath is still alive, he hasn’t seen his first wife in so long that she might as well be dead to him. This revelation comes via Sonje’s inverse experience of having lost a husband but believing him still alive.
  • Significantly, Kent’s much younger wife Deborah isn’t with them at Sonje’s house. She takes off to a healthfood store — the heterotopia people cling to when trying and persuade themselves that death can be staved off. Sonje’s youthful presence may otherwise stand in the way of Kent finally accepting that his own death is imminent.

NEW SITUATION

When Kent wonders what it would be like to just stay at Sonje’s, listening to her crazy theories, I believe he is imagining what it would feel like to die here, an old person in an old ‘teardown’ house, alongside an equally old woman off her rocker.

This is a story in which the character goes from a place of slavery (a conservative life in a hippie era) to freedom (a big road trip with a much younger wife) back to slavery (acceptance of death).

Cover photo by averie woodard

Passages, Hallways and Corridors

Herbert Thomas Dicksee - Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

When storytellers focus on the hallways and passages of a building, look for metaphor. Take note of the width of the passageway: Narrow passages might represent the will to escape. Broad passages represent freedom and space.

The tunnel is the naturally occurring equivalent of the manmade passage. In houses, the passages, hallways and corridors are the liminal arenas, because they symbolise ‘inbetweenness’.

I love scenes set in hallways myself. In Midnight Feast, the hallway is a transitory space between reality and the freedom of imagination, functioning similarly to a fantasy portal.

the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.

CASE STUDY: HOUSE AS CONTROLLING MATRIARCH

The house described by Dawn French in her 2015 novel According To Yes is one of those huge, very old New York apartments that only the wealthy can afford. The main character is a ‘blithe spirit’ archetype similar to Mary Poppins who indeed arrives in New York from Wales as a nanny. She is a fish out of water. The house belongs to a stiff, upper-class, domineering woman and her ‘henpecked’ husband.

This corridor wasn’t intended to be dark, requiring internal lighting at all times. It’s the kind of space that is supposed to have light thrown into it by the leaving open of various doors all the way along. That doesn’t happen in this apartment under the rule of Glenn Wilder-Bingham. No. All doors remain neatly shut, and all the corridors off the main hallway, of which there are four, remain gloomily dark. It’s not that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is a vampire, it’s that she is a consummate control freak. If she could she would control all the light and doors in the world. As it is, she has to satisfy herself with the light and doors in this vast apartment only. Until she takes over the world, this will have to suffice.

Dawn French, According To Yes

In this example, the house functions metaphorically as an architectural version of the matriarch — formidable, dark and unwelcoming. (This same metaphor — house as formidable matriarch — is used and abused in the children’s film Monster House.)

By saying that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is not a vampire, the narrator encourages the reader to think of her of exactly that (the technique of paralepsis). Vampires lead us to bats. The hallway in this house, therefore, functions as an urban cave.

CASE STUDY: WALLS AS PASSAGEWAYS

If you’ve ever had a rodent infestation you’ll know that rats and mice love ceilings and walls. The Rats In The Walls by Lovecraft makes the most of what was surely a familiar night-time sound before the invention of Rough On Rats (and subsequent safer poisons).

Neil Gaiman was perhaps thinking of that famous Lovecraftian short story when he conceived of The Wolves In The Walls, in which a child’s fear manifests in… well… it’s all in the title.

I wonder how common it is to imagine monsters in the walls of one’s house. Is it as common as Monsters Under The Bed? The particular horror of something residing in the walls is that it’s right there but you can’t see it. Once something is in the walls, it might as well be in the house.

WHY ARE HALLWAYS CALLED HALLWAYS?

The paintings below of upper class houses go some way towards describing how a ‘hallway’ comes from the ‘hall’, which is a very large room with multiple uses.

In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski describes eighteenth century English bourgeois life, when people spent most of their time at home — a private place where one did not simply call in to the house of another — it was the done thing to leave a calling card and wait for a reply. (I believe we’ve since returned to the era of the ‘calling card’, at least here in Australia, where you don’t simply knock on the door — you send an SMS to say you might pop round.)

An invitation having been received and properly accepted, the first room which greeted a visitor to the house was the hall. Although aristocratic homes were often organized around a medieval-style centrally located hall, the hall of a middle-class house was a room adjacent to the entrance, located so that doors led from it to the main common rooms. Since it contained the main staircase, it was a large room, and, in keeping with its medieval ancestry, one that often contained coats of arms and suits of armor. Although it was no longer the main gathering room, it did serve an important function as a setting for the ceremonial arrival and departure of guests on formal occasions. Here visitors arrived, under the frosty gaze of a family retainer, to gain admittance to the house. This was the room where carolers were invited in to sing at Christmas, and where the servants gathered to be addressed by the master on important occasions.

Witold Rybczynski
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 - 1969)
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 – 1969)
Frank L. Emanuel Kensington Interior 1912
Kensington Interior 1912 Frank L. Emanuel 1865-1948
From 'Mr. Wigg's Birthday Party. A story from Mary Poppins', a Little Golden Book 1952,  illustrated by Gertrude Elliott. Based on Laughing  Gas1934
From ‘Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party. A story from Mary Poppins’, a Little Golden Book 1952, illustrated by Gertrude Elliott. Based on Laughing Gas1934

Especially where stairs open into hallways and corridors, these spaces are regularly considered a place where secret converations happen. This is no doubt to do with the practical realities of landline telephones of yesteryear, where the most convenient place to anchor a phone to the wall was next to the stairs. The stairs therefore become a natural sitting place to talk for hours. It’s also possible to eavesdrop from above the landing. The hallway with stairs therefore becomes associated with eavesdropping. And because the word ‘eavesdropping’ includes the word ‘eaves’, it’s clear that the stairwell association with overheard conversation replaced an earlier trope of the spy character standing under eaves, from the other side of a wall. The ‘eaves’-dropping trope clearly dates from an era when houses were much smaller.

John Gannam (Lebanon – America, 1905-1965) – Teenager Sitting On Stairs

SEE ALSO

Header painting: Herbert Thomas Dicksee – Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

The Three Types of Symbolism

birds flying in the sky purple clouds

Ah, symbolism. A key to understanding texts. Also immensely irritating, and an excellent way to alienate keen readers from the close reading of texts.

I’ve learned to appreciate a good symbol, but it wasn’t always thus. Pretty sure I snorted in recognition when the following meme was first doing the rounds:

what-the-author-meant-what-your-english-teacher-thinks-the-author-meant

I also really despise this meme. “What the author meant” is not an interesting question. Any English teacher worth their salt isn’t going to ask anyone that question. You get what you get out of a text, you back it up with examples, you connect it to your own experience of life.

But what the author meant? Uninteresting and irrelevant. Any story is a collaboration between a storyteller and their audience. A good storyteller will expect intelligence. They will expect an audience to contribute their own meaning.

A good storyteller will likely make use of universal symbols, and perhaps create their own temporary symbols, to be used across the story at hand. These ‘temporary symbols’ are known as motifs. In that post I talk about different types of motifs. Motifs are a subcategory of symbol.

But it’s worth breaking down the different types of symbol as well. I like Erich Fromm’s categorisation. I don’t know if this is Fromm’s own terminology or if it originally comes from elsewhere, but he uses these three categories of symbol it in his book The Forgotten Language.

ERICH FROMM’S THREE TYPES OF SYMBOL

The Conventional Symbol

The best known of the three.

The word ‘table’ stands for a piece of furniture with four legs and a flat top. There is no inherent relationship between the object and the word ‘table’. (Or between the signifier and the signified, in the language of semiotics.) English speakers simply agree, by convention, that the word ‘table’ refers to that particular piece of furniture.

In short, the thing table has nothing to do with the sound ‘table’. Apart from onomatopoeia and mimesis, human language works via conventional symbols.

Pictures can also be conventional symbols e.g. flags. Flags do have a story behind them, but their design is ultimately a convention, especially since most people don’t know the stories behind flags of countries (unless it’s our own).

The Accidental Symbol

This is the opposite of a conventional symbol in that it is based on individual experience, but again there is no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolises.

If someone has a horrible experience in a certain place they will learn to connect the name of the place with negative emotions. A word from psychology has in recent years hit mainstream in relation to the language of trauma — accidental symbols which provoke a strong negative memory are known as triggers.

In contrast to the conventional symbol, the accidental symbol cannot be shared by anyone else except as we relate the events connected with the symbol. For this reason accidental symbols are rarely used in myths, fairy tales, or works of art written in symbolic language because they are not communicable unless the writer adds a lengthy comment to each symbol they use. In dreams, however, accidental symbols are frequent.

Erich Fromm

The Universal Symbol

In a universal symbol there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it represents. The universal symbol is probably what your English teacher is talking about when close reading a text. 

Universal symbols, as the label suggests, are understood across time and culture. This is because universal symbols link the external world to the internal, sensory one. Emotions and sensory experiences endure. Stories heavy in universal symbolism also endure.

Fromm offers ‘the outskirts of a city’ as an example of a universal symbol. No matter where you grew up, if you find yourself alone on the outskirts of a city, the emotions you experience are probably the following: desertion, strangeness, the mood of lostness and anxiety.

Fromm also offers the example of fire a symbol of power, energy, grace and lightness, but also of the related sensory experience.

These days I love a good universal symbol myself. As evidence I offer:

Regarding Fromm’s categorisation, I have reservations about categories in general because many things exist along spectrums. But it’s still a useful starting point.

PROBLEMS WITH ANALYSING SYMBOLISM IN ENGLISH CLASS

As Erich Fromm says:

A symbol is often defined as “something that stands for something else.” This definition seems rather disappointing.

If we leave our definition at that, we won’t be saying anything insightful.

Instead, let’s go one step further:

It becomes more interesting, however, if we concern ourselves with those symbols which are sensory expressions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, standing for a “something else” which is an inner experience, a feeling or thought. A symbol of this kind is something outside ourselves; that which it symbolizes is something inside ourselves. … The world outside is a symbol of the world inside, a symbol for our souls and our minds.

In the ‘blue curtains’ meme above, the hypothetical English teacher is clearly talking about the concept of the universal symbol and how it applies to the inner, human experience.

But when taken completely out of context, the ‘blue’ may instead be what James Wood calls ‘off-duty detail’.

We shouldn’t mistake off-duty detail for universal symbolism. Nor should we dismiss the concept of symbolism outright. It’s not woo-woo. It’s not idiosyncratic. Your English teacher isn’t making this stuff up as they go along. These symbols are as old as storytelling itself, and as universal as the formulas of trigonometry.

SEE ALSO

Header photo by Aryan Singh

Body Swap Stories

Your Name movie poster

Body swap stories are high concept stories, and their popularity endures. Freaky Friday, for example, started in 1976. We keep seeing new versions.

The mother-daughter body swap is relatively ‘safe’ and the moral lesson is clear: When we literally put ourselves in cross-generational shoes, we understand the other’s point of view.

However, when the body swap is cross gender, pitfalls soon reveal themselves. Likewise, as I am finding out, middle grade human-to-pet body swap narratives are also likely to convey problematic gender ideologies.

FREAKY FRIDAY AND ME

When I was ten years old I was a massive writer of fan fiction, though it wasn’t called that then. I rarely finished any story but I was struck by one idea after another. The joy was in the writing, not in the finished product. Sometimes I’d simply write book blurbs with no intention of going any further. One day my teacher found me reading (which was fine — he ran the classroom according to Montessori philosophy), and picked up the little note I’d written to myself. I was using it as a bookmark. The note was mostly written to try out the new green, felt-tipped calligraphy marker I’d gotten for my birthday but I’d written something like: “Write a story about a girl who swaps bodies with her mother.”

“Hmm,” said my teacher, who had read this note despite me wanting to snatch it right back out of his hands. “Have you seen the film Freaky Friday?”

I had not. I told him I had not. This was the late 80s, a long time after the first adaptation (1976) and even longer before the next (1995, 2003). He looked at me suspiciously though, and I felt terrible, as if he had caught me plagiarising someone else’s idea. Perhaps all those times he’d praised my original writing were based on a lie, in his mind.

There’s nothing wrong with letting 10 year olds write fan fiction anyway, imo. Let 10 year olds write whatever they want, even if it’s derivative and unoriginal. The job of a 10-year-old is to revel in the joy of reading and writing.

I think of that shameful interaction each time I come across another body swap story, because they’re so common, no one can really be said to be plagiarising anyone else. The body swap story can be good for conveying all sorts of ‘walk-in-another-person’s-shoes’ didacticism in the most literal of plot lines, so no wonder.

Was Freaky Friday the first major story to do the body swap plot? No — take for example P.G. Wodehouse who wrote a book called Laughing Gas, published 1936.  Characters Reggie and Joey inhale laughing gas at a dentist’s office.

Wodehouse may have been inspired by the 1928 story The Master Mind of Mars by  Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring the plot line of brain transplants. At that point in history researchers were experimenting with  organ transplantation — and had been doing so, both on animals and humans, in the 18th century. (The first successful transplants didn’t happen until the 1950s.)

Although Freaky Friday was not the first popular story to introduce this plot line but is almost certainly the best known to modern culture because of the film adaptations. The original novel was by Mary Rodgers, published 1972. Rodgers also wrote Freaky Monday and Summer Switch. Due to the success of Rodgers’ first body swap novel, at  TV Tropes the body swap plot line is known as the “Freaky Friday Flip”.

A number of the hugely popular series writers for children have utilised the Freaky Friday flip at some point:

  • The Barking Ghost, Switched and Why I’m Afraid Of Bees by R.L. Stine
  • Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Parts 1 and 2 by Dav Pilkey
  • Airhead by Meg Cabot, of Princess Diaries fame
  • Freaked Out, a Lizzie McGuire story by Alice Alfonsi
  • etc

Features Of The Freaky Friday Flip

From TV Tropes:

  • Typically, the main character achieves a deeper appreciation for the other person’s life.
  • The Flip often involves characters of different ages, genders, races, or social classes.
  • Another variation is a protagonist and antagonist switching, which usually involves each trying to undermine the other’s organisation while simultaneously trying to switch back. (See Barking Mad, below.)
  • The switch may lead to a Heel–Face Turn. That’s when the villain turns good. An inverse Breaking Bad character arc.
  • If one or both of the characters have superpowers or other special abilities, they’ll have a lot of trouble figuring their new powers out.
  • In the more traditional applications of the trope, the reason for the switch is never explained in-universe. However, the Doylist (real-life, not ‘in-universe’) reason for any application is often to force the age-old moral: To better understand others, you must experience life in their shoes.

Below I take a look at some recent body swap stories, specifically how they excel versus some more problematic tropes.

Barking Mad by Tom E. Moffatt (2015)

In 1997 Scholastic published a few body swap stories for middle grade readers by Todd Strasser and one of those is called Help! I’m Trapped In My Sister’s Body!

Barking Mad is a New Zealand publication by Tom Moffatt, and winner of The Tom Fitzgibbon Award. This story is a body swap story, human swapping with dog.

I never read Strasser’s book in the 1990s but a Goodreads review confirms that I’m right to expect a fraught relationship between brother and sister. I am able to extrapolate the moral lesson as well, because it’s standard in body-swap stories for our main character to ‘find someone’s strengths and use them for good’:

Everything is going well for Jake and his pen pal, until he realizes she is coming to visit. Now he must switch bodies with his big sister, Jessica, who does not like him at all, so that he can cover up a lie that he told his pen pal. Learn what the lie is, how they covered it up, and how the siblings worked together, ending with them actually getting along. This book is a great way to encourage teamwork and finding people’s strengths and using them for good.

Goodreads review

Presumably the main character of Strasser’s story continues to do good even after being returned to his own body.

Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying for my dog-loving middle-grade daughter.

Come Back Gizmo by Paul Jennings (1996)

Barking Mad is basically a 2015 retelling of a hi-lo short novel by Paul Jennings, written almost 20 years earlier.

Come Back Gizmo is one long humiliation gag. And for true humiliation, a (cishet) boy needs a female romantic opponent. The (literal) girl next door is a highly unsympathetic archetype. Jennings uses this exact description in any story with a sexually attractive girl. She is always a white girl and she always looks like this:

Oh, just look at her. Golden hair. Blue eyes. White, white teeth.

Jennings describes Samantha’s cat, though he is also describing Samantha herself, because he has demonstrated in other stories that girls are in one of two categories: classy and cheap:

Samantha is carrying her cat, Doddles. It’s one of those expensive ones with green eyes. It is a classy cat. There is nothing cheap about it.

The reader is given no reason to like this girl, and we don’t know why the boy likes her either. The truth is, he doesn’t like her at all. He is annoyingly drawn towards her because… hormones. And because boys are not encouraged (in fiction as in real life) to see pretty girls as people.

The situation of a boy hopelessly attracted to a girl he wouldn’t otherwise like as a friend draws upon a universal feeling of youthful attraction… perhaps. This might explain the popularity of the trope, in which a boy keeps making a buffoon of himself, especially in front of the girl he likes. (In a warped version of gender equality, there are stories now where girls are also the buffoons in front of hot boys.)

But there’s another side to this trope, as used in this story, which presents another ‘universal truth’: That women (and girls) are manipulative liars.

  • Jimmy assumes (as a universal truth) that Samantha would be interested in him because he ‘doesn’t have a dollar to his name’. The universal truth as presented: Girls like boys who have money. Girls are gold-diggers.
  • Samantha forges a bargain with Jimmy in exchange for a kiss. The implies a universal ‘truth’ that girls fully understand their own sexual appeal, and will manipulate hapless boys into doing exactly what they want. A secondary universal ‘truth’ is that girls are the natural gatekeepers of sex.
  • Later, Samantha lies to the ‘little man’ from the SPCA when she insists she had nothing to do with locking the dog in the boot. Implied universal truth: That girls are liars. We might code this as ‘Samantha, this particular character, is a liar’, except this plot point follows on the back of Samantha as sexually manipulative, and the attributes go hand-in-hand. Also, the trope of the manipulative, self-centred, beautiful, sexually alluring and wholly unlikeable girl is a trope we see time and again throughout history.

The most disappointing aspect of Paul Jennings’ body swap dog story: It didn’t even need the romantic subplot bookending each end. The girl exists in the story purely to heighten the humiliation aspect of Jimmy running around naked, scratching fleas, cocking a leg on lampposts.

In response to this argument I’ve heard ‘both sides’ rebuttals: Sure, the girl is a manipulative liar, but the boy really is made to look stupid in this. Surely that’s not sexist now? I mean, the girl AND the boy are presented in a bad light. In fact, if anything, it’s reverse sexism!

That’s how the argument goes. But it doesn’t hold water, because

  1. If you flipped the genders the gag in this story wouldn’t work (ie. it would just be weird and uncomfortable, seeing a girl run around naked in front of the entire neighbourhood)
  2. For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
  3. Therefore a girl’s naked body cannot be funny; her body is always viewed through a sexual lens. Only boys have the privilege of running around naked without being viewed via a sexual gaze.

And I suppose this is why we don’t get many body swap stories in which girls swap bodies with their dogs. Girls sometimes get werewolf stories instead, which is etymologically interesting: ‘Were’ means ‘man’. The female ‘werewolf’ is a very recent development in storytelling. The etymologically correct term for a female werewolf would be wifwolf, but that means ‘wife wolf’. It’s not exactly liberating to be described only in relation to a man, especially since the entire genre of werewolf stories are about ‘breaking free of constraints’, which explains why werewolf is now coded as a gender free term.

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap was a 1980s American TV show. In each episode, main character Sam Beckett finds himself in someone else’s body. He is there to solve a crisis in their lives. This is a surprisingly earnest show, and oftentimes Sam dresses as a woman without playing it for laughs. Despite regular lighthearted moments, nothing about the tone of an episode suggests we should laugh at Sam when he dresses his masculine actor’s body in a woman’s one-piece bathing costume, for instance.

Despite the earnestness, Quantum Leap again exemplifies why it is nigh on impossible to write a gender-swap body swap story without relying on sexist stereotypes. In the clip below, the male chauvinist boss who comes onto his much younger secretary gets his comeuppance. On the surface, this is a send up of what we now call toxic masculinity.

But when proving to this guy that he’s ‘really’ a man, Sam ‘proves’ it by offering to demonstrate how he can throw a baseball. This doesn’t work as ‘proof’ unless the audience believes girls can’t throw baseballs.

Your Name (2016)

Gender Stereotyping

Your Name avoids much of the ickiness of a brother-sister body swap that we saw in Barking Mad. (Insofar as the characters know) they don’t know each other. Writers nevertheless rely on some stereotyped ideas about how boys and girls are different:

  • When transplanted into the girl’s body, the teenage boy develops a bit of an obsession with feeling her boobs. (Stereotype: Boys are obsessed with sex and will take any opportunity to be sexual with a girl.)
  • When transplanted into the boy’s body, the teenage girl is absolutely terrified at the thought of dealing with someone’s penis. (Stereotype: Girls are terrified of the penis/sex with boys. At least, sympathetic girls are. Bad girls are driven by it.)

I occasionally agree with Germaine Greer, and I agree when she writes:

The truth is … that female fearfulness [of the penis] is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The myth of female victimhood is emphasized in order to keep women under control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home. The myth of female victimhood keeps women ‘off the streets’ and at home, in the place of most danger.

The atmosphere of threat that women feel surrounded by is mostly fraudulent. The sight of a man exposing his genitals causes fear; the man who exposes ‘himself’ is almost always rewarded by the sight of submissive behaviour as women passing by avert their eyes and hasten their steps. Submissive behaviour may be what such a man can exact by no other means. In the case of flashing, the proper response would seem to be hilarity and ridicule, to deny the flasher his kick. A middle-aged woman used to enjoy trotting around Cambridgeshire villages naked under an army great-coat. ‘What do you think of that then?’ she would say to surprised shoppers, as she held the coat open. ‘Very nice, dear,’ they would say. In [some] law women are deemed incapable of indecent exposure. A woman’s body signifies nothing; a man’s body, or rather the attachment to a man’s body, signifies power over life and death.

To complain to police is to reinforce the flasher’s belief in his penis’s magical power to amaze and appal. In truth the man standing with his pants down is extremely vulnerable, not least through the thin-skinned genitalia themselves.

The Whole Woman
The Anime Advantage

Anime is a particularly good medium for the body swap trope because of the following advantage:

When this plot is done in animation, usually the voices also switch as narrative cheat to help younger viewers keep track of who’s who.

TV Tropes

Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.

It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.

Beyond The Multiplex

A RELATED STORYTELLING TRICK

Sometimes, there is no supernatural/fantasy body-swapping that takes place but rather a psychological one.

This technique can be seen in the following short stories:

  • Who’s-Dead McCarthy” — the narrator starts to become obsessed with death after lampooning an old man for being obsessed with same.
  • Sucker” by Carson McCullers — a teenage boy is rejected by a girl and in retaliation, rejects his younger cousin. This upends the psychologies of the characters completely.

RELATED TROPES

A similar idea, with less learning and more evil, is Grand Theft Me.

  • Personality Swap — the characters’ personalities are swapped but their minds stay where they are meant to be. It will often involve similar tropes to transformation stories (such as Gender Bender) as this is essentially two of these in one, with the addition of confusion resulting from the transformations being into other known characters.
  • Body Swap Stories, a Wikipedia list
  • Freaky Friday Body Switching Stories, a Goodreads list

SEE ALSO

Gender Inversion as Gags in Children’s Literature