My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro

“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.

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The Haunted Dolls’ House by M.R. James

“The Haunted Dolls’ House” (1923) is a short ghost story by Montague Rhodes James. Being out of copyright, you can read it at Project Gutenberg.

The reader does not attempt the varied English accents clearly conveyed by the syntax chosen by James but is otherwise good to read along to.
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Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day

‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, functioning mainly as a character study.

Chris Lilley’s hipster-ironic comedy techniques have been criticised for enforcing stereotypes rather than critiquing them. That said, Mansfield’s Mr Reginald Peacock reminds me very much of Chris Lilley’s high school drama teacher, and I consider Mr G. the modern Australian equivalent of this very old archetype: The youngish white man who considers himself sensitive, unappreciated, entitled and artistic, solipsistically the star of his own show, and wholly unable to empathise with others.

Mansfield’s Reginald Peacock has a clearly symbolic name, and so do other characters in this short story.

This post will be sprinkled with peacock art, because peacocks were once very fashionable in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Mansfield would have been surrounded by peacocks in fashion and in art. The peacock is still widely understood as a symbol of vanity, which is pretty unfair to peacocks, who are born with their magnificent plumage, and who don’t get to mate unless they strut and rattle their trains.

by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 - 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919 peacock
by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 – 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MR REGINALD PEACOCK’S DAY”

SHORTCOMING

As a rule of thumb, readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the viewpoint character but I doubt I speak for myself when I say that Reginald Peacock is less empathetic than his wife from the get go, whose point of view we don’t see at all. Reginald is clearly an unreliable narrator. He imagines his wife wakes him up deliberately, but only because the world revolves around Reginald, not because his wife has a full-time ob of her own, and housework really was a fulltime job back in the early 1900s.

Reginald Peacock embodies a number of deadly sins: sloth, vanity, quiet wrath of his own wife. He is clearly envious of the aristocratic acquaintance who asks his children to shake their father’s hand each morning, and comically tries to gain the same respect from his own son by instituting the practice in his own household. He’s basically a comically depicted flaneur. I have a feeling Mansfield was surrounded by flaneurs in her adult lifetime, hanging around with artists and poets. She was also involved in theatre and acting, so I wager she knew a few Reginald Peacocks in real life.

Mansfield has Reginald self-describing himself as a bird, and how his wife clips his wings, which is a bit of an inversion because it’s most commonly women who are described as birds in fiction and art. I almost forgot for a second that peacocks are a bird. Perhaps the peacock is one of the few masculinised birds in fiction, outshadowing the peahens because of their highly decorative plumage. Mansfield didn’t exactly shy away from describing her female characters as birds. I guess Mansfield was equal opportunity on that score. By the way, what do you call the technique of comparing a human to an animal? If it happens the other way round we call it personification, so I’m going for animalification. At one point, Reginald Peacock is also likened to a frog. (He’s doing his daily exercises.) This is interesting because there’s a particular frog-person archetype which is basically the middle-aged equivalent of the younger peacock. (Peacocks are beautiful, like youth; frogs not so much.)

Apart from the seven deadly sins, at first glance Reginald seems prone to coveting, about to breakone of the Christian commandments, first by fantasising about the latest and most beguiling of his female students. The word ‘latest’ is key here, because these women are not fully rounded in Reginald’s mind. So long as they fit his outsourced image of a desirable woman any one of them could easily be exchanged… and oh, they are, as Mansfield demonstrates with one woman after another. Ostensibly this works because Reginald sees a succession of women over the course of his working day. Aenone Fell, Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, Miss Marian Morrow. The job fits him well: constant novelty all day, and the opportunity to perform in front of a revolving audience. None of these women has the time to get utterly sick of him.

Charles-Dufresne-The-Peacock-of-Versailles
Charles Dufresne, The Peacock of Versailles

DESIRE

Reginald wants to be the star of his own show, leading a better life than the one he already has. As happens to the best of us, reality punctures his romanticism. For Reginald, it wouldn’t matter who he married, the day-to-day familiarity of his partner would be the killer. Reginald is all about cultivating and seeking out novelty, constantly drawn to mystery.

Common Peacock, Ringed Pheasant, Horned Pheasant, and Silver Pheasant from A history of the earth and animated nature (1820) by Oliver Goldsmith

OPPONENT

The wife remains mindfully unnamed. She goes without a name because she exists as a function to Reginald, not as a human in her own right.

These days, to go without naming a put-upon wife in a story opens the writer up to challenges of sexism. I prefer to trust readers. There’s a darn good reason why Mansfield hasn’t named the wife, but has fully named Reginald , as well as his younger female ‘love’ interests. It’s evidence of his dismissal of her. But this naming avoidance also universalises the wife.

Gaspar Camps (1874-1942) peacock fashion
Gaspar Camps (1874-1942), woman staring at a peacock feather whill wearing a costume that makes her look like a peacock.

PLAN

In a flashback we learn that the wife has learned to deal with Reginald by immersing herself in the day-to-day running of their household. Reginald earns enough to keep her and their son, and in an era of no social security, this was something.

I think most people have the ability to unsee things if it’s to our detriment. It would be to the wife’s emotional advantage if she were to occasionally play along with Reginald’s games. A number of Mansfield’s short stories end with a female character seeing something (perhaps with the fling of the boot, in this case), then mindfully disregarding it. “Her First Ball” is an excellent example of that. The ‘temporary epiphany’ (more commonly known as ‘phantasmagoric’) is a feature of Impressionist fiction, though contemporary short story writers regularly use it, too. As one example, Helen Simpson utilised the phantasmagoric epiphany in her modern climate change story “In-flight Entertainment“. Climate change is the ultimate ‘look away’ example of our times.

Reginald seems to have some kind of phantasmagoric epiphany in this story though goodness knows what it is. I’m sure it’s only champagne-induced.

We get no insight whatsoever into the psychology of Mrs Reginald Peacock. I am relying heavily on Mansfield’s oeuvre when trying to deduce her motivations.

Reginald himself doesn’t have much of a plan other than to reluctantly be broomed about by his wife, then quietly seeths about her while fantasising about other women. If you can call that a plan.

By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)--'Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.'- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)
By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)–‘Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.’- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)

BIG STRUGGLE

It’s pretty unpleasant being stuck for a (short-story-length) day with this pair, who clearly despise each other. (At least, Reginald despises her.) And we don’t get any big fight scene, either. The scene where Reginald comes home drunk is truncated, or perhaps that’s all that happens before husband and wife drift off to sleep.

1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock
1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock

ANAGNORISIS

In Christianity the peacock is considered a symbol of rebirth, but there’s no such rebirth here. Mansfield clearly isn’t using that particular aspect of peacock symbolism. Reginald starts out lazy, self-absorbed and vain, and ends the same way.

It’s possible that his wife finally had a gutsful of the guy and experienced a self-revelation of her own. But we don’t get to hear her response. (And I don’t imagine that’s how it went down. See below.)

Arthur Wardle - A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895
Arthur Wardle – A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895

NEW SITUATION

However, there’s one small shift that happens at the end, and that wholly resides within me (and I assume in other readers). I see what Reginald’s wife must have initially seen in him, and how she might put up with him still. To be clear, it’s not evident that she does put up with him. This was an era in which a married woman with a child was economically and socially unable to leave her husband. But when Reginald draws her into his own game for a moment, even after scaring her with the clunk of his flung boot, he says, “Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed!” and I’m reminded of the ending of another Mansfield short story, “A Blaze“. At the end of “A Blaze”, husband and wife (Elsa and Victor) come together in what I consider an amae relationship, in which one person loves to be ‘babied’ by the other. Both get a lot of reward from it. (The Japanese concept has far more to it than that.)

If “A Blaze” had been published after “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” I’d have guessed that the marriage dynamic in “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” were a practice story for the more sophisticated but similar relationships in “A Blaze”. In fact, “A Blaze” is the earlier story.

EXTRAPOLATION

The title “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” suggests this is a typical day-in-the-life-of story, not an extraordinary one.

Wouldn’t you like to know how (if) Reginald’s wife responded? I want her to throw his other boot at his head, but I doubt that happened. I suspect this is one of those relationships where it’s fight fight all day, kiss kiss at night.

But I don’t know. My prior reading experience of “A Blaze” is colouring my interpretation of Mr Reginald Peacock’s marriage. Sticking only to this particular story, my best evidence for a peaceful reunion is the darkness. Reginald is clearly a night person, preferring to sleep into the day and partying at night. When he returns home to his wife, he can’t see her through the darkness. Aided by liquor and by the fantasy life he’s been living all evening without her, the darkness itself might provide sufficient mystery for him to pretend his wife is not his wife, but a more mysterious and alluring member of his cast. In turn, she might imagine Reginald is not Reginald.

RESONANCE

Even today, highlighted by the 2020 pandemic, the work traditionally expected of women has less social and economic value attached to it than work traditionally done by men. Today, much of women’s work is also invisibilised. I’ve wondered at times if the housewives of the early 20th century at least had their work considered proper work, even though they weren’t personally recompensed, of course.

Mansfield’s 1917 creation of Mr Reginald Peacock is the painfully comic portrait of a man who sort of does consider the running of a house ‘work’ but sort of actually doesn’t at all. We know this because he encourages his wife to hire someone (while also making it impossible for her to keep anyone). The hiring of help is more about status for himself rather than help for his wife. Reginald’s his cognitive dissonance is right there on the page, because when his wife requires him to get out of bed by late morning, and to let her know if he won’t be in for his evening meal, he clearly disrespects the job she is doing.

This short story shows that in the first half twentieth century, while housework and childcare were indeed considered a fulltime job, the cognitive dissonance of husbands infuriated women, even temporarily married and child free women like Katherine Mansfield: Wifely work was proper work — invaluable! — but not valued.

Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle
Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle peacock

Header illustration: ‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

The Children Stay by Alice Munro

the children stay

“The Children Stay” is a short story by Alice Munro, published in the collection The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). It’s very difficult to write empathetically about women who leave their husbands and children for another man, especially when it’s purely lust driven rather than depicted as ‘pure love’. This is because mothers are held to a higher standard. Alice Munro’s monumental task is to get the reader to understand exactly why a woman might do as Pauline did. This involves getting deep into Pauline’s mind. I think she manages it perfectly.

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Goethe and Angela Carter’s Erl-king

Moritz von Schwind, Illustration to Goethe's Poem "Erlkönig", 1849

“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.

Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.

GOETHE’S ERL-KING

Goethe’s ballad can be found easily online.

Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.

What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”

  • A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
  • The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
  • Suddenly the boy hides his face.
  • The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
  • The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.

Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He grasps the boy in his arm.
He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.

My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?
“Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there?
The Erl-King with his crown and train?”
My son, it’s a streak of mist.

  • But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
  • Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
  • The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
  • Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
  • The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
  • The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
  • The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
  • Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
  • The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
  • But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.

RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING

The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.

[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.

Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman

Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.

Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.

Etching by Anders Zorn, Storm, 1891, The Erl-King. This etching accurately showing the gallop gait, new at the time.

But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.

Erl-king illustration by Jessie Bayes (1878 – 1970) “The Erl Kings Daughter sending faery servants to their several tasks”. Again the daughter is beautiful. (So is the white stag.)

ANGELA CARTER’S RE-VISIONING

Once Angela Carter gets hold of the Erl-King story, she gets rid of the daughters and instead sexually objectifies the Erl-King, handing the gaze to our narrator. (She also inverts the gender of the male gaze with various other tales in her Bloody Chamber collection.)

Angela Carter’s Erl-King is a masterpiece of liminality and spatial horror, a.k.a. disorientation.

PARATEXT OF “THE ERL-KING” BY ANGELA CARTER

Most readers coming to Carter’s short story will be at least somewhat familiar with Goethe’s original, though it stands alone. This is a prospective retelling, though familiarity with Goethe’s ballad illuminates Carter’s feminist take.

I came to Carter’s “Erl-King” expecting she’d do more with the misty, windy environment, but she does much more with the autumn leaves. I thought there’d be a horse but there isn’t. Familiar with many of Carter’s other works, I thought the story might be about the Erl-King’s daughters, but my expectations were wrong.

I own an out-of-print copy of the collected short stories of Angela Carter and I think the image on this 1996 cover might depict “The Erl-King”. The character manifests a 1990s version of femme-androgyny. They are crowned like royalty. There’s a forest in the background, and the character becomes one with the dropped foliage in the foreground. This character is part human, part forest; betwixt female and male; neither real nor unreal (like any fear); both powerful and vulnerably lying back; unmistakably inviting our gaze.

CARTER’S TREATMENT OF TIME

Carter’s re-visioning takes place in a fairytale world, with a forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).

Unlike classic fairytales, Carter does give us some specificity with the time. The story opens with a rainy day in late October. This accounts for the crunchy leaves of Goethe’s ballad, of course. “Withered blackberries withered like their own dour spooks”. Blackberries are paradoxically symbolic, being both delicious and a pest of a plant, covered in thorns. Here they indicate that summer was a forest cornucopia, but now — in another example of liminality — summer is turning into winter. (The in-between seasons have liminal potential.)

The autumnal light is personified (striking the wood ‘with nicotine-stained fingers); winter is subsequently personified (it ‘grips hold of your belly and holds it tight’). The little stream has ‘grown sullen’, the trees make sounds like the taffeta skirts of women lost in the woods, and so on. This is a story in which the setting is a character in its own right. Carter takes this storytelling technique to its extreme, because The Erl-King equals the forest.

But when does this story take place, exactly? It works on ancient, fairytale time, which turns back on itself, repeats with each season (the underlying reason why Carter mentions season), and note that although Carter places us firmly in a particular season, ‘grass grew over the tracks years ago’, which reminds me of the timelessness of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. Clearly, time works differently through the gates of this forest portal: because ‘once you are inside [the wood] you must stay there until it lets you out’. There is no specificity of time in these details.

Also, the story begins in present tense and later switches to past tense, which is another way of making the switch from iterative (kairos) to singulative (chronos). (It’s done a bit differently in most children’s stories.) Kairos is all about the time of antiquity whereas chronos describes modern, linear time. Kairos is sometimes switched out for the phrase ‘mythic time’.

NARRATION

Notice the story opens with second-person narration, unusual outside the genre of pick-a-path adventures. In general, audiences don’t have much patience for lengthy passages of second person narration. Carter doesn’t stick with it for long — just long enough to make us feel as if we are the main characters of our own story. This forest is the subconscious, and every single one of us has one of those — this story is about all of us, and no one in particular.

The second person narration ends at mention of Little Red Riding Hood, which reminds us that this is a fairytale world. “She will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This is the perfect metaphor for the deep, dark subconcious; though the veridical world is nothing like our dreams, our dreams are nonetheless real to us, because we experience them as real while asleep; our fears and desires guide our actions in a very real way.

Little Red Riding Hood turns into a ‘character’ called ‘the interloper’.

Then the unseen character becomes ‘I’ before switching back to ‘you’: ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, but this time the second person address is clearly ‘universal you’, something dished out as eternal advice.

SPATIAL HORROR OF CARTER’S “ERL-KING”

Writers use a variety of tricks to produce discomfort in the reader and no writer I’ve ever seen has a larger toolbox than Angela Carter. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. What’s in her toolbox?

MISE EN ABYME

Carter uses mise en abyme in “Peter and the Wolf”. She uses it here too when describing how the woods ‘enclose and then enclose again’. This mise en abyme effect is repeated in Carter’s description of the stripping of the heroine, who has several layers; first her clothes, then another layer, her ‘last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, peralised satin, like a skinned rabbit’. Then the mise en abyme reverses as the Erl-King dresses her again.

MORPHING PERSPECTIVE

the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveler walking toward an invented distance

There’s something very Escher about that.

VERTIGO

I am not afraid of him; only afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes hem Afraid of falling down.

CLAUSTROPHOBIA

Falling as a bird would fall thorugh the air if the Erl-King tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out.

WHIRLPOOL EFFECT

The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes

THE FOREST SETTING AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD

“The Erl-King” is basically an evocation of setting, but this is no ordinary forest: This is a forest of the imagination, and an allegory for how it feels to be a woman straddling that impossible dichotomy between ‘virgin’ vs ‘whore’. That’s the well-known feminist reading.

LIMINALITY AND GENDER

Carter’s Erl-King transgresses gender lines:

He goes out i the morning to gather his unnatural treasres, he handles them as delicately as he does pigeon’s eggs
He makes salads
He is an excellent housewife.

Carter wrote “The Erl-King” over 40 years ago in the midst of second wave activism. Fast forward to 2020 and I propose the virgin-whore dichotomy has lessened a little for women, at least in some cultures and subcultures. But there are many outworkings of liminality. These days the word ‘intersectionality’ is widely known. ‘Liminal’ in allegory might equal ‘intersectionality’ when applied to social justice activism. Carter’s liminal, feminist, gender expansive “Erl-King” remains relevant as ever.

THE GENDER OF THE NARRATOR

The Erl-King’s gender is not very important to the narrator. Commentators have assumed the narrator is female. For example, Marina Warner calls our narrator-guide ‘the heroine’, because she embodies femme-coded characteristics. This is a fair conclusion because this story is clearly a critique of prison-like matrimony. Doves settle on the Erl-King and those rings around their necks are ‘wedding rings’.

There are other intertextual clues that tell us the narrator is female. The Erl-King keeps other femme-coded characters in cages and captures this narrator. We traditionally associate birds and cages with femme-coded characters, no doubt about that. (And no story stands in isolation from its cultural context, etcetera.)

I suspect Angela Carter was very familiar with the trope of women compared to birds (and also cats). If you spend half a day looking through classic art from Europe it really stands out — young women and girls with birds, birdcages, birds all around them. In literature, women are often compared to birds via metaphor and simile. This is two-fold: A human being with an affinity for birds embodies appropriately gentle feminine attributes. Also, birds are small and vulnerable, much like women-and-children (I mindfully hyphenate that phrase).

But what if the story is more gender expansive than that? If The Erl-King transgresses gender roles, might our narrator be of any gender when re-read in the age of marriage equality?

Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly go back to Ancient Rome, when sexual identity was not contingent upon a person’s attraction to a particular gender/s, but instead on how much ‘control’ people were able to exert over their impulses (sexual, economic and so on).

Our modern focus on gender as a main determinant of our orientation and identity is very new in the history of humankind. (Michel Foucault went deep into this.) But what if we instead divided people into ‘those turned on by satin sheets’ or ‘my orientation is feather boas’ or whatever? What might we call someone turned on by their awe of personified nature? The narrator in this story is clearly aroused by the forest, which they regard as alive, personified throughout the entire story, evinced by Carter’s choice of imagery. Might attraction to ‘the power of nature’ not just as easily function as an orientation in its own right? And if you are part human, part forest, do you even have a gender? Reading this story in 2020 makes me want to throw the boundaries of gender identity and sexual orientation out the window.

STORY STRUCTURE

Although Carter’s “Erl-King” is a lyrical exploration of setting and character (one and the same in this case), does it have a structure to speak of? First requirement: a character shortcoming.

SHORTCOMING

Before looking into any moral or psychological shortcomings we need a main character. This is an example of a story in which a viewpoint character (the narrator) looks on and describes another character in great detail, in which case the very concept of ‘main character’ becomes moot.

Warner describes the narrator’s main shortcoming thusly:

Like Goethe’s poems, Carter angles the terror through the fascinated eyes of the Wellings prey. The heroine is in thrall despite herself to the woodland spirit’s feral, eldritch [sinister or ghostly] charms.

Marina Warner

So let’s call her ‘the heroine’. We might also call her the ‘victim muse’, a Gothic archetype of the Romantic era.

The heroine may be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in which a person falls in love (or in this case, lust) with their captor.

[A]nxiety about sexuality and the imagery of engulfment are also combined in [The Bloody Chamber]. This is particularly visible in “The Erl-King” … In the story, the protagonist dwells on her attraction to a fae figured called the Erl-King. The Erl-King captures women who stray into the woods and transforms them into birds that he keeps in cages. Despite this danger, the protagonist allows him to seduce her.

Alex Rouch at BookRiot

In “The Erl-King”, Angela Carter creates a man who literally transforms a woman into a bird, but this is allegory for how men typically consider women: As both gentle and vulnerable.

Is this heroine both gentle and vulnerable? I argue no, not until The Erl-King turns her into a bird and puts her inside that cage. She is brave. You have to be brave (or stupid, I guess) to enter a creepy forest all the while knowing you might not come out alive. She is also fully in touch with her erotic side, slightly wild. He tames her via the metaphorical equivalent of marriage.

DESIRE

So at the start of the story, the heroine/victim muse is basically horny, driven by a baser instinct. The forest is so overwhelming that she is sexually in awe of it. ‘Nature’ is her orientation. I’m reminded of a scene from Melancholia.

In Melancholia, Justine likewise becomes one with nature in a pagan (witch), primordial, overawed, possibly sexually arousing kind of way: BDSM with the power of nature.

‘Desire’ in Carter’s “Erl-king” is both narrative and sexual. Apart from communing with nature, the narrator doesn’t want anything.

This is because they are written in the Romantic style.

In tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire is less important than mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about creating an active participant, giving them a goal then showing the audience how they go after it, foiled at every turn. Instead, Romantic characters are tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.

Angela Carter retains Romantic characterisation in her re-visioning. Like Goethe’s ballad, we know nothing about what the characters want. We don’t know where the father and son had been, for what purpose. We don’t know what the Erl-King wants with the boy (and it doesn’t bear thinking about). I suspect contemporary audiences of Goethe would not have even asked why the Erl-King wanted the boy; nor would they have asked why Rumpelstiltskin wanted a firstborn in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Babies, especially boy babies, were considered desirable alongside gold. Everyone wants gold and everyone wants a baby. This is assumed fact.

OPPONENT

The heroine knows that the Erl-King (nature) could kill her. She seems to believe in some kind of reincarnation and tells us ‘He could thrust me into the seed-bed of next year’s generation and I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again.’

He wields a magic over her. When he beckons, she comes, both literally and sexually. He beckons her to his cottage in the woods where he vampirically sinks his teeth into her neck, draining the life force out of her.

This illustration by Anton Pieck (1895-1986) is beautiful but depicts Goethe’s Erl-king a normal guy who is a king, omnisciently hovering above alongside his classically beautiful daughters. Yet according to Goethe’s poem they are all hideous.

Angela Carter, as Anton Pieck does his illustration above, does not create an outright hideous Erl-King. Pieck creates a pretty regular old man. If Angela Carter’s Erl-King is hideous, this is because of his chimerical one-ness with leaves and the earth. But chimeras throughout the history of art are often depicted as sexually alluring characters. (Take a look at some of the classic art in this post.)

Carter uses the colour green to connect the Erl-King to the fairy realm — fairies and green are closely associated throughout folklore: ‘Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.’

PLAN

Driven by her awe of nature, the narrator enters the subconscious/forest, follows the Erl-King, enters his cottage and lies on his bed.

To call this a ‘plan’ is a bit of a stretch. Whatever it is, it’s the Romantic equivalent. This narrator is under some kind of influence bigger than themselves. Awe and horniness are both forms of arousal, and it seems a legit theory to me that sometimes they become conflated. I suspect this is what goes on in the minds of pyromaniacs, both awed by their own ability to create catastrophic damage and also sexually aroused by it (accounting for the young male demographic skew), though it’s a point of pride that I will never fully understand the urge to light murderous fires at the peak of an Australian summer.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

All of Carter’s pre-introduced moments of spatial horror culminate at the climax of “The Erl-King” — the description of the Erl-King’s eyes, a blend of claustrophobia, warped perspective and the whirlpool effect.

Illustration and cover design for US Comedian Marc Marons' biography, Attempting Normal. Comissioned by: Random House. Art Director: Alex Merto
Illustration and cover design for US Comedian Marc Marons’ biography, Attempting Normal. Comissioned by: Random House. Art Director: Alex Merto

By comparing his eyes to a mirror, Carter even manages a fresh take on mise en abyme. Note how she plays with warped perspective:

What big eyes you have [RED RIDING HOOD REFERENCE]. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face [MISE EN ABYME, MIRROR]. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped [CLAUSTROPHOBIA] in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic. He winds me into the circle [WHIRLPOOL] of his eye on a reel of birdsong. There is a black hole in the middle of both your eyes; it is there still centre, looking there makes me giddy [DIZZINESS], as if I might fall into it [VERTIGO].

Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you.

Angela Carter

I looked up ‘reducing chamber’ wondering if it were a real world contraption but it appears to be a fantasy technology invented by Carter, perhaps a riff on the decompression chamber utilised by scuba divers. The ‘chamber’ is another type of cage.

Now the reason for all of this spatial horror becomes apparent:

I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty. I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds but I — I shall be dumb, from spite.

Angela Carter

ANAGNORISIS

Welp, the narrator is beholden to him now. Captured by a rush of love hormones, he might as well have locked our narrator in a cage using allure alone, though she entered into this arrangement supposedly of her own volition, knowing her fate full well.

This uneasy combo of choice versus being drawn in reminds me of something said by James Flynn (before he became so controversial) when asked in an interview why young women keep having babies if children so clearly make poor women’s life worse. His response was that procreation is a human impulse, and we should not expect anyone to restrain it in the face of economic logic. Also, for the least privileged women of all, having children is a logical way to live a meaningful life, far more logical a choice than a privileged outsider often assumes.

In Angela Carter’s lifetime, matrimony for women, despite its restrictions, was the safest, most logical way for many women to live their lives. Matrimony itself was an allure as much as a gilded cage.

NEW SITUATION

The narrator secretly plans to kill the Erl-King and tells the reader exactly how she means to do it. It involves cutting off the Erl-King’s hair. But will she? Does she have a hope in hell against this supernatural creature who can shrink people and stuff them into bird cages? Doubt it. If this were ever going to happen, I’d expect Carter would show it. She didn’t exactly shy away.

There is no escape from patriarchy, even if there is escape from matrimony in individual cases.

This is therefore an example of a story which goes from entrapment to brief freedom in the form of ecstasy, back to entrapment. This makes the story a tragedy. We always equate freedom with happiness.

Our narrator will eke out a living imaginatively, ie., by imagining how she might kill her captor.

A related take:

The reflection [in the Erl-King’s eyes at the climax] could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.

MIRRORS, REFLECTIONS IN ANGELA CARTER’S THE BLOODY CHAMBER

The narrator is also comforted by the fact they are not alone. Take for example the cock robin, whose plumage implies it has been stabbed in the heart. (Note how Carter also used the ‘wedding’ ring around the pigeon’s neck — part of its plumage — for symbolic reasons.)

Robins have long been illustrated dead with their legs in the air, as you can see in the collection below.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Surface reading: The narrator is terrified of a sexual encounter with the Erl-King but because they’re under some kind of magic spell, they’re required to go through with it anyway.

A feminist reading: The struggle is between the narrator’s wish for freedom from the patriarchal nature of partnership with a ‘king’ (archetypically identical to ‘father’ in fairytales), and their simultaneous sexual attraction to these king-fathers.

When we consider this story and its place within a real world that still runs by the rules of patriarchy, Carter illuminates the relationship between sex, gender, power and entrapment.

FURTHER READING

People who have come out of emotionally abusive relationships often explain that love for a coercive controller acts as an invisible cage. This story is the perfect allegory for that. An episode of Dear Sugar Radio features an episode called Emotional Abuse, and Steve Almond mentions another short story which also makes an excellent allegory: “Runaway” by Alice Munro.

Header painting: Moritz von Schwind, Illustration to Goethe’s Poem “Erlkönig”, 1849.

The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield

George Dunlop Leslie - Roses

“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.

Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.

Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.

Continue reading “The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield”

A Blaze by Katherine Mansfield

William Lipincott - Love's Ambush

“A Blaze” (1911) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in her German Pension collection. This is a story about a dynamic Japanese people might describe as amae.

Continue reading “A Blaze by Katherine Mansfield”

Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern by Richard Yates

Festival 1934 by Daniel R Celentano

“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern is a short story by Richard Yates, the first in his 1962 collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The story of the new kid in school is very popular in children’s literature, which is of course written for children. But what might a New Kid In School story for adults look like? This is it.

Richard Yates himself was often the new kid in school. His parents divorced when he was three years old. Much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences.

I was also often the new kid in school, because my father worked for the New Zealand post office, and throughout the 1980s small toll exchanges kept being shut down and centralised. So our family had to move from smaller towns to increasingly bigger ones. I went to six primary schools in all. I identify with Vincent in this story because on my first day at the first of my new schools (I was almost six) I decided to put my hand up for news. I was of course selected, and I remember standing there in front of everyone and having no idea what to say. I didn’t even understand the concept of news, a new tradition for me at this new school.

So I made something up. None of the lies I told struck me as wrong, and I enjoyed it very much because the kids all laughed at my stories. Even the teacher laughed.

One day I reported that our neighbour’s chimney had caught fire. The firemen had come to put it out. This was all true, and my classmates listened in awe. But then I said the fireman’s hat fell down the chimney. I felt a little bad when my classmates all seemed to believe this too. Unlike Vincent, my teacher never told me to stop lying. He just laughed along, and I was often picked for news. Every single time, I had no idea what I was going to say until I got up there. Little of it was true. But the following year something must have happened to me developmentally because in my new classroom with a new teacher I would never volunteer for news. This new reticence continued until I was in senior high school when I again found my voice — this time, not lying.

A New Kid In School story written for adults can be more realistic than one written for a child audience. Everything about Richard Yates’ “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” rings emotionally true, including the climactic act, which would not pass the gatekeepers in a story written for kids, but which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in schools. We often say that the girl code is impossibly complex and full of pitfalls, but in this story Richard Yates shows us that the unspoken rules of boys are equally complex and exclusionary.

Another reason why this adult version rings true is because Yates’s omniscient, insightful narrator allows the reader understanding of the teacher’s actions. Miss Price is as rounded as the child main character, Vincent, nicknamed Dr. Jack-o’-Lantern. In contrast, most children’s stories make use of teacher archetypes, with rare examples in young adult literature bringing a teacher in as a rounded main character.

SETTING OF DOCTOR “JACK-O’-LANTERN”

I’m guessing this story is set in 1932, which is when the Dr Jekyll a Mr Hyde movie came out. In this adaptation more than in the 1941 release, the teeth as described by the children in this story are a prominent feature of the main character’s monstrous alter ego.

Richard Yates was born in 1926, which would make this a story set in the time of his own early school days. If Miss Price had been married, she may have been forced out of a teaching job, opening the way for someone ‘who needs it’ ie. a man. Miss Price is quite a forward-looking teacher for the era, probably because of her age. By inviting the students to the front of the class to share their own news she is engaging in what was then known as a Progressive education style, which is less chalk-and-talk teacher-centric. (Also for this reason, the story could be set later. But I don’t think it could be set any earlier.)

The school of “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is somewhere in commuting distance of New York, in the outer boroughs.

If I’m right about the timing of this story, what else was going on in America in the early 1930s? These were the dark days of the Great Depression, which hit America badly. Fourteen million people were unemployed. The world was preparing for another world war, though the children are busy with their own small factions to understand any of what’s happening in the wider world. It is likely that a kid like Vincent has had to move because his adult caregivers have been forced out of work, and have possibly found new work (hence some of his clothing items are new, some are old).

absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest

Vincent Sabella reminds me of Wanda Petronski of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Sabella is a Sicilian last name, and the new kid is speaking in an accent unfamiliar to his classmates, perhaps because he is a recent immigrant, perhaps because he has grown up around recent immigrants, speaking English as a second language. Vincent’s new classmates probably don’t know the scary connection between Italians and the mafia, but they seem to have absorbed some of the xenophobia of their dominant culture.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DOCTOR JACK-O’-LANTERN”

SHORTCOMING

Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952
Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952

Vincent Sabella’s strength is also his shortcoming, and this is partly what makes this short story masterful. He is desperately lonely. We know from the omniscient narration that he comes dangerously close to burying his head in his teacher’s lap. But this is not how the other boys see him at all. His isolation is what makes him a mysterious figure. Vincent will face a dilemma. We can’t call this a moral dilemma, because he is too young to really understand what he is doing and why he is doing it. But the adult reader can see that Vincent can either remain an outcast among his peers by following the code of conduct set down by their teacher, or he can have a shot at being included by his peers by following the code of the playground.

In both Eleanor Estes’s story for children and in Richard Yates’ story for adults, an immigrant child is ostracised by white, middle class children for being a liar (or perceived as one, in the case of Wanda Petrowski). Certain demographics are more likely to be seen as liars. The playground code in this white microcosm of society is complex for the uninitiated: Writing rude words on a wall in chalk: Admirable. Lying to peers: shun-worthy.

We can guess that the rules of Vincent’s New York world are quite different. There, bigging yourself up is probably an expected part of masculinity. It seems to me that Vincent is indulging in a particularly masculine form of storytelling — the tall story — when he tells his ‘lies’ to his peers. The tall story is more popular in some cultures than in others. Here in Australia it is an historically masculine tradition, told to mates in the bush, and the understood code around the tall story is that your narratees know you’re spinning a story. The rule is: believe nothing, lest you open yourself up as gullible. The more ridiculous the story, the more obvious the lie.

Vincent has told a ridiculously improbable story, but has made a huge social faux pas by assuming the kids in his new school would understand he is telling a tall story. He has already seen Nancy ‘lie’ by saying “Well” when she knows she’s not supposed to open that way. The minor untruth in that case is that Nancy never reveals to Miss Price that she knew all along not to say it. But Vincent will take that cue and run with it.

DESIRE

Vincent wants some friends. This connects to his underlying need: To avoid loneliness. Many stories have this exact desire — this part of a story doesn’t need to be sophisticated at all. All New Kid At School stories start from a place of loneliness.

OPPONENT

The children in the class are presented to us via the omniscient narrator as both highly recognisable and not especially empathetic.

The opponent of Miss Price is interesting because this story is an excellent example of a story in which the opponent genuinely wants the best for the main character. Again, the omniscient narration is an excellent choice for this particular story because the reader sees exactly why Miss Price behaves as she does. As adults, we probably put ourselves in her shoes. But because we’ve all been children, we can equally put ourselves in the shoes of the children.

PLAN

Importantly, Yates doesn’t let us inside Vincent’s head in the way we’re allowed inside Miss Price’s head. The story plays out before us, and we are as surprised as anyone else when Vincent’s plans take shape. ‘Plan’ is a loose term to use here because I imagine Vincent doesn’t ‘plan’ things out so much as follows his childlike, desperate instincts. Although we aren’t afforded a glimpse into Vincent’s motivations, Yates has given us enough to work with: We understand exactly why he does what he does.

This illustration was for Life Magazine , January,16, 1919 by William Gratz. Writing on a wall has long been the only avenue of discontent for the powerless, perhaps since caveman times.

BIG STRUGGLE

Vincent has two main opponents, the kids and the teacher, so we see two big struggle scenes, the first with Miss Price, which is ironic because it’s the exact opposite of what Vincent wants. The second big struggle takes place in the conversation with the other boys, in which Vincent lies he’s had the ruler on his knuckles. When Miss Price walks past and is very nice to Vincent, she unwittingly reveals him to be lying yet again. By being so nice, she has ruined Vincent’s shot at social capital.

ANAGNORISIS

Miss Price remains oblivious to what she has just done. We have earlier been told that children are a mystery to her, though I suspect boys are a mystery to her — she probably understands girl culture quite well. This is why Yates has chosen a young female teacher instead of an older, more experienced one. A male teacher may or may not have understood the rules of boyhood better and almost certainly would not have treated Vincent with so much motherly care. The complicated proto-sexual feelings these boys have for their pretty teacher is also important to the ending. Vincent epitomises the adolescent confusion of boys: Their teacher is both motherly and sexually appealing. These feelings together are supremely uncomfortable for them, and Yates shows this beautifully throughout the story by making use of juxtapositions. Finally we face the biggest juxtaposition of all: The loving care with which Vincent draws a lewd image of Miss Price.

NEW SITUATION

Yates can end his story as Vincent draws the image of Miss Price because he has given us enough information to extrapolate that Miss Price will be completely baffled by this act. She has already considered the fact that Vincent is a trouble child and she is out of her depth and will need to bring in outside help. That was for a lesser crime. So we extrapolate that this is now going to happen, and Vincent has unsuccessfully tried to fit in at his new school. The story probably won’t end well for Vincent.

This is where a similar story but written for children must end differently. Any child starting at a new school eventually finds friends and does reasonably well. At the very least, they find the inner strength to get through continuing tough times at school.

But Vincent Sabella has now branded himself as a sexual deviant, and in conservative 1950s America, he is doomed. This is a tragic story because as readers we’ve had our hands held by the narrator, and we know that Vincent does not deserve what’s coming to him.

This is especially true when we consider the longer historical view. Yates wrote this story decades after it is (probably) set, and the situation for Italian immigrants trying to settle in allied power countries was very grim throughout World War 2. After first being ostracised by his white classmates at school, Vincent may well have found himself ostracised later in life as an ‘enemy alien’. To avoid that, he may have gone to fight on behalf of America as a young man. Many Italian Americans fought on America’s behalf. This can’t have been easy, fighting for your country and also against your ancestral land. Vincent will have always felt like an outsider.

Header painting is “Festival” 1934 by Daniel R Celentano, set in East Harlem’s Little Italy, New York — “a lively scene, evoking the scents of tasty Italian food, is overshadowed by the immense natural-gas tanks at the right that once blighted Manhattan’s immigrant slums,” according to the Smithsonian website.

Poison by Katherine Mansfield

F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker)- Rachel Peace

Poison” (1920) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the last in the Something Childish and Other Stories collection, published by Middleton Murry four years later, after her death. Commentators have noticed veiled references to “My Last Duchess“, a poem by Robert Browning about a murderous duke. Browning’s poem in turn is based on popular imaginings surrounding historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century.

Literary and Historical Allusions

In Browning’s dramatic monologue of a poem, a duke is showing a visitor around his castle. They stop in front of a painting of his dead young wife and the story becomes ekphrastic. At first the duke describes his dead wife in glowing terms. But as the poem progresses, we are meant to realise it was the duke who killed her. This is the story of a coercively controlling man. He didn’t like how his wife flirted with everyone (according to him). The poem is especially disturbing because the visitor has arrived to negotiate the duke’s marriage to yet another young woman, and we extrapolate that he may kill her, too. It’s basically a Bluebeard story.

Likewise, the real Duke of Ferrara may have been a Bluebeard figure of the Italian Renaissance. He married three times and never had children. Some historians think he may have poisoned his first wife when she was just 17. His next wife died from tuberculosis, but the third outlived him. But who else might the Duke of Ferrara have poisoned? These powerful men lived in an era of unmitigated power.

Browning forces his reader to become involved in his poem in order to understand it, and Mansfield asks the same of us in “Poison”. What’s going on behind the words? Who is wearing the mask?

When it comes to the turbulence of emotional valence, some commentators are reminded of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In Keats’ poem, as in “Poison”, a character is almost tortured by the extent of their own happiness. (Happiness as anguish.) The character is anguished because they know a deliriously happy moment can never last. It’s always punctured by something.

Oh, God! What torture happiness was — what anguish!

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

It’s difficult to separate the author from her work. Some Katherine Mansfield biographers feel that “Poison” is covertly about her relationship with John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s long-term male partner. They were pretty turbulent as a couple.

I’m reluctant to go there myself, because writing “Poison” may have simply been a cathartic act. Perhaps Mansfield read Browning’s poem and imagined that one of his wives killed him off instead. There’s certainly plenty to be angry about when it comes to partner violence. Mansfield may have been doing an Angela Carter, who turned victimhood of “Bluebeard” right around in her re-visioning of the archetypal tale: Carter called hers “The Bloody Chamber“.

Significantly, the fictional newspaper article in this story flips the general feminine connection to death by poison, because this time it is a man who may have poisoned his wife:

Either some man did or didn’t murder his wife, and twenty thousand people have sat in court every day and two million words have been wired all over the world after each proceeding.

SETTING OF “POISON”

France is synonymous with romantic stories, then as it is now. A villa in Southern France is the perfect setting for this guy to carry out his romantic fantasies.

Mansfield paints a setting but in words, and the words she uses put us in mind of Impressionist paintings. A good description of an Impressionist painting: It’s like you only got a glimpse of a scene. You are left with an overall ‘impression’, rather than fleshed out details, as in a dream.

There’s a lot of white, a lot of green in the setting of this story. We’re seeing this image through tulle (net) curtains. We’re shown moonlight, shadows, lamps, twilight in the narrator’s imagination.

Apart from the flowers and birds (commonly used across Mansfield’s short stories), Mansfield chooses two details of the environment which come up more than once and are therefore probably motifs: the blue beetle and the pearl ring Beatrice wears on her third finger.

Pearls are found in oysters — hard to crack open. Pearls suggest containment and also working hard for rich reward. Over the course of “Poison” our narrator prizes Beatrice open a little. Ignoring subconscious misgivings, he continues to see her beauty shining from within.

The motif of the blue beetle is less clear to me. Mansfield may be talking about the Hoplia coerulea, found in humid environments, generally near a stream or a swamp, in Southern France and Northern Spain.

the blue beetle mentioned in Poison
Hoplia coerulea. Males are a more striking blue than females.

The narrator may be focusing on the beetle as a strategy to avoid dwelling on his deep fear that Beatrice is pretty far from perfect. A beetle can also look a bit like a pearl — especially certain iridescent beetles, especially when light hits them, say through net curtains on a sunshiny day. The beetle might almost be the grotesque symbolic equivalent of the pearl. The difference is that beetles crawl/fly away, whereas Beatrice’s pearl is stuck to her finger forever.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “POISON”?

With nothing else to do apart from walking around and eating snacks, two upper-class characters return to their hotel in the South of France after a walk and a poke around the shops. A servant called Annette brings them food. They wait around for the post. This is all from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. His companion is Beatrice, a twice-before married woman who he is over-the-top smitten with.

The entire story is framed around an ironic ticking clock: the pair of them are waiting for something, actually nothing, to arrive (in the post).

“”Who? The silly old postman? But you’re not expecting a letter.”

“No, but it’s maddening all the same…

I believe ‘waiting around for the post’ is a metaphor for the narrator ‘waiting around for something to happen in his life, more generally’. By the end of the story the reader is waiting for the penny to drop with him.

Otherwise, this storytelling decision perplexes me a little. Mansfield introduces what we might deem ‘false suspense’ with all that waiting around for post. Because when the post arrives, it’s not some amazing life-changing letter, but is simply the newspaper, which they surely get everyday and is therefore not a surprise. An article in the newspaper leads to a semi-revelation for our narrator, although in true literary Impressionist form, he doesn’t have any major breakthrough. It simply sets him thinking.

Just before the newspaper arrives, conversation has turned to the couple’s future together. The narrator wants to marry Beatrice. But Beatrice remains unknowable, to both the narrator and to us. The basic worldview of Impressionists went like this: People don’t really change very much. Plus, there’s no such thing as the veridical truth of a situation anyway. We can only ever view the world through our own particular prisms. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Two people in the ‘same’ relationship experience completely different versions of it.

Throughout “Poison”, Mansfield is playing with the various permutations of the word ‘poison’. First the narrator has a cigarette, both deliciously necessary but also a type of poison.

There are times when a cigarette is just the very one thing that will carry you over the moment. It is more than a confederate, even; it is a secret, perfect little friend who knows all about it and understands absolutely. While you smoke you look down at it — smile or frown, as the occasion demands; you inhale deeply and expel the smoke in a slow fan. This was one of those moments.

Mansfield doesn’t touch on the criminal meaning until the newspaper is opened and read literal as in ‘putting something into someone’s food and then watching for them die in agony’.

Instead she encourages us to go there ourselves, by delving into the metaphorical meaning, in which it’s possible to poison someone invisibly. We could apply plenty of modern terms to describe this form of poisoning within a relationship: Passive aggression, emotional withdrawal, coercive control… We never hear any backstory about Beatrice’s former relationships so we don’t know the exact nature of the ‘poisoning’. We don’t even know Beatrice’s degree of culpability. However, Mansfield makes use of symbolism to give Beatrice the appearance of innocence:

She was dressed in white, with pearls round her throat and lilies-of-the-valley tucked into her belt.

Mansfield was very aware of the symbolism around flowers. Unlike lilies, lilies of the valley most often symbolise chastity, purity, happiness and humility.

This 1927 painting of Lilies of the Valley (by Malcolm Milne) isn’t sexual at all. Lilies of the valley don’t look anything like the archetypal lily. Lilies of the valley are not lilies. They belong to the Asparagaceae family (yes, related to garden asparagus). However, unlike asparagus, the lily of the valley can be poisonous when ingested causing abdominal pain, blurred vision, drowsiness, and reduced heart rate. I believe this is a slightly hidden layer of poison Mansfield makes use of in this short story.

The white dress emphasises Beatrice’s innocence, and the reader will think of a wedding dress, and its associations with virginity.

Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) American — three young women wearing white dresses

We are therefore surprised when Mansfield reveals that Beatrice has already been married twice. (This makes her a ‘fast woman’ for the era.) The flowers ‘tucked into her belt’ suggest Beatrice exercises restraint a desirable feminine virtue. Of course, we are told these details because these are what the narrator is looking for: evidence of a good woman. (Significantly, the narrator is also dressed in white.)

But appearances can be deceptive. And people can see only what we want to see, especially when romantic love is involved. The reader is not deluded by love for Beatrice and can see infatuation. In contrast, the narrator is yet to achieve a clear-headed view of Beatrice. But by the end of the story, he seems to have understood more of Beatrice over the course of recounting their conversation ‘out loud’. This often happens in first person narratives with storyteller narrators. The very point of them telling their stories (to no one in particular) is to come to some greater understanding.

Until the newspaper arrives, Mansfield never touches directly upon the literal meaning of poison. But because she so clearly goes there in the metaphorical sense, the reader is primed to suspect that perhaps Beatrice has poisoned both of her earlier husbands. At this point, Mansfield is leaning upon an age-old trope which connects ‘women’ to ‘poisoning’.

Witches, Women and Poisoning

This notion of women as sneaky, murderous poisoners harks back to the era of witchcraft and hasn’t entirely died. During the European witch craze, women were often accused of poisoning their victims. (Men were also tried for witchcraft but in England it was 90 per cent women.) These so-called poisoners didn’t need to be anywhere near their victims in order to do away with them these witches were supposedly making use of necromancers and magic.

Historical Women and Poisoning

I would be interested to know if Mansfield knew about the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman ever hanged in Australia. Louisa Collins was found guilty of poisoning two husbands with Rough on Rats (basically arsenic, available at any local store). Her hanging was carried out in 1889, and happened across the Tasman Sea, not in New Zealand, and when Mansfield was just one year old. However, it’s possible this case was much talked about in New Zealand, because both New Zealand and Australia were grappling with how to treat those found guilty of heinous crimes: to hang or not to hang? It was shocking to the public that a woman was being hanged. Three women in New Zealand had been sentence for execution by this time, but all three women (accused of murdering children) had their sentences commuted to imprisonment. Louisa’s hanging in Australia was certainly reported in the Auckland newspaper in 1889. Media coverage of this Australian case in New Zealand, as well as the mythology around it over the next few decades as Mansfield was growing up, may have furnished the writer with ideas for “Poison”.

Minnie Dean and New Zealand Imaginations

I guess Mansfield would’ve known about the Louisa Collins case because in 1895, when Mansfield was seven years old, New Zealand agreed to hang its first (and only) woman: Williamina (Minnie) Dean.

Scottish born Minnie Dean settled near Invercargill (near the bottom of the South Island.) She took in unwanted young children for money. Minnie Dean was found guilty of murdering some of them, sometimes by suffocation, sometimes by poisoning (with laudanum). Dead little bodies were found buried in her yard. New Zealand never hanged another woman after that. It was that shocking. But it was salaciously shocking. People clearly enjoyed the drama of it. Outside the court house, vendors were selling hat boxes with figurines of babies inside it. (Minnie had apparently killed a baby then tried to hide the body inside a hat box.) While some New Zealanders no doubt found this distasteful, for others this was the late 19th century equivalent of going to the movies for a murder mystery then buying a plush toy.

I was born in New Zealand 90 years after Katherine Mansfield. The case of Minnie Dean was never a formal part of our history curriculum, but the figure of Minnie Dean, this formidable child killer, loomed large in our collective consciousness. There is a highly wooded park we called “Dean’s Bush” near where I lived in Christchurch. This bush and historic house is not named after Minnie Dean at all, and is now more regularly called Riccarton Bush, but in my subconscious I connected this wooded area to ‘child killer’. It’s actually a beautiful Christchurch spot, but the area took on a sinister tone in my mind. I hated walking through there.

In any case, if the trial of Minnie Dean had that much effect on me, born 90 years later than Mansfield, I can imagine the case had a large effect on the childhood games Mansfield played with her sisters, and on her writer’s imagination.

NARRATION OF “POISON”

“Poison” is told through the mind of a male narrator whose point of view is best described as thinking about the events as they occur in the present. Of course, such a narrative perspective cannot really be achieved, but this narrator is certainly not telling the story with any kind of judgmental stance after the fact. Again, the story represents Mansfield’s blend of the immediacy of a stage performance with the internal point of view of one of the actors on the stage. It cannot happen, but it does. The story is like a soliloquy without the rest of the stage performances around it.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Beatrice and her narrator-lover are presented to us without backstory in statu nascendi though it is eventually revealed that Beatrice has been married twice before. He is 24 years old at the time of the story, and because he mentions his age in hindsight, we deduce he’s had a little time to reflect on this conversation. This story is atemporal. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between this particular conversation and the retelling of it. Has he now married Beatrice or has he made a clean break? Or perhaps this only happened yesterday?

I do see evidence of reflection on the part of the narrator, suggesting some time has passed since the events of the story:

Not because I cared for such horrible shows, but because I felt it might possibly perhaps lessen this ghastly feeling of absolute freedom, her absolute freedom, of course.

That passage shows the reader that our narrator has realised his love is a controlling kind of love.

Despite these insights, the voice is quite ‘immediate’, as in, he is narrating this story not long after events happened.

This immediacy of voice doesn’t stand out as unusual today, especially if you read a lot of young adult literature. A large proportion of young adult novels are written in first person and from the perspective of a young adult who is still young. In fact, if a significant amount of time has elapsed between the happenings in a story and the supposed retelling of it, and if the first person narrator has changed so much that they are now a heterodiegetic narrator, the work is no longer classed as young adult literature. (Many works for adults cover the young adult years.)

“Poison” almost counts as young adult literature by today’s conventions of narration, except Beatrice must be in her late twenties (at least) if she’s already been married twice. The voice of the narrator suggests to me he is younger than Beatrice. In fact he tells us he ‘was twenty-four at the time’. His dramatic monologue feels like the headiness of unmoderated first love.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “POISON”

SHORTCOMING

Our narrator is not only naive Mansfield has gone one step further and painted him as a bit of a ridiculous figure. Mansfield the author is winking at the reader when she writes, via the voice of her narrator:

And when she lay on her back, with the pearls slipped under her chin, and sighed “I’m thirsty, dearest. Donne-moi un orange,” I would gladly, willingly, have dived for an orange into the jaws of a crocodile— [wink] if crocodiles ate oranges.

(Crocodiles eat almost anything, including oranges.) What’s humorous here is not that the narrator is saying something factually inaccurate about crocodiles, but the fact that he’s made a ridiculous analogy then immediately second guessed himself. He could be laughing at himself, though I see no real evidence of that. Later, at the most serious part of the story (when he has his anagnorisis) he tells us ‘I made a little joke’. This positioning highlights that he is not joking at all.

In Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler notes that Mansfield made much use of ‘nervous’ characters, meaning ‘characters whose nerves are of primary concern’. Several of these stories are filtered through the viewpoints of women: “Revelations” and “The Escape“. One portrays a man: “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“.

Tense and terribly “modern” relationships between a man and a woman occur in three other stories: “Psychology“, “A Dill Pickle” and “Poison“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Kobler is not alone in then saying that the best Mansfield short story about modern heterosexual relationships is “Bliss“.

It’s always interesting when an author avoids naming a character. There could be many reasons for doing so. One common reason: To keep a character as an archetype in the reader’s mind. The fewer details we have about someone, the more likely we are to avoid seeing them as human. This in my own experience is also the exact reason why some readers get really annoyed when authors avoid naming characters, especially when an unnamed character has a marginalised identity or is a woman. (Not the case here.) This is to do with a long history of symbolic annihilation. To name someone, it is thought, is to individualise them, and to give them power.

Below, Kobler noties a pattern in Mansfield’s decisions to avoid naming certain characters, and also questions Mansfield’s decision not to name this particular narrator:

Like the majority of the males in Mansfield’s stories about these modern liaisons, the narrator of “Poison” has no name, a fact that lends credence to the belief that Mansfield really did believe that the men of her generation were all alike unless, of course, they were so different as to be named Reginald, as in Peacock, and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove.” This narrator, however, perhaps ought to have a name, because he seems to embody more of the loving and caring sensitivity of Henry in “Something Childish but Very Natural” than he does the hurtful men of “A Dill Pickle” and “Psychology“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

(Male commentators really don’t like it when male characters go unnamed. I wonder if they apply the same outrage to the fact that many, many more female characters historically go unnamed.)

But I would like to draw attention to the following sentence:

“Who are you?” Who was she? She was — Woman.

Our narrator himself has realised that he regards Beatrice as an archetypal perfect Woman, as indicated by the capital W. Sure, the author does not name him, but he hasn’t noticed that Beatrice is an individualised character. Not at all. (Not until the retelling of his story.) This is Mansfield doing to him as he is doing to Beatrice.

DESIRE

There’s a very strong, clear desire line holding this story together. Our narrator clearly wants to marry Beatrice.

OPPONENT

His romantic opponent is Beatrice herself.

PLAN

He seems to think that by spending time with her and attending to her every need, he will win love and affection in return.

BIG STRUGGLE

The part where Beatrice opens up a little and lets the narrator in a little, regarding her philosophy of love and relationships, which is nothing at all like the narrator’s idealistic view of them.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator seems to have realised how different they are, and how it will be impossible to please her in the way he hoped to.

There is no plot revelation of the kind that would tie up a genre short story, say a mystery. In that kind of story the reader might understand that Beatrice is a poisoner, and that the narrator is in danger of being poisoned himself. But this is instead a lyrical short story and Mansfield gives us only a symbol web as a lens through which to interpret events. This is in line with the Impressionist’s view that we are all viewing events through our own blurry lenses.

The true revelation comes for the reader. Guided by Beatrice’s insights into how relationships work, we now understand that the idealised relationship between this couple has now been ‘poisoned’.

“Guilt!” she cried. “Guilt! Didn’t you realise that? They’re fascinated like sick people are fascinated by anything — any scrap of news about their own case. The man in the dock may be innocent enough, but the people in court are nearly all of them poisoners. Haven’t you ever thought”— she was pale with excitement —”of the amount of poisoning that goes on? It’s the exception to find married people who don’t poison each other — married people and lovers. Oh,” she cried, “the number of cups of tea, glasses of wine, cups of coffee that are just tainted. The number I’ve had myself, and drunk, either knowing or not knowing — and risked it. The only reason why so many couples”— she laughed —”survive, is because the one is frightened of giving the other the fatal dose. That dose takes nerve! But it’s bound to come sooner or later. There’s no going back once the first little dose has been given. It’s the beginning of the end, really — don’t you agree? Don’t you see what I mean?”

Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900
Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900

At this point, Beatrice unpins her lilies of the valley. She is taking off her ‘mask’ of purity and innocence. Mansfield chooses a slightly unusual ‘body language beat‘ to garnish this line of dialogue:

She unpinned the lilies-of-the-valley and lay back, drawing them across her eyes.

But this is not just a ‘beat’ — by drawing these symbols of innocence across her eyes she is drawing attention to the fact that our narrator has been blind.

NEW SITUATION

We had very little backstory about these characters. Completely in line with that, they depart from the stage/page as abruptly as they came onto it. Mansfield offers no hint about what happens next. We can extrapolate that this narrator will never be so heavily enamoured about anyone again, and certainly not when it comes to Beatrice.

Header painting: F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker) – Rachel Peace

Taking The Veil by Katherine Mansfield

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest. Our main character Edna should be feeling great right now. She’s eighteen, she’s beautiful and she’s in love. One slight problem. She is about to become a Bride of Christ, also known as taking the veil. (Or so we think from the title!)

Mansfield was expert at varying emotional valence from scene to scene on the page, and “Taking The Veil” is an excellent example. Check out “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “The Singing Lesson“ and “Bliss” for others.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “TAKING THE VEIL”

What outwardly happens: A young woman called Edna walks from the library to the cathedral holding a black book. She sits in the garden and overhears the choir practising. The main story takes place inside her head. The outward story is underwhelming so, in order to work, the story inside her head is melodramatic. In this parallel ‘head story’, Edna even dies from an illness after rescuing a small animal.

Whether Edna’s fantasy happens in the veridical world of the story, or whether it happens only inside Edna’s mind, for storytelling purposes it doesn’t matter.

That is a useful takeaway point for writers when crafting highly imaginative characters like Edna, who looks to the rest of the world like a staid young conservative Catholic girl on the brink of marriage, but who on the inside is absolutely roiling.

ESCAPE INTO IMAGINATION

Perhaps “Taking The Veil” came about because the unconventional ‘remittance woman’ Katherine Mansfield, the writer, wondered if even her staid, gender-conforming counterparts also experienced ‘break-free’ fantasies. For a conventional girl, what might a break-free fantasy have looked like? We have an example in Edna. Ironically, comically, Edna’s idea of breaking free is to join a nunnery.

The story structure is similar to a carnivalesque children’s story such as Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea. A character goes about their regular mundane life but an imagination (or imaginative) character appears out of nowhere. Our main character has fun living a completely different life.

The story ends with a return to safety and to the mundane realities of the real world. (It’s basically a home-away-home structure.) In picture books for toddlers, the aim of these stories is simply to have fun. But in a lyrical short story such as this one, the main character escapes her mundane life via a fantasy, and by doing so she does learn something. In this case, Edna will reminds herself of her love for her fiancé. I argue below that this is not an epiphany, per se. Edna is not a self-aware character, and experiences no true anagnorisis. But the melodrama does become increasingly melodramatic until she feels quite downcast, at which point she snaps out of her diverting fantasy.

MANSFIELD AND CATHOLICISM

Unlike her fictional creation of Edna, Katherine Mansfield herself was not a product of a Catholic educational system. She attended Wellington Girls’ High School, a New Zealand public school. But Mansfield was no doubt surrounded by Catholicism later, especially when she lived in France.

The French literary movement at the beginning of the 20th century was hugely influenced by Catholicism. This return to Catholic ideas was a reaction against the Positivism, Naturalism and materialism of the 19th century. Ironically, many right-wing, Catholic, French literary critics were reacting against Modernism at the time but loved the stories of Katherine Mansfield. This is ironic because Mansfield was later regarded as an author working at the vanguard of Modernism (which they said they despised). For more on that see Katherine Mansfield: The view from France by Gerri Kimber.

Katherine Mansfield was in essence a queer leftie. If she’d lived in our time she’d have had her septum pierced and would be sporting sleeve tattoos of carnations and birds. “Taking The Veil” isn’t a story about the Catholic tradition of becoming a nun. Nor does it make use of Catholic symbolism (unlike, say, horror from the West which is full of it). Mansfield wasn’t able to view Catholicism from the inside, and neither can I.

John Fernie, 1956 girl dreams of marriage
John Fernie, 1956. According to popular culture, little girls dream of marriage. Mansfield flips that narrative by depicting a young woman who dreams of its inverse. (Not remaining unmarried but joining a nunnery.)

SETTING OF “TAKING THE VEIL”

Instead, Mansfield is exploring the tumultuous feelings of being young and in love, falling in lust in an instant, but also being afraid of matrimony and sex. Mansfield juxtaposes temporary sparks of lust against the long-term, safe kind of love, and explores how a young Catholic woman might tame these emotions into something acceptable, something safe to show to the world. In order to explore these ideas in fiction, the context of a restrictive Catholic tradition comes in handy.

The story opens on a beautiful, utopian day.

IT seemed impossible that anyone should be unhappy on such a beautiful morning. Nobody was, decided Edna, except herself. The windows were flung wide in the houses. From within there came the sound of pianos, little hands chased after each other and ran away from each other, practising scales. The trees fluttered in the sunny gardens, all bright with spring flowers. Street boys whistled, a little dog barked; people passed by, walking so lightly, so swiftly, they looked as though they wanted to break into a run. Now she actually saw in the distance a parasol, peach-coloured, the first parasol of the year.

How does Edna really feel?

Edna’s positive view of her environs even as she (ostensibly) feels like crap must be a close cousin to pathetic fallacy, in which a character’s environs afford insight into their internal state. Is Edna really all that miserable? I don’t reckon. Here’s the clue:

Perhaps Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt.

Inversely, perhaps Edna did not feel quite as unhappy as she looked. At any rate, Mansfield is telegraphing that this character is not as she appears. I put it to you that Edna’s world looks great because Edna feels great. (Later in the story it becomes clear that Edna takes a Gothy delight in her own melancholy.)

Today Edna is playing a role. She’s trying ‘nun’ on for size, probably inspired by the book she’s got out of the library. And how are nuns supposed to act? The archetypal nun emanates a staid, steady, calming presence. This may give an overall impression of sadness. Our cultural notion of nuns is key here. Despite a century between Mansfield and the contemporary reader, my expectations of ‘proper nun comportment’ are no doubt shared by Edna. We all make use of pop cultural stereotypes and scripts. When Edna tries ‘nun’ on for size, she is also trying on ‘sadness’.

At the story’s opening, I suspect any negative feelings derive from Edna’s nervousness at the prospect of married life. Perhaps this is a story about the Fear of Engulfment.

Fear of Engulfment is the specific female fear of being impregnated and then having to give birth, over and over and over, perhaps until the day you die. It’s easy for many womb-owners to forget the extent of this ancient fear now, but until recently this state of being was reality for any sexually active heterosexual cis women. Fairy tales such as “The Frog Princess” are said to be about the Fear of Engulfment.

Of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, “Psychology” is a good example of a character’s fear of engulfment. The main character in “Psychology” has her own way of enjoying a sex life without penetrative sex. Edna’s way is similar — she enjoys the platonic company of a safe man (in this case her fiancé) while enjoying a fuller sex life in her head.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TAKING THE VEIL”

SHORTCOMING

Edna is at an age where she’s inclined to fall in lust easily, and now she has to do something with those massive feelings.

To an outsider, Edna doesn’t have many problems. She’s in the prime of her life. She has plenty of body confidence. She knows she’s beautiful. She’s engaged to be married to her childhood best friend. She’s clearly upper middle class. We know this from mention of a nurse (ie. nanny).

Edna’s Imaginary Audience
Norman Rockwell, "Cover Girl" Saturday Evening Post Cover, March 1, 1941
Norman Rockwell, “Cover Girl” Saturday Evening Post Cover, March 1, 1941

At first the following paragraph reads like a wise statement offered via an unseen narrator, but after the description of her book, when we are firmly inside Edna’s head, we realise this entire passage describes how Edna perceives her own self:

Perhaps even Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt. It is not easy to look tragic at eighteen, when you are extremely pretty, with the cheeks and lips and shining eyes of perfect health. Above all, when you are wearing a French blue frock and your new spring hat trimmed with cornflowers. True, she carried under her arm a book bound in horrid black leather. Perhaps the book provided a gloomy note, but only by accident; it was the ordinary Library binding. For Edna had made going to the Library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now.

This paragraph shows that, in common with other young adult characters across Mansfield’s short stories, Edna views herself through the lens of an Imaginary Audience, constantly perceiving herself as if from another’s point of view. This is common in the years between adolescence and young adulthood, when we’re checking ourselves in shop windows, entering crowded rooms with excruciating levels of self-consciousness, wondering how we are perceived, wondering if we’re acceptable.

Some commentators pinpoint this as a feature of narcissism, but narcissism is quite different. Imaginary audience ‘syndrome’ (not a syndrome) is more to do with navigating the world in a newly adult body, and the lack of confidence that naturally attends lack of life experience. Until we’ve worked out who we are, we’re more inclined to reflect off others, using other people as our mirrors.

The problem with perceiving yourself from another’s point of view: When it becomes habit, you become disconnected from your body. Peggy Orenstein wrote extensively about this in her book Girls & Sex. (Here’s no coincidence: Peggy Orenstein wrote her BA dissertation on Katherine Mansfield in 1983.) Girls and women are highly sexualised, valued for appearance over all else. When this becomes internalised, women across a culture can lose touch with what they really want, and who they really desire.

So I consider Edna’s imagined audience and disassociated view of herself highly problematic for Edna.

DESIRE

Because she is so dissociated, Edna doesn’t know what she wants, who she wants or what constitutes enduring feelings. (This does change at the end.) It’s up to us to understand Edna’s stage in life and what she wants. How is this achieved? Via narration. If we don’t interpret the irony (Mansfield’s main ironic delivery method) we’re not going to understand Edna.

NARRATIVE IRONY

If we take a look at Mansfield’s other work, we know she was an expert with narrative irony: a writing technique in which a character presents the reader with a ‘fact’ or statement that isn’t true within the world of the story. Key point: there’s no narrator winking at the reader signalling that we are not to take the judgement at face value. Questioning everything is the responsibility of the reader. This is in line with the literary Impressionist view that there is no such thing as the real truth anyhow.

Everything we know about Edna is a deduction based on very little by way of backstory. Mansfield preferred to simply present readers with a situation almost as if the characters have been birthed for the purposes of the story at hand. In other words, her characters are presented in statu nascendi. In “Taking The Veil”, where backstory occurs, it only takes us back in time as far as the play, in which Edna falls in lust with the actor. We get a few snippets of conversation from the time Edna tried to break up with Jimmy but we don’t know when that happend. The dialogue remains suspended in space-time.

At the story’s opening, Mansfield has decided to trick readers into ‘knowing’ this about Edna:

  1. Edna is about to become a nun. (A deliberately tricky title!)
  2. Edna is in love with a flesh and blood boy.
  3. Edna has very recently fallen ‘in love with’ a stage actor.
EDNA’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION

When analysing characters in a text, commentators are inclined to assume everyone is sexual. We are also inclined to assume that if we love someone romantically then we must, at some point, want to have sex with that person.

Here’s where my reading of Edna becomes very modern, and although Mansfield was ahead of her time, she didn’t have access to our modern terminology. I wonder if Mansfield meant to put Edna somewhere on the asexual spectrum, specifically at the aegosexual part of it. (This is a new word and there are other terms which may eventually replace this one.)

In short, aegosexuality is an orientation (inasmuch as straight/gay/bi are also orientations) in which someone isn’t interested in participating in sex acts with other people, but will think and fantasise about it. An aegosexual individual will fall romantically in love as easily as an allosexual (non-asexual) individual . The object of affection may be someone they know from real life, or might be a celebrity or a fictional character.

For more on this orientation, Radio New Zealand’s Bang! podcast features an interview with someone in her thirties who identifies as aegosexual.

For me it’s a lack of interest in anything physical, but the fantasy or conceptual element is there.

Rosie, interviewed on RNZ’s Bang! podcast

Alternatively, Edna may simply be a product of her ultra-conservative times, yet to experience her ‘sexual awakening’. I suspect this is the dominant interpretation ie. Once Edna gets married and learns to share sex with her husband, she’s going to be just fine.

OPPONENT

Any love story requires a romantic opponent. At first glance that’d be the boy Edna has known her whole life. Edna’s in love with Jimmy, but in a comfortable, queer-platonic way. Even his ‘smooth-feeling handkerchief’ is comforting. This isn’t going to provide much drama for the purposes of a short story, though we do get a glimpse into the time Edna tried to break up with him. This story isn’t about Edna’s conflict with Jimmy. This is about Edna’s psychology which led to the temporary break up with Jimmy. The human oppositional aspect is very much backgrounded.

So what of the psychology? Why is Edna wrestling with herself? Supporting my own theory of aegosexuality, if Edna were a straight allo-girl wouldn’t she just marry Jimmy? The conflict and drama of this story is all inside Edna’s head. Clearly, societal expectations don’t line up with how Edna feels on the inside.

As object of her romantic fantasies, Edna fixes (for now) upon the unavailable, purely hypothetical actor she saw at the theatre the other night. We learn via Edna’s free indirect speech that she’d drop Jimmy in a heartbeat if the actor were to show any interest in her. But again, we are not supposed to trust Edna’s narrative about herself. She describes a fleeting feeling rather than a real possibility. The actor is unavailable because he and Edna are separated by a stage. Moreover, he plays a blind man, implying another barrier between them forever. Edna regards him as his an entirely fictional character, not as a flesh and blood actor. If “Taking The Veil” were a modern story, Edna might have seen him on TV and fell equally in lust.

Later in the story we learn we were right to suspect a disconnect between Edna’s fantasies and Edna’s real world spectrum of possible actions:

The man she was in love with, the famous actor—Edna had far too much common-sense not to realise that would never be. 

Chocolate has a long association with lust, which explains why Mansfield (melo-)dramatised the very small act of Edna taking a chocolate almond from a box. In storytelling and in pop narrative (especially around pop cultural ideas about premenstrual pain) chocolate is often considered a sex substitute, as well as an aphrodisiac. This makes me wonder how long chocolate has been thought of in this way. How did Katherine Mansfield think of chocolate?

Primarily symbolic of love, chocolate is a sensual food with aphrodisiac properties that are due, in part, to association. However, its melting point is the same temperature as blood.

Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols

PLAN

What might you do if you were a beautiful, Catholic, 18-year-old woman who loves being in love but doesn’t ever want to have sex?

Joining the convent looks like a pretty good option, right? Even more so in an era when getting married was one of the very few routes to financial security for women, who were universally expected to get married and have babies. Becoming a nun and living in genteel poverty was one of the few socially sanctioned non-marriage options for Catholic girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

The whole entire narrative is an inner big struggle but what’s the climax of it?

The moment Edna decided to join a convent seems impetuous on her part, coming about purely because Edna happened to be sitting in the garden of a cathedral. In stories, anagnorises must follow big struggles (yeah, it’s a rule) and Katherine Mansfield uses a few snippets from the break-up conversation she and Jimmy must have had at some point:

” But, Edna! ” cried Jimmy. ” Can you never change ? Can I never hope again? ‘:

Oh, what sorrow to have to say it, but it must be said. ” No, Jimmy, I will never change.”

ANAGNORISIS

Rather comically, Mansfield uses the background choir practice as a leitmotif. Their ‘ah-no’ is purely tonal, without semantic meaning, but to Edna listening from out in the garden their ‘ah no’ sounds like a cry for help. Notice too how the ‘little flower’ falls. Mansfield really liked her flower motifs:

Edna bowed her head ; and a little flower fell on her lap, and the voice of Sister Agnes cried suddenly Ah-no, and the echo came, Ah-no

At that moment the future was revealed. Edna saw it all. She was astonished ; it took her breath away at first. But, after all, what could be more natural? She would go into a convent… 

Why wouldn’t Jimmy believe his fiancée she says she’s breaking up with him? Because it is pretty unbelievable for the era, is why. Jimmy is Edna’s best chance at a conventional life. And she does love him. In those times, in that part of the world, a girl like Edna would need some good reason to break up with Jimmy. But she is not sufficiently self-aware to understand what that reason might be. (Jimmy has no hope.) So she will settle for an ‘excuse’ rather than a reason. Hence, the convent.

Has Edna experienced a genuine anagnorisis? I don’t think so. The literary Impressionists didn’t really think that people changed just like that. Self-awareness is a slow, piecemeal affair and we get ourselves wrong.

But the reader does experience a plot reveal at this point. (Speaking for myself, anyhow.) It is now revealed that Edna’s decision to join a convent is as impetuous (and temporary) as her lust for the actor, symbolised also by the flower which fell (a universal symbol of impermanence).

Mansfield had experience in the theatre, on stage herself, and though it’s not obvious to a modern audience now, her writing was clearly influenced by stagecraft. (Not obvious now because every writer is influenced by stage craft.) When Edna sees her future, she is imagining the whole thing playing out as if she is watching herself on the stage.

We already know she’s very good at viewing herself like this, because Mansfield introduced her as a girl with an Imaginary Audience at the very beginning of the narrative. Note the melodramatic touches:

How can they add to her suffering like this ? The world is cruel, terribly cruel! 

Edna clearly takes delight in her own melancholy.

Albert Lorieux - Solitude 1898
Albert Lorieux – Solitude 1898

Unlike grief after the death of someone or something known, melancholy is the feeling you get when you’re grieving for something and you don’t know what that something is.

I wonder if there’s an English or borrowed word for this. Masochism is too strong; schadenfreude only describes taking delight in other people’s misery, and that’s not quite the same even in reverse. For now the best I can say is that Edna has Goth sensibilities. She’s clearly been reading Gothic literature (hence the melodramatic touches and the graveyard and the church…) but I’m talking about the 1970s and 80s Goth now.

A big part of Goth sensibility: Finding pleasure in their own melancholy. Another big thing for Goths: rebelling against society’s pressure to conform to gender norms. Imaginatively, Edna would like to rebel in some way. But I doubt she has the imaginative breadth to imagine what true rebellion might look like. Rebelling by escaping to the hugely restrictive institution of the nunnery is a comically ironic thing to fantasise about. Many goths were into death chic (hence the black clothes and white faces). As Edna sits in the graveyard contemplating her own death, yeah, Edna’s sure into death chic. Case closed. Edna is a Goth.

The final paragraph of “Taking The Veil” plunges the reader into a that confused space Edna currently occupies: Is there really a family visiting the graveyard crying about their only daughter, or is this part entirely in Edna’s imagination? (It’s not a binary distinction — it could be that Edna sees three people and pastes identities onto them.)

Whether Edna remains alone in the graveyard or not, she experiences another revelation: To break off her engagement with Jimmy would be to wound him forever. She doesn’t have it in her to do that. She will not become a nun. She will make Jimmy happy and become his wife.

NEW SITUATION

Sideshadowing: If Edna were to spend the rest of her life as Sister Angela, I’m sure her sparks of lust and secret fantasies would make the whole thing bearable. For Edna, perhaps the prospect of marrying Jimmy is on a par with the prospect of joining a nunnery. She may expect both situations to be restrictive and physically unsatisfying.

Extrapolation: Since we can never really know how others experience their sexuality, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone’s life is a trajectory towards satisfying penetration within the Sanctity of Marriage. Even after marriage, Edna is just as likely to continue as she is right now, seeking pleasure imaginatively.

Anders Zorn, (Swedish ,1860 - 1920) The Bride, 1886
Anders Zorn, (Swedish ,1860 – 1920) The Bride, 1886

This theme of secret fantasy life as a means of getting through marriage has been explored by various writers, especially woman writers, notably by Alice Munro in her story “Cortes Island“.

The header illustration is by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt The Vale of Rest (1858–9). I’ve chosen it because of the nuns, but also because Mansfield’s story is about a burial — a burial of big, nascently (a)sexual emotions.