The Pearl by John Steinbeck

“The Pearl” is a novella by John Steinbeck, first published hot on the heels of the second world war. The story is a re-visioning of a Mexican folktale, sometimes called a parable. This story is widely studied in American high schools so much has been posted elsewhere about symbolism and themes. My focus is on the structure and storytelling techniques, from a writer’s point of view.

The following song is based on John Steinbeck’s story.

THE ILLUSION OF CAUSALITY

This story reminded me of a half-forgotten memory. I’m four or five, sitting on the carpet in the living room at my Nana’s house. Nana goes to her bedroom, comes back with a ring and says, “See this ring? That’s yours when I die.” I can’t really see the ring from where I sit on the floor, but I nod obediently. A year or so later, Nana is killed by a car while crossing the road to buy milk at the dairy. I never see that ring again, because my father insists it’s cursed. First it belonged to an auntie of his — an auntie who died. Now his mother has died. Obviously, to his mind, the ring itself is bad luck.

That’s how inheritance works, of course — a ring isn’t passed down until its owner dies. If everyone were affected by the same cognitive bias as my father we wouldn’t see older women walking around with hands full of inherited rings.

The illusion of causality is at work in Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”, too, as humble villagers are corrupted by greed as soon as they come into some material good fortune. The oversized pearl itself is blamed, when in fact pearls are just pearls. Bad deeds are carried out by imperfect humans.

CHARACTERS OF “THE PEARL”

Kino — small build, wears a suppliant hat, native to Mexico, no money. Owns a canoe and spends his days diving for pearls and fishing to feed his family.

Juana — Kino’s obedient wife who has recently given birth to their first baby. Her life revolves around her baby. Juana is your classic Female Maturity Formula. She realises the evil in the pearl much earlier in the story, functioning as a Cassandra character. If only she weren’t under the thumb of her husband, who knows best according to the laws of patriarchy, they could’ve returned the pearl to the sea and their baby would have lived.

Because of the Female Maturity Formula, authors like Steinbeck are often let off the hook, because, as the following Goodreads commenter says:

In …The Pearl, Juana is the true hero of the story whose place is behind her man until the end, when they walk “side by side” when before, she always had to walk behind him. They only survived each scenario because of her and her ideas. Based on that, you make the call.

Goodreads

I disagree that Juana is ‘the true hero’. The viewpoint character is Kino, Steinbeck spends the first chapter getting us to side with Kino, and Juana remains unrounded. We never see her interiority at all. The same has been said of Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan, as a get-out-of-sexism free card for the creators, but I don’t buy ‘women as true/secret/sleeper heroes’ precisely because of the long history of unrounded woman characters.

Coyotito — their baby (At first I thought Coyotito referred to a bird! Just me?)

The Doctor — a French man who considers poor people animals, and whose fat body symbolises his greed.

Juan Tomas — Kino’s brother

Apolonia — Juan’s wife

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PEARL”

The story begins with two characters waking up. Many children’s picture books open with the beginning of a day, and end with our main character falling asleep. There is an inherent cosiness to a story which takes place over 12 hours — as if to say, “This too shall pass — tomorrow is a brand new day.” This story takes place over a number of fraught days, but we don’t know that yet.

It is difficult to write an original waking up scene. It has been done many times before. Here, Steinbeck is describing an idyllic morning — at least for Kino, who gets to sit around watching ants while his dutiful wife, always awake before him, sets about preparing their breakfast.

It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.

This is Steinbeck describing the iterative. He is yet to switch the reader to the singulative. This technique of opening with the iterative is again very common in children’s books, because it feels cosy. Routine is reassuring.

The first clue we have that not all is perfect in this world is mention of the ‘poisonous air’ of night-time. It was common long ago around the world for people to believe that illness was caused by ‘night vapours’. Darkness itself was feared, as much as the things that come out of the dark.

MAKING USE OF THE MINIATURE

John Steinbeck likes to remind readers of differential scales — he did it in “The Leader Of The People” and he does it in the opening, as Kino observes the ants, transforming himself into ‘god’.

The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him.

For more on The Miniature In Storytelling see this post. But why does Steinbeck use it in this particular story? Abundance does not cause satiation in humans; it causes anxiety and greed. The size of the pearl, and the size of Kino (godlike in comparison to the ants), coupled with the dream of the massive book with giant letters, all serve as symbols of (over) abundance.

The pearl in this story is as big as a duck egg, beyond anything known at the time. FYI, the world’s biggest clam pearl was found in 2006 in the Philippines and sold for $130 million. The pearl in Steinbeck’s story should, by market value, provide Kino’s entire community with enough to live on for generations to come.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Kino and Juana are classic fairytale underdogs — they show no moral weakness. Nor do they show much in the way of psychological weakness, other than Kino taking his anger out on the gate and splitting his fist. (He may suffer from a self-destructive temper.) Instead, this pair have a problem: Their baby’s life is in danger after being stung by a scorpion. Apparently scorpions can cause convulsions and shortness of breath — these two are right to be worried about their baby.

Their related problem is that they have no money to pay the doctor.

Chapter One, which ends with Kino punching the fence in frustration, is almost a self-contained story in its own right, complete with problem, desire, plan, opponent, battle and a tragic ending. The only thing it doesn’t contain is the self-revelation. For that we must read the rest of the novella.

However, though my modern lens, I find Kino’s violence wholly unacceptable. I put forward two main reader interpretations of Kino’s character after we see him punching the fence:

  1. Kino is expressing his frustration in an appropriate way, since fences are not able to feel pain and he is justifiably angry.
  2. Kino’s physical expression of rage hints at an uncontrolled temper, dangerous for his wife.

I went with number two, because I don’t trust people who punch anything out of rage. Sure enough, later in the story Kino bashes his wife’s face to the point where her wounds are attracting flies the following day. To me, Kino was never a pure-hearted fisherman corrupted only after the pearl was found. I suspect he was always a wife beater, hence his wife’s manic vigilance, conveyed via the creepy spectacle of her watching her husband each morning, then springing into action with a cooked breakfast once he awakes.

However, is this what a typical mid-century reader would have thought? Just 50 years ago doctors were recommending men beat their wives as ‘temporary therapy’. Kino is clearly depicted as an increasingly flawed human in this story, similar to the ‘breaking’ of Walter White, but I feel it would be a mistake to assume mid 20th century readers would have roundly criticised Kino for punching his wife in the face. I suspect judgement of Kino would have come later in the story for many.

DESIRE

This is a story of escalating desires, and the human tendency to be dissatisfied, which Steinbeck’s narrator tells us is the reason we are elevated above the animals (who are happy with their lot). Permanent lack of satiety is both our weakness and our strength.

Because this is a major theme, Kino’s desires escalate as the story progresses, beginning with a man who wants for nothing.

  1. Kino and Juana are happy as they are, but when their baby is bitten by a scorpion they would like a doctor to make their baby better.
  2. They would like money or a valuable pearl to pay the doctor.
  3. After finding the pearl, they want to fetch enough money to pay for their son’s education.
  4. Kino wants to escape the faceless, unnamed evil coming after him in his own village.

OPPONENT

The first opponent is the doctor who refuses to heal their baby without payment. He tries to persuade Kino that their baby’s eye is blue. I’m reminded of the people who call from ‘Microsoft Windows’, who then tell you to go into the bowels of your computer to view all sorts of normal running messages, then try to tell you that your PC is riddled with viruses.

The second opponents are the pearl buyers whose mission is to pay as little as possible for anything, despite being salaried themselves. Like the doctor, these are tricksters who make use of Kino’s lack of knowledge about pearls to try and persuade him that his pearl is defective under a magnifying glass. Anyone with basic knowledge of pearls understands that pearls are supposed to look unusual when magnified — this is the very thing that distinguishes them from fakes.

Even the obedient wife Juana becomes Kino’s opponent when she tries to get rid of the cursed pearl.

Why are the pursuers faceless and nameless? Wouldn’t it be more thrilling if the reader knew who these men were and what they are capable of? Perhaps, in thriller tradition, yes. But by remaining faceless these men better symbolise the evil that resides within Kino himself.

PLAN

The plan to take their baby to the doctor fails so Kino and Juana try their luck finding a valuable pearl. They are magically rewarded with a massive pearl, which seems to cure their baby instantly.

Kino plans to sell the pearl so he takes it to local pearl sellers, but he can see they are trying to swindle him.

The next plan is to take it to the city, which scares him. He has never ventured outside his own village. But that night he his thwacked in the head. Juana tries to throw the pearl into the sea but Kino stops her and hits her.

When Juan accidentally kills a man who attacks him he and his small family take refuge in his brother’s hut while everyone else speculates about what happened to him.

BATTLE

After an exciting chase sequence, the baby has the top of his head shot off by the men on horses who pursue Kino.

When Kino and his family are chased into the wilderness, this is a metaphor for Kino entering deep into his own subconscious. Very Freudian. Very fairytale.

SELF-REVELATION

Kino comes to the conclusion (too late) that his wife was right — the pearl brings evil. He gets rid of it. He has seen the evil in humanity and within himself, no longer godlike, as he saw himself at the beginning of the story, overseeing those shiny black ants.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Back in the village, this couple will lead a miserable life, forever changed by the murder of their firstborn, and also by the hopes and dreams held temporarily after securing a valuable pearl.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

There are many folk tales about greed, in which we learn that more does not mean better. This moral never gets old, and is only more salient today.

A picture book example is More and Better by Margaret Neve.

“King Bait” by Keri Hulme is a short story for adults, similarly fabulist, in which abundance immediately corrupts.

John Steinbeck was a renowned misogynist and it’s difficult to read his wife’s description of him without mapping Steinback himself onto Kino.

There are a lot of similarities between Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Kino — both men tell themselves that they’re doing what they do for their family. But there’s a saying that there are always two motives for doing anything — one is the noble one, the other is the real motive. The ‘noble’ motive in both cases is ‘I’m doing what I do to provide for my family’ but the real motive is ‘power’.

Passages, Hallways and Corridors

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

The house itself becomes a weapon of revenge for the sins committed by the fathers and mothers. In such stories, the house doesn’t have to be a decrepit, creaking mansion with slamming doors, moving walls, and secret, dark passageways. It can be simple, suburban houses.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

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

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

CASE STUDY: HOUSE AS CONTROLLING MATRIARCH

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

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

— Dawn French, According To Yes

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

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

CASE STUDY: WALLS AS PASSAGEWAYS

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

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

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

SEE ALSO

 

Header photo by Ted Anderson Jao

Body Swap Stories

Your Name movie poster

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

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

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

Continue reading “Body Swap Stories”

Out-of-character Moments In Fiction

What does it mean to act ‘out-of-character’? Unfortunately, audiences are influenced by the folk psychology that people behave somewhat consistently. That’s not the case.

I was once reading through a list which described common problems in short story submissions, by someone who reads a lot of amateur short stories. One plot they see a lot: A calm, sensible, normal character suddenly snaps. Maybe the main character is on a train, another passenger is smacking gum, the main character gets really annoyed with this, perhaps they’re angry about something else; they transfer the violence and whop the other passenger over the head. The end.

PROBLEMS WITH THE ‘THEN-HE-SNAPPED’ ENDING
  1. It’s not saying much of interest about humankind.
  2. It’s been done.
  3. (Supposedly) People just don’t work like that. A character who commits a violent act will have a history of violence. This needs to be foreshadowed, otherwise the reader will feel they wouldn’t really act like that.

The example above is an extreme example of characterisation and plotting done badly, but you’ll see it in milder form if you hang around writing groups long enough.

But focusing on the third problem, is it really the case that there are ‘restrained people’ vs. ‘violent people’?  Is there no situation on earth where you, personally, would not snap?

THE FOLK PSYCHOLOGY OF ENDURING CHARACTER

An audience does expect fictional characters to have some sort of ‘enduring character’. Writers are influenced equally by the following folk psychology:

People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption:

    • Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.
    • Who lies also steals.
    • Who steals an egg will steal an ox.
    • Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.
    • Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.

If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behaviour should be easy. A single action will reveal an underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behaviour on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself.

FROM EXPLAINING SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR: MORE NUTS AND BOLTS FOR THE SOCIAL SCIENCES BY JON ELSTER

But of course, it’s not possible to predict behaviour. If it were, we’d live in a Minority Report society.

Folk psychology is demonstrably false.

— also John Elster

All sorts of psychological experiments have been carried out to show that humans are not rational, though we do aim for rationality. I won’t summarise those here. We are irrational humans with unstable traits and little in the way of enduring character. Psychologists know that the best predictor of how a human will behave is not what sort of ‘character’ they have, but rather what sort of situation they are placed in. Obvious, right? But only when it’s pointed out.

But the audience expects characters to have ‘character’. (I mean, it’s right there in the word.) Any storyteller thereby faces a balancing act: The creation of characters whose traits are believably stable, but not so stable as to seem unrealistic.

THE RULES OF CHARACTERISATION — AS DESCRIBED BY A SOCIOLOGIST

For those of us trained in the humanities, John Elster’s sociological toolkit may feel a little foreign, but this is where the humanities overlap with sociological science:

  1. The acts and utterances of fictional characters have to be intelligible. [Intelligible = it has to make sense to the audience. See its subcategories below.]
  2. The author has to meet the twin requirements of fullness and parsimony. By ‘fullness’, a writer might talk about ’rounded’ characterisation. We often hear about that. The concept of parsimony is less explored among writers. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. It must ‘feel like it fits’. Don’t overcomplicate your character motivations, in other words.
  3. The work must flow downhill, minimizing the appeal to accidents and coincidences. Coincidences that happen in real life often don’t work in fiction. This is a well-known phenomenon among writers. If you tell an experienced critique partner that your story is ‘based on something that happened in real life’ their heart may sink. So often, real life incidents, no matter how interesting, don’t work as fiction because they contain events that seem like contrivances when presented as fiction. When unbelievable turning points are pointed out, the beginner writer may say, “But it really happened!” as if that counts for anything. Elster encourages writers to respect the fact that readers are not finely attuned to probability theory. ‘The overall plausibility of a scenario depends much more on the plausibility of its weakest links than on the number of links. I believe the author should respect this particular quirk of the readers, since it prevents him from resorting to facile but unlikely coincidences.’
  4. The work must offer a psychologically gratifying pattern of the buildup and resolution of tension. This blog is all about the aforementioned ‘psychologically gratifying pattern’. You can find it explained here.
SUBCATEGORIES OF INTELLIGIBILITY

Elster also explains that intelligibility can be absolute or relative. Intelligibility can also be global or local.

  • Absolute intelligibility: Can any human being behave in this way?
  • Relative global intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this particular fictional person consistent with the overall character the author has already set up?
  • Relative local intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this fictional person consistent with earlier behaviour the author has already set up?

The requirements of absolute and of relative local intelligibility are crucial constraints on authorial rationality. But relative global intelligibility is not a constraint. In fact, if an author lets relative global intelligibility constrain the work, it may be seen by the audience as an aesthetic flaw.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be fully paid up social scientists in order to understand all this, because TV Tropes explains it in layman’s terms:

Real people will not always behave in the most expected way, and indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a fictional character to behave any more consistently. Depending on the general circumstances, immediate situation, and who is around, the mildest individual can just snap.

Out-of-character Moments

Some types of stories require a hero who acts uniformly bravely, as in a thriller, or uniformly comically, as in a sit-com.

So-called literary fiction can overcome the audience expectation that character is global. Dostoyevsky is known as an author who disregarded the folk psychology of character consistency. His characters change their behaviour depending on the situation they are in, which is the most ‘real’ depiction of humanity available to us in a work of fiction.

Can you think of more modern stories in which characters behave according to the situation rather than according to some folk psychological concept of global character?

The Expectation Of Character Consistency In Children’s Literature

It’s unlikely your first example is from the world of children’s literature. Audiences may have less time for local versus global intelligibility in stories for children:

Consistency implies that a literary character cannot have contradictory traits. Neither can characters behave in a manner incompatible with what has already been revealed about them, in description, actions, or the narrator’s comments. Normally we place a higher demand for consistency on literary [fictional] characters than on real people. Since children’s literature is generally didactic, we place still higher demands for consistency on children’s literature characters. Characters must be understood from the text alone; therefore, any radical deviation in the way a character is presented will be perceived by readers as an artistic flaw.

– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

Folk psychology is something we must resist, in our real lives and in our reactions to fiction, because it is hugely liberating to understand that situations rather than enduring characteristics are key to behaviour. It is especially important when coming to grips with the situations of historically marginalised groups.

FURTHER READING

 

Header photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

Sucker by Carson McCullers

Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.

For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter. Continue reading “Sucker by Carson McCullers”

Is Animalification A Thing?

man surrounded by rock pigeons

In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.

Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)

Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.

But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?

Continue reading “Is Animalification A Thing?”

Deals With The Devil In Storytelling

young man standing at crossroads in the woods

Humans have been making transactions with money for about 5000 years. Before that, our ancestors traded goods; before that, favours. We are a species highly attuned to swapping, making deals, owing favours and keeping stock.

 

So it’s not surprising that we personify ‘fate’ or ‘life itself’ or God or whatever, and feel, deep down, that if one good thing happens to us we must make a sacrifice later. Sacrifice as a cultural practice has largely disappeared around the world but has it really gone away?

This post is about Faustian stories. I’ve previously written about a related concept known as the ‘tragic dilemma‘. Also related is the pyrrhic victory. We could plot these outcomes on a continuum — all would be clustered at the tragic end.

You may hear the term ‘inflection points’ to describe the metaphorical crossroads we encounter in life. Psychologists use this term and investors use it as well.

WHAT IS A FAUSTIAN STORY?

The Faustian story is an ur-story, which means it’s the ancestor of many modern tales. TV Tropes calls Faustian plots Deal With The Devil plots.

Many stories, Faustian or not, include a stark ‘moral dilemma’ scene. The Faustian story is one in which the moral dilemma is taken to its extreme: Great riches and the hero’s very life. Alternatively, if the main character chooses ‘no deal’, no riches at all and nothing good, ever. Faustian stories are a thought experiment regarding sacrifice: Everyone has a price. What would yours be?

“Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now imply, more widely, a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.

But the story of Dr Faustus wasn’t the only ‘Faustian’ tale in the first 1000 years after Christ. Medieval audiences really liked the tale of the guy who sold his soul to the devil.

We also have the similar tale of Theophilus, who started to bitterly regret denouncing Christ and the Virgin in favour of Satan, so he repented. After that he was known as Theophilus the Penitent. The contract with Satan got burnt up. This was a Faustian tale but it was also a redemption tale. (Audiences love those, even today. Especially in America.)

The story of Faustus became the most enduring because it coincided with a time in the medieval era — the 1500s — when certain privileged men were starting to become really schooled up in certain esoteric areas. We take it for granted these days that every professional has their speciality, and no one outside that profession will ever understand what goes on in that specialty area, but in Medieval times, if you had a specialised job, people thought you a sorcerer. Ironically, it was in the age of Newton that these ideas were in the air. Turns out we have always been suspicious of science:

It was medieval philosophers who argued that revelation was to be found hidden in nature, and uncovered by experiment. This was the true scientific revolution. And it was Newton’s age that was the great age of superstition. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that people started to believe that human beings could make a pact with the Devil, and thereby gain supernatural powers.

— Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

WHO IS FAUST?

Faust is the main character of a classic German legend. Fictional Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

But the fictional character of Faust is based on a real man. Johann Georg Faust, born around 1480. He was well-known as an astrologer (an academic in those days) and a necromancer (talking to the dead). He used a magic lantern to conjure up shadows of the dead, which, yes, I can see how people thought that a bit creepy.

The real life Faust was born in Kundlingen but settled longest in Witternberg. He died around age 40 because his chemicals exploded during an accident. If that’s not an interestingly tragic life, I don’t know what is. People at the time thought so, too.

The story of Faust’s life was first published in Frankfurt but had been translated into English by 1592. The title is wonderful: The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Whoever translated the German story into English (known only by the initials PF), added many embellishments of their own. This was common back then. I suppose it enlivened the job of translator.

Playwright Christopher Marlowe turned the story into a play which proved very popular with audiences. (Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, to put it in context.) Marlowe called the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like something Anne Shirley might have come up with.

The story of playwright Christopher Marlowe is as interesting as the story of Dr Faustus. Marlowe was a gay blaspheming atheist at a time when all three of those things were not permitted, but he was actually killed in a tavern brawl over the payment of a bill. Gory as it would’ve been to watch, I wonder how that evening played out exactly.

In any case, we might suspect Marlowe himself had made a pact with the devil. After an illustrious career as a playwright, he was executed at the tender age of 29.

Christopher Marlowe wrote his play, but Goethe also had a go at the Faustian story. Goethe was a German writer born in the mid 1700s. Goethe wrote his Faust story as a ‘closet drama’, which looks like a play on the page, but which is never intended to be performed, but read by a solitary reader ‘in their closet’. It is Goethe’s version which is now known as the Ur-story of Faust.

PLOT SUMMARY OF THE GERMAN LEGEND

The Pact

  • Faust is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar. Desperately looking for a purpose in life.
  • Faust tries to kill himself but botches the job. Starts with a suicide. Suicide is considered sinful by the Christian church of this time.
  • Faust calls on the Devil. He wants further knowledge and magical powers which will let him indulge in all the pleasures of the world.
  • In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears.
  • Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and Faust will be eternally damned. (In the early tales it is usually for 24 years, one year for each of the hours in a day.)

The Term Of The Bargain

  • Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways.
  • In many versions, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. However, Gretchen’s innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven. [Misogynistic bullshit, typical of the era. Perhaps an early take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.]
  • In Goethe’s rendition, Faust is saved by God’s grace via his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God in the form of the Eternal Feminine. [Happy Ending]
  • However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven. When the term ends, the Devil carries Faust off to Hell. [Tragic Ending]

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE FAUSTIAN PLOT

WE ARE BLOODTHIRSTY

First, audiences really seem to like it when bad acts are justly punished. This remains true in Hollywood today and speaks to an inherent conservatism. Adult audiences (at least) also seem to appreciate when bad children are punished in children’s stories. The Faustian punishment is the ultimate punishment. It appeals to something dark within us as humans — we get some sort of thrill out of revenge, or from knowing that no bad act goes unpunished.

IT RINGS TRUE

A proportion of us really seem to think of the world in Faustian terms, even today. Why does it seem like deals with the devil really do exist? When I think of people who live big lives — often they have a special skill, take lots of drugs and die age 27 — I can imagine they made a deal with the devil for 24 good years in return for the great sacrifice of a hasty death.

Of course, I know no such deal took place. But when it comes to risk-taking behaviour, the very behaviours that were initially rewarded also led to the individual’s downfall. We don’t see all the risk takers who took a risk without the great rewards. But the individuals who do lead Faustian lives stand out.

STAKES ARE HUGE

We find Faustian stories terrifying and alluring in equal measure. These stories are designed to help us understand ourselves, and our own motivations. They also help us to solidify our values.

WE TEND TO THINK WE CAN CHEAT DEATH

One of our most persistent collective wishes is to postpone death. There are always longevity clickbait articles popping up in newsfeeds. Folktales describe many such attempts. Characters rarely succeed, not even in the fantasy world of the fairytale. “Godfather Death,” retold below from a Swedish version, is typical. Although death can’t be cheated longterm, many folktales that describe temporary respites. Is it the temporary respite that we crave?

A poor man with a large family could find no one to be godfather for his latest son. Finally Death appeared, and the poor man chose him, saying: “You make no distinction between high and low.”

Years later, on the godson’s wedding night, Death called him from his bed and took him to a cave where countless candles were burning.

“Whose light is that?” asked the godson, pointing to a candle that was flickering out.

“Your own,” answered the godfather. The godson pleaded with Death to put a new candle in his holder, but the godfather did not answer. The light flickered and went out and the godson fell down dead.

We find from this that you can neither persuade nor cheat Death.

— from Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 18, type 332.

The story of the blacksmith who tricked death (sometimes identified as “the devil”) is one of the most popular folktales in Europe:

The Lord granted a smith three wishes, and the latter chose a pear tree that would detain anyone who climbed into it, an easy chair that would hold anyone who sat in it, and a bag that would imprison anyone who climbed into it. The devil came to get the smith, and the smith invited him to help himself to some fruit from his pear tree. The devil climbed into the tree and was stuck there. The smith would not release him until he promised to give the smith four more years of life. When the time was up the devil returned, but he made the mistake of sitting in the smith’s magic chair, and he had to promise four more years before the smith would release him. On the devil’s third visit, the smith tricked him into his bag, and then beat the bag with his hammer until the devil promised to leave him alone.

Later the smith got to thinking that he had perhaps acted unwisely, and he knocked on the gate of hell to make amends. However the devil would have nothing to do with him, so the smith found his way to heaven. He got there just as St. Peter was letting someone in, and the gate was still ajar. The smith made a rush, and if he didn’t get in, then I don’t know what became of him.

— from “The Master-Smith,” type 330 (Asbjørnsen and Moe, East o’ the Sun, p. 105.) For additional variations on this very popular theme see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 73-75

Note how the devil in these tales is not very similar to how we see the Devil depicted in stories today. The devil of traditional religion is cunning, sinister, wicked, and almost as omnipotent as God. But in these folktales he is a fool, and he can be outwitted by a clever, trickster mortal.

This is not an unusual set-up in folktales. In those older stories, even St. Peter is frequently portrayed as a fool. His stupidity also makes Jesus look a lot smarter. (See Godfather Death: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 332.) The idea that we can outsmart evil is reassuring, and I imagine this is why audiences enjoyed these folktales so much.

EXAMPLES OF MODERN FAUSTIAN STORIES

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul

The story of this song by Rhiannon Giddens centers anyone who has ever had to use their body for someone else’s gain. In this case it is a story of slavery. Slavery itself contains Faustian similarities.

Sometimes the entire plot deviates little from the early Faustian ones. In other stories it’s less obvious.

  • The Book of Job — “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). Job is antithesis to Faust — saintly and completely dedicated to the Lord. Faust is not dedicated to the Lord. He’s all about knowledge rather than faith.
  • There are various Grimm tales about deals with the devil. Contained in the first of the Grimm collections is “The Blacksmith and the Devil”. A blacksmith almost hangs himself after losing all his money but a man with a long white beard appears from behind a tree and promises ten years of good life, after which the blacksmith belongs to him. Similar tales include “The Godfather” (Grimm, no. 42) and “Godfather Death” (Grimm, no. 44). 
  • The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
  • Faust was made for film in 1994 by Jan Svankjajer. Faust is portrayed by actors, puppets and animation in a storyworld cast in darkness and shadow. Darkness and shadow tend to be common to cinematic Faustian stories.
  • The Firm — in exchange for a well-paid job in law, a young law graduate gives his life. Now he’s part of the firm, he’ll never be allowed to leave.
  • Silence of the Lambs (1991) —Hannibal Lecter is Faust’s Mephistopheles. He tempts Clarice Starling with greater knowledge in exchange for his participation in evil. Clarice is Faust. She confronts and deals with evil so she can contain it (to stop her private ‘lambs’, from screaming). She learns the lambs will never stop screaming because evil will always be there. Clarice isn’t interested in Hannibal Lecter so much as she’s interested in evil itself, and the evil within all of us, inclining in herself. (For more on this read Film as Religion by John Lyden.)
  • Damn Yankees
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray
  • Devil’s Advocate
  • Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002) — a children’s cartoon starring caped crusaders. They are able to defeat all them them, until an ancient magician puts all the League under a spell. The only one who can win against Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene. They all escape with lives intact.
  • Thelma & Louise sees main characterThelma finally achieving emotional independence and true freedom, but she must pay the price of death.
  • Batman Begins (2005) — Batman is Faust in a cape.
  • “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is an American short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which a man trades his soul with the devil. In ‘selling soul story’ tradition, this one takes place at a crossroads. Crossroads are highly symbolic. They represent moral dilemmas and major life decisions in general. Sometimes there is no literal crossroads. As a new spin on old tropes, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” contains no cross road in the traditional sense — rather, the story takes place at the meeting of three American state borders: It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
  • Breaking Bad is a Faustian story. Walter White earns ridiculous amounts of money, but he won’t have enough time on earth to spend it. He’s going to die now.

FAUST AND LITERARY MONSTERS

Thomas C. Foster considers Frankenstein a take on the Faustian tale:

We keep getting versions of Faust, from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to Goethe’s Faust to Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster to Damned Yankees to movie versions of Bedazzled (and, of course, Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side) to bluesman Robert Johnson’s stories of how he acquired his musical skill in a meeting with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. The enduring appeal of this cautionary tale suggests how deeply embedded it is in our collective consciousness. Unlike other versions, however, Frankenstein involves no demonic personage offering the damning margin, so the cautionary being is the product (the monster) rather than the source (the devil) of the unholy act. In his deformity he projects the perils of man seeking to play God, perils that, as in other (non comic) versions, consume the power seeker.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

THE STORY OF ROBERT JOHNSON

On Netflix right you can find a number of stories about characters making deals, with something unseen and unknown (maybe the devil). Documentary Devil At The Crossroads is about the myth surrounding real life, hugely influential musician called Robert Johnson, who learned guitar so quickly and so well that nobody believed he could have.

In reality, Johnson  had large hands, which allowed him to to do things others could not. (This was not the full story, but part of it.)

My own interpretation of the Robert Johnson story goes like this: If you happen to know any musical savants, you won’t be all that surprised about Johnson — someone whose brain is wired for music can learn it quickly. Robert Johnson was denied musical opportunities as a child, partly because he was poor, partly because he was Black. When he was finally given a guitar and a bit of tuition in early adulthood, he was at first ‘not very good’ but then he disappeared. When he returned a year and a half later, his skills had exceeded that of his mentors.

There is a documentary series on Australian TV about child geniuses called Making Child Prodigies. One of the boys featured is a modern Robert Johnson on the electric guitar. What if Callum had been denied access to a guitar until early adulthood? I believe he would’ve picked it up within a year and a half, because that’s how his brain is wired. On YouTube, Callum McPhie’s channel is called The Heavy Metal Kid.

What really strikes me as eerie: Similarities between Robert Johnson and Christopher Marlowe’s experiences in pubs.  Marlowe was actually killed in a tavern brawl age 29. No one knows for sure how Robert Johnson died, but he was dead at age 27. He was a well-known troublemaker in pubs.

According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.

— Wikipedia

SMALL DEALS WITH THE DEVIL IN OTHERWISE NON-FAUSTIAN STORIES

In her short story “Tableau Vivant”, Robin Black deftly depicts a common thought-pattern: that happiness must be repaid by misfortune. The story is  about an older woman who has had a stroke. The story goes into Jean’s backstory:

She could remember [her daughter’s] very first few months, how she had been so little trouble, so docile really, that Jean had endured regular bouts of fear, not only that the baby wasn’t normal–byw hich she then still meant exceptional–but also that so easy an infancy would be paid for one day, fear that it all evens out somehow, suspicious even then of the deals life might make on our behalf.

— Robin Black, “Tableau Vivant”, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

How many of us recognise this thought-pattern? Something good happens… but it can never last. Something bad will happen, and that will be a kind of payment for enjoying happiness and good fortune. We are inclined to make cause and effect connections when none are present.

This particular cognitive bias can lead to unhappiness. Problematically, we may be loathe to shuck it off, because it can also provide us with consolation during the lowest times. “Something terrible just happened to me; I’m owed something good.”

Hmm, life hasn’t been very kind to me lately (Well)
But I suppose it’s a push for moving on (Oh yeah)
In time the sun’s gonna shine on me nicely (One day yeah )
Something tells me good things are coming
And I ain’t gonna not believe

Freedom lyrics, from Django Unchained, in which ‘something’ refers to the cognitive bias of subjective validation.

Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson on Unsplash

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia

TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic.

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man — QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

— Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird

  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral weaknesses.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BATTLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

Hotels and Motels In Stories

Photo by Jake Stark on Unsplash

Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary.  My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ withiin a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home. Continue reading “Hotels and Motels In Stories”

Freedom & Slavery In Storytelling

In stories, characters change. The change may be tiny; it may be massive. Apart from ‘range of change’, there is another way of thinking about the nature of your main character’s arc: Do they end up more free at the end than they were at the beginning?

Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century that all stories are basically about the victory of mind over matter. Howard Suber says something similar in his book on film: That every movie could be called ‘Trapped’.

Is it true that in every single story, a character is gets stuck somewhere?

Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Language, explains that there is a ‘manifest’ and a ‘latent’ layer to most stories. This is the terminology Freud used when describing dreams.We might call them ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ layers, except Fromm’s terminology is better — in a story like Jonah and the Whale, the ‘literal’ layer has its own weird logic, so it feels a bit weird to call it ‘literal’. When Jonah can’t stand it inside the whale and starts praying to God for release, this is a plot point characteristic of neurosis.

An attitude is assumed as a defense against a danger, but then it grows far beyond its original defense function and becomes a neurotic symptom from which the person tries to be relieved. This Jonah’s escape into protective isolation ends in the terror of  being imprisoned, and he takes up his life at the point where he had tried to escape.

— Erich Fromm

When analysing stories for ‘freedom’ vs. ‘slavery’, it’s important to consider symbolism. Look at the latent layer, not just the manifest layer. The answer is yes — all characters in every story are constrained by something, even if only on the latent layer of story.

In Breaking Bad there is a character who Walter White pays to go to prison for him. For him, prison is its own kind of freedom — freedom from the worries of the outside world. Jimmy “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly has become institutionalised, which means he understands prison laws better than he understands society’s laws. All characters desire freedom, including “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly. Another example of someone who seems to crave imprisonment is the main character in King Rat, but again, that’s only because he has ironically found his own kind of freedom within the workable constraints of imprisonment.

Continue reading “Freedom & Slavery In Storytelling”