“The Juniper Tree” is a short ghost story by American writer Lorrie Moore, published in the collection Bark (2014). Or is it a ghost story? I interpret this story as a metaphor for the death of middle-aged friendship, and the mourning process one goes through when deciding to let a friend go.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE JUNIPER TREE
In “The Juniper Tree,” a beautiful, rending fable, Moore’s narrator can’t bring herself to visit Robin, a dying friend, until it’s too late. She is consoled when a dead Robin returns to visit her. In the story’s last scene, the narrator recalls their final encounter before Robin went to the hospital. After a short conversation over an untouched lemon-meringue pie, Robin suddenly pushes the pie into her own face. “What the fuck?” says the mystified narrator. A reader may ask the same question of many of the things that transpire in Bark. But the initial surprise of Moore’s effervescent, jarring stories ultimately yields to a response that, far from mystification, is its mirror opposite: enlightenment.Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
LITERAL INTERPRETATION: A friend dies of cancer in hospital. Our narrator meant to visit but never did. Two other friends rope her into a visit to the dead woman’s house. They see her ghost and everything is quite uncomfortable as the narrator is out of the loop. Our narrator remembers the last time she saw her dead friend in good health — they had a minor clash over a man. The dead friend slaps a pie in her own face to lighten the situation but our narrator is not amused. She decides she needs to go to more conferences to meet new friends.
ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION: This is a story about the end of a friendship. The first cracks appeared when the two women found themselves dating the same man (not at the same time — it’s a small dating pool in this town). A frank remark about the man’s infidelity lengthens the crack. When our narrator says a premature goodbye after dinner, they are no longer firm friends. Narrator realises she does not want friends who do wacky things like throw a pie in their face for shits and giggles. (I see this as a failed attempt on the part of the dying friend, to lighten the mood.) Narrator deals with the end of the friendship by imagining the friend has actually died. Inspired by the ghostly image of her white-faced (merengue covered) former friend, the ‘dead’ woman morphs into a ghost. Narrator never really put a firm end to the friendship. She meant to keep nurturing it, but made excuses and now she hasn’t visited her in hospital and next thing she’s dead. This scene with the ghost is the narrator’s conscience reminding her that friends are actually few and far between and friendships need nurturing. She imagines visiting this dead friend with two other former friends — each with their own major flaws — one is missing an arm, the other is mentally ill. These are external manifestations of psychological problems which our narrator has decided not to bother with, consequently cutting them loose. By the end of the story our narrator has said her goodbyes to these former friends, psychologically preparing herself to move on to new ones.
The title is therefore ironic. The Juniper tree symbolises rejuvenation, healing and longevity, yet this is a story about death.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE JUNIPER TREE FAIRY TALE
“The Juniper Tree” is also one of the darker fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, which includes murder, guilt transferred onto a loved daughter and accidental cannibalism. Does that have anything to do with this? While the plots are different, the stories share certain images and emotions:
- Whiteness. The fairy tale is white noir, with the white of the snow. Moore’s short story has the white of a meringue and therefore the ghostly white face of the dead.
- The fairy tale features a decapitated boy, whose head stays on with the help of a scarf. Moore uses this imagery.
- Both stories feature jealously. The fairytale is about a second wife whereas Moore’s story is about a subsequent girlfriend.
- In the fairy tale the second wife hates the first born son because he will inherit all her husband’s wealth, according to the customs of the day. (Dealing with primogeniture is a common reason for female ‘evil’ in fairy tales.) In Moore’s story, we see the narrator give birth to some misdirected hatred as she begins to come to terms with her boyfriend’s philandering, expecting fidelity. (This is common in contemporary tales.)
- Both stories include a woman hearing voices that are not her own.
- Both stories end with grief and sorrow disappearing. Both are stories of catharsis.
- Both tales are about dark feelings. If we indulge in these dark emotions, bad things will happen. In Moore’s short story we have a woman who is likely to end up lonely.
- Both stories feature singers, and the singers trade. In the fairytale, typical fairytale treasures are traded, whereas in Moore’s story we have friends being traded.
- Structurally, both stories have two distinct parts. The fairytale seems to begin an entirely new narrative arc once the bird flies away. Moore’s story features two main scenes: The encounter with the ghost and the final supper before the friend dies.
Lorrie Moore has said in interviews that short story collections based around a theme feel contrived, so I extrapolate that a modern short story hewing too closely to a fairytale would seem similarly contrived to this writer. Moore’s ‘retelling’ of “The Juniper Tree” is therefore an excellent case study for short story writers who are interested in taking flashes of imagery from a classic; we are free to use as little as we like.