The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter Analysis

Tom Kitten cover

The Tale of Tom Kitten was created soon after Beatrix Potter had moved into her farm in the Lake District, which she’d bought with the proceeds earned from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations are recognisably of Hill Top and of the farmstead’s surrounding village. The cats of the illustrations were real cats who lived there.

It was Beatrix’s publisher Harold Warne who thought cats would make good characters for one of her picture books. His own daughter had a pet cat. It seems fluffy mammals are an easier sell. In contrast, Beatrix had a hard time selling the concept of Jeremy Fisher. She made the background illustrations particularly beguiling to compensate for the ick factor of the frog. Contemporary picture books are full of all sorts of lovable animals from every classification, but Beatrix Potter was paving the way and her publisher was testing the waters.

Although Potter succeeded in creating lovable frogs, and hedgehogs, her publisher was right about cats. Consumers do love cats. After the success of Tom Kitten, Warne was approached by a company who wanted to make a musical version.

Beatrix dismissed this idea as “considerable twaddle”.

Tourists to the Lake District can visit Hill Top, Potter’s seventeenth century farm house, known to fans as “Tom Kitten’s house”.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOM KITTEN”

The story starts off with the child characters constricted by the requirements of polite society, then evolves into an unsupervised carnivalesque adventure. the child characters end up back inside the home, though their freedom has not been fully curtailed — they will find a way to have fun.

SHORTCOMING

The Tale of Tom Kitten is equally the tale of Tom’s sisters, Mittens and Moppet. But Beatrix Potter did not subvert the stereotype that girl children are well-behaved while boy children are mischievous and interesting. It is Peter Rabbit who goes out on his adventure rather than one of his better-behaved sisters.

In a misogynistic pecking order where boys are at the top, Tom is affronted by his mother’s requirement to dress up for guests because dressing up and looking pretty is a girly thing to do. In different circumstances, Mittens and Moppet may be equally rebellious.

Indeed they are, though they appear docile while under the watchful eye of Mother. Beatrix Potter does eventually afford the sisters a little freedom at the end, where we see their true, playful natures. We might consider this a minor gender subversion.

DESIRE

In common with the childlike heroes of any carnivalesque tale, these kittens want to have fun. Their deeper psychologies remain unexplored, though we do get an insight into the insecurities of their mother.

OPPONENT

The Opponent is the adult character who wants to make the kittens behave like well-behaved little grown-ups — in this case the mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit. Tabitha is overly-concerned about appearance. When her friends arrive for their fancy party she lies that the kittens have got measles and that’s why they’re in bed.

But for the adventure part of this story, Tabitha is out of the picture. She has turfed her children out of the house.

PLAN CARNIVALESQUE ADVENTURES

The kittens want to play without impediment so their clothes become dirty and dishevelled, then come completely off.

Beatrix Potter would have been familiar with the constricting nature of clothing. She lived in an era where women’s clothing was highly impractical, yet she’d just moved to a farm. It’s one thing to sit inside and paint while wearing Edwardian women’s clothing; it’s another to be doing farm work in it.

beatrix potter dressed in edwardian clothing
by Charles King, circa 1913

BIG STRUGGLE

The climax of these adventures involve ducks. Potter makes the most of the natural comedy of ducks. who are graceful on water but comical on land.

The ducks put on the kittens’ discarded clothes — hat on a dog humour. This sort of gag appeals to preschoolers in particular.

Why is it so funny that the ducks are wearing clothes, when we probably didn’t laugh at kittens wearing clothes?

Beatrix Potter anthropomorphised all of her animal characters, but they don’t all sit at the same place on an animal—human continuum. The cats are more human than the ducks are. Therefore it is more funny to see the ducks wearing human clothes.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque tale there doesn’t tend to be a Anagnorisis at the end. The revelation comes earlier and it is always this: Having fun is fun!

NEW SITUATION

In many carnivalesque tales, the story ends with the child back to constricted normality but in this case Beatrix Potter affords the kittens some freedom to continue their fun.

Potter also tells us about the ducks — who she must consider an integral part of the cast. They lose the clothes in the pond and have been looking for them ever since. This is no doubt an etiological tale explaining why ducks are constantly putting their heads under the water.

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The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter Analysis

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter was originally called The Roly-Poly Pudding and written as a Christmas present to a child. Potter’s image of the cat rolled up in dough is one of those resonant illustrations which, once seen, can never be unseen. Perhaps this image scarred you, too, as a child.

Perhaps it scars you now.

What makes an image resonant? I’ve explored that question elsewhere. Honestly, you can turn cosy Beatrix Potter illustrations into horror with a bit of cropping:

The cropped Beatrix Potter illustration emphasises the horror aspect of Potter's stories
The Rabbits Christmas Party, ‘The Departure’ ink, watercolour and gouache (detail)

In any case, I’m not surprised Potter originally used the story’s most scarring imagery as the original title, and I’m also not surprised that the title was changed. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the rest of the Beatrix Potter books.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF SAMUEL WHISKERS

Reading through the Beatrix Potters is like watching a series of wildlife documentaries — watch the one about the lions and you’re rooting for the lions. Watch the one about the deer and you’re rooting for the deer, and mad at the lions for killing the deer.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers places reader empathy firmly with the cats, in contrast to The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, in which the cats in a big Edwardian house are positioned as horrific enemies.

Samuel Whiskers has its own version of horror, not least the ‘spatial horror‘, which needs its own entry on TV Tropes. Spatial horror is very much a part of Beatrix Potter’s oeuvre. I’d hazard a guess Beatrix did not like to be locked up in tight spaces and hated feeling giddy and disorientated. The onomatopoeic ‘roly poly’ of the pudding is in itself a type of spatial horror.

SHORTCOMING

The story of Samuel Whiskers starts off with the problem of a mother cat, who is anxious and cannot keep tabs on her kittens. You’d think her anxiety would help her to keep tabs on them, but no. This is Tabitha Twitchit, who readers will know from The Story of Miss Moppet, The Tale of Tom Kitten and so forth.

DESIRE

The kittens want to have fun; their mother wants to keep them out of mischief; the rats want to make a roly-poly pudding out of one of the kittens; John Joiner the dog wants to complete whatever job he’s charged with.

OPPONENT

Parents and children are natural opponents — the kittens want to make mischief; Tabitha wants to know where her children are.

This house is also infested with rats. Functionally, these rats are the ghosts which haunt the big house — I’m thinking of a film such as The Others. You sort of know they’re there, but you only hear them scuttling. There’s a veneer between the two worlds.

The ‘old father rat’ is the most fearsome rat of all. He has yellow teeth and is too much for the cats. He appears occasionally like a ghost. He steals the rolling pin and pats of butter.

According to the other kitten, there is also an old woman rat who steals dough.

The reader should deduce at this point that the rats are stealing supplies to make their own pudding. It’d be easier on the rats if they simply waited for the cats to make the pudding and then steal the entire thing, but perhaps they like it made a certain way?

PLAN

While their mother was searching the house, Moppet and Mittens had got into mischief.

The cupboard door was not locked, so they pushed it open and came out.

Half the time when good guys get locked in a cell, all of the equipment that they need to escape is in the cell with them.

TV Tropes, Locking Macgyver In The Store Cupboard

Tabitha goes off looking for her kittens. This is where the spatial horror is introduced:

It was an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages. Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them, as if there might be a little secret staircase. Certainly there were odd little jagged doorways in the wainscot, and things disappeared at night—especially cheese and bacon.

SPATIAL HORROR

As if old houses aren’t creepy in their own right, the creepier thing about them is that you can get lost in them — not just in the rooms themselves, but in the spaces between.

The Rats In The Walls, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls encapsulate this particular fear. A Lovecraftian fear of passages, corridors and spaces in between may be more common than I realise. Jeff Kinney even makes a gag out of it in Wrecking Ball (2019). Greg can’t stand the thought of creatures poking about in the walls, so his future dream house will be made entirely of glass. The illustration shows Greg sitting downstairs, looking straight through the floors into an upstairs toilet.

Point of view switches to the kittens — stand-in children for child readers. Moppet and Mittens are all about mischief. That’s their ‘plan’. They are playing bakers, making ‘dear little muffins’ out of dough.

Point of view switches back to the adult cats. Cousin Ribby has arrived. The two adult cats lament the mischief made by kittens. It is revealed that Thomas has gone missing. Together the lady cats search.

Now there’s another sequence of spatial horror, with Tom Kitten stuck in the chimney of an old house, ‘where a person does not know his way, and where there are enormous rats.  [Cats are not people, but we are not supposed to think about that.]

It was most confusing in the dark. One flue seemed to lead into another.

There was less smoke, but Tom Kitten felt quite lost.

Eventually, John Joiner the dog is brought in to sniff Tom Kitten out.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle between Tom Kitten and the rats culminates in that horribly memorable image of the kitten inside the dough. The build up is reminiscent of fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, where a formidable male creature orders his wife to make him a very particular sort of meal — one which includes our main character:

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers),—”Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no anagnorisis, unless you count the fact that Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria have realised they cannot remain in the house.

The plot is resolved when John Joiner finds Tom Kitten by sniffing around and through the cracks in the floorboards. John Joiner is a dog, who has been called in by the cats to help.

This is where the most horrifying part of the story ends.

NEW SITUATION

But Potter adds a cosy addendum to the end of this story, bringing herself as narrator. She tells the reader how the carpenter dog cannot stay for tea with the cats because she herself has charged him with the task of building chicken coops.

And in a comic twist, Beatrix Potter sees the evil rats running off with her wheelbarrows. They have piled their luggage into the wheelbarrow and are moving into Farmer Potatoes’ barn (presumably because of the dog, though they haven’t been scared of the cats). They do very well in the barn and all the rats there today are descended from Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria.

Moppet and Mittens grow up into ‘very good rat catchers’. They earn their living as such, tacking tails onto the wall as proof. This in itself is a horrifying scene to me.

But Tom Kitten is forever scared of anything bigger than a mouse.

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The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter Analysis

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

Perhaps Jeremy Fisher even had an influence on this piece by Ohara Koson, Frog Sumo, ca. 1930s

STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

SHORTCOMING

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Shortcoming is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

ANAGNORISIS

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Anagnorisis is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW SITUATION

But we’re given a nice cosy New Situation, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

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Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter Analysis

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE

Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.

SHORTCOMING

Lucie’s shortcoming is that she keeps losing things.

DESIRE

Lucie wants her handkerchief and pinnies back, which sets her out on her journey.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.

Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)

Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.

PLAN

There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)

Jon Klassen uses a similar story structure in I Want My Hat Back.

Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.

Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when it appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.

When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.

Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque story like this, the Anagnorisis phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.

The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.

NEW SITUATION

(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?

And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.

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The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter Analysis

Ginger and Pickles

The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter is a story of utopian, idealised capitalism, first published 1909. This is how we’d all like capitalism to work — small local businesses provide goods and services; those friends providing the best goods and services win out, those ill-suited to small business find other, more suitable occupations. All is fair and just.

We see this micro-capitalist retail structure even in contemporary children’s books published today. We also see it in toys — the Sylvanian Families line of dolls offers for sale a utopian smalltown market, with tiny pastries, pots and pans and a world populated by nuclear families of animals in clothes.

Ginger and Pickles is also a bit like a contemporary vampire story a la Twilight, focusing on the repression of one’s natural desires, and eventual escape into the wild where these can be satiated.

STORYWORLD OF “GINGER AND PICKLES”

The book is illustrated in a mixture of colour and black and white line drawings. The colour illustrations are very detailed while the line drawings aren’t very detailed at all, compared to how Potter sometimes rendered her line work.

My parents’ generation grew up with an old-fashioned supplies store as described in Ginger and Pickles, and I’ve been told that when supermarkets first opened in New Zealand, many customers (mostly women) were reluctant to use them. It felt like theft to walk around and pick your own thing from the shelves. Asking a grocer to take things down for you seemed more polite, somehow, as if the act of ‘giving’ provided a kind of permission to buy. I think of supermarket food as owned by a faceless corporation but, back then, shopping must have felt more like walking into someone’s kitchen and requesting to have some of their own food.

I’m thinking of a sketch by The Two Ronnies from 1976. By this time in England, the old-fashioned shopkeeper was on his way out and the background of the gag below is that “Nothing is too much trouble.” These places remained in existence precisely to keep serving the customers who had grown up with the village grocer as a local friend and personality. This exact culture can be seen in 1970s comedies such as To The Manor Born but we still see it today in the pharmacy scenes of Doc Martin. Butchers and pharmacists still operate like those old-fashioned shops. There are few other examples where the customer needs to interact with the shopkeeper.

Meanwhile, the smaller Ronnie really tests this maxim. All the while, the shopkeeper tries to keep up the facade of jovial companionship, providing not just the service of goods but also the social service of ‘an outing’. He ultimately fails to keep his cool, leading to carnivalesque chaos. And if an old-fashioned grocer can’t manage to keep his cool, he proves himself redundant in the late seventies era of supermarkets.

The characters of Ginger and Pickles, as depicted by Beatrix Potter, are providing the ultimate grocery service — no one pays for anything. She describes the concept of ‘credit’ for young readers in the text, who aren’t meant to ask, well, where are all these products coming from, then? Rather than go into that, Potter mentions the terrier of the pair can’t afford a dog licence. I would’ve thought the dog licence is the least of their financial worries, but this is a payment the young reader can identify with.

DOG LICENCES

I wondered if it were true that terriers needed dog licences in England but collies didn’t. I’m yet to find an answer to this so if you know the answer, flick me an email.

VOCABULARY OF GINGER AND PICKLES

A wigg is a kind of bun or small cake made of fine flour, less sweet than your regular sweet  bun. The seeds used in sweet baked goods were probably caraway seeds. Potter has spelt it with a single g, but it was often spelt with two. Perhaps Potter knew this but wanted to retain the imagery of hair, and that’s why she put the word in speech marks.

A self-fitting candle means that it has been designed to fit into a standard sized candle-holder, which came in a variety of sizes. In the early 1900s people would’ve been as familiar with these sizes as we are familiar with bulb types today (though I still often manage to buy the wrong one).

£3 19 11 3/4 is read “three pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence three farthings. This is the equivalent of advertising a product at 99p instead of a pound because this is 1 farthing short of four pounds, so it’s mildly humorous that the ‘rates and taxes’ have come to this exact amount, which seems like a grocer’s special.

“Send us all the bills again to everybody ‘with compts‘,” replied Ginger. This appears to be a shortened form of ‘with compliments’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE TALE OF GINGER AND PICKLES”

SHORTCOMING

Ginger & Pickles is a small supplies store specialising in sweets. The shop is named after its cat and dog owners.

In picture books and in idiomatic expressions such as ‘fight like cats and dogs’, cats and dogs are often depicted as living at loggerheads, but I’ve noticed that in reality a well-fed cat and a dog living in a domestic household together are just as likely to get on as two cats or two dogs (who quite often despise each other). In my experience, cats in particular can really hate each other, even if they’re from the same litter. (Bear that in mind if you get yourself two kittens thinking they’ll automatically be best buds.)

Potter doesn’t get into any antagonism that you often see between cats and dogs  — Ginger and Pickles get along fine, sort of like a married couple. They know each other well and rib accordingly. But there is another Shortcoming — Potter’s animal characters hover in that awkward space between ‘humans in animal form’ and ‘proper animals’ — although they own a shop and speak English like humans, they are driven by their baser instincts and would quite like to eat the customers. The terrier would like to eat the rabbits and the cat would like to eat the mice. They acknowledge this shortcoming in themselves and have developed strategies; the cat serves the rabbits and the dog serves the mice. (In fact terriers also like mice and were bred as ratters. I doubt terriers make a fine distinction between rodents.)

DESIRE

Here’s what I think. I think Ginger and Pickles Desire the parade of edible customers who visit their little store. In fact, they are basically enticing them there with free sweets. They are setting up traps, and they enjoy the hands-off fantasy parading in front of them all day.

Because WHY THE HELL ELSE would they do this entire thing? They’re not making any money.

OPPONENT

The customers themselves are set up as opposition, though what Ginger and Pickles are not receiving in financial reward they are receiving in some other kind of gastro-porn buzz.

The off-the-age Opponent is the other shopkeeper — opposition not just for these shopkeepers but for the patrons as well, as Tabitha Twitchit is a much better business person and doesn’t give credit, knowing exactly how that would end.

PLAN

They try to extend their credit, for example by asking for credit on the dog licence at the post office. They ask their customers to pay for what they owe, but never follow up.

This the extent of their business acumen. They don’t change the rules to ‘no credit’. They don’t visit their customers at their homes and ask to be paid. No threats, no violence. Their baser instincts therefore remain in check.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene involves the German police doll — were Germans more scary in 1909 perhaps? Would an English-made doll have seemed safer? The bead eyes have inherent horror, utilised also in a horror middle grade story like Coraline (where the eyes are buttons). The policeman’s helmet has been sewn onto his head. Ginger points out that this renders him harmless, whereas Potter knows this is exactly the stuff of horror. This tiny, spindly policeman doll is therefore formidable and scary enough to warrant Ginger and Pickles closing up shop and heading back into nature.

ANAGNORISIS

Well, since Ginger and Pickles have been forced out of their business by circumstance, this didn’t lead to any Anagnorisis — only the grim realisation that they were not cut out for independent retail.

Instead, Potter gives us the Anagnorisis of the rest of the village. The closure sets off a chain of events and the narrator explains to the reader what the customers will have realised: By taking advantage of the free goods at Ginger & Pickles’, the very existence of another grocery store was keeping the price of Tabitha Twitchit’s goods down.

At this point, Potter gives us the mini-plot of the Dormouses (Dormice?), who unsuccessfully sell candles, ‘which behave very strangely’. The images of the drooping candles are spooky even in black and white, standing about as high as the mice themselves and therefore looking like hooded figures come to collect the dead.

This is an unusual place to put a mini-plot, but the preface to this edition tells us that:

The storyline was slightly altered from Beatrix’s original conception, as she wanted to include a character representing her local shopkeeper, John Taylor, who was now bedridden. He suggested he might pass as a dormouse, and so John Dormouse appears in the tale.

I haven’t seen Beatrix’s unedited manuscript but I can guess John featured in the main part of the story, Beatrix was asked to remove him as it complicated the plot unnecessarily, and knowing what we’re told of Beatrix’s personality she would’ve refused to remove him completely, so it was agreed she tack him on at the end as she has done here.

I don’t think this is an ideal story structure. As a result, this is not the most resonant of Potter’s books, but she was already very popular by 1909 and she had a certain amount of sway on her own products. Thusly, we get the story of the candles and John Dormouse in an odd place. I do think the candle story is itself pretty cool, but not at this point in the plot, when the reader is expecting a summary of the main narrative.

NEW SITUATION

This is a happily-ever-after tale — Sally Henny-penny re-opens the abandoned store, calls it something new and obviously knows how to run a business properly because she draws the customers in with specials and only accepts cash (as opposed to credit). Chickens are obviously harmless, to everyone but slugs and worms and insects, that is.

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The Gift Of The Magi by O. Henry Analysis

Henry John Yeend King - Twas the Night Before Christmas

See, “The Gift Of The Magi” (1905) is why we don’t buy secret gifts. Aren’t we always told in relationships that communication is key? Yes, yes it is. Either buy your own presents, or drop strong hints in the lead up to gift giving season.

Wait, that’s not what I’m meant to take away from this story, is it. For the likes of me, reading the story a century later, O. Henry does a Charles Perrault and tells us exactly what we’re supposed to takeaway in a dedicated paragraph at the end — that sacrificially giving gifts is excellent for human relationships.

THE MAGI

Magi were priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians. These guys were into astronomy, astrology, alchemy and other forms of ‘magic’. The words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ in English come from ‘magi’.

In the Bible, magi get a mention in the Gospel of Matthew. They brought gifts for baby Jesus. These days they’re more often called Kings or Wise Men. This is how we come to associate Magi with gifts.

There are two main types of short stories — plotted and lyrical. O. Henry wrote the widely-beloved plotted kind, which amasses its entire weight at the end. “The Gift of the Magi” is also one of those rare short stories with a happy ending, so appeals to a wide audience.

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe [this], but which I’ll simulate here anyway: contemporary short story writers have gotten too specialized/dark/mopey. They don’t have enough “real life” in their stories—that is, they’re not taking up the real concerns of real readers. They aren’t storytellers, really (in that around-the-campfire sense) but margin-dwellers, writing stories in response (not to life itself), but to other hothouse stories, and all these stories do, really, is uphold a certain knee-jerk, lazy, default humanist ethic, etc., etc. Where’s the joy? Isn’t there lots to celebrate in life? This model (as you can tell) is dangerously close to reactionary (“Just write something I can read and I’ll read it! Why so negative! You sure seem well-fed enough, mister!”), and I don’t buy it for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that sometimes joy can express itself in strange ways, and also because stories have always been dark (i.e., Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Crucifixion).

George Saunders

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE GIFT OF THE MAGI”

A NOTE ON VIGNETTES AND SLICE OF LIFE STORIES

Typically [vignette or slice of life stories] describe one situation or a relatively short period of time. The terms vignette and slice of life are often used interchangeably. Vignettes normally describe one or two brief scenes such as “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. They are often light or ironic in tone. The slice of life can include multiple scenes over a limited period of time, like a vignette, but in tone they often depict a realistic, unpleasant or grim side of life. […]

Because the writer’s purpose may be to explore a character, idea, or relationship, these two forms often lack a plot—no rising slope of a dramatic arc. They may be devoid of plot like conflict or even inner observations. Therefore, success is heavily dependent upon strength of voice and style and originality of story. […]

Without a plot you will have to overcome the inertia with stage action (small character actions and gestures) and through emotional movement (shifts of emotions).

Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

I disagree with those who say that some narratives have plots and others don’t — every complete narrative has a structure, and I’m not sure what structure is if not a breakdown of plot.

SHORTCOMING

This is a story with two main characters, but the focus is on the young woman, named Della.

Della doesn’t have enough money to buy her husband a Christmas gift. This is a fairly childlike shortcoming to have, common to middle grade characters as well — a general lack of autonomy is her biggest shortcoming.

She is also psychologically needy when it comes to worry about how her husband will approve or disapprove of her beauty after she cuts off her hair, but this is a 21st century feminist reading. In a culture where a woman’s beauty is the main thing about her, the prospect of transforming from sexually attractive to unattractive is a shortcoming indeed.

DESIRE

Della wants to buy a good present for her husband to show him how much she cares for him.

OPPONENT

This story is structured like a romance in that each lover is the other’s opponent. But we don’t know this, or in what respect, until the end. O. Henry sets up a different kind of potential opposition (for suspense reasons) — will Della’s husband chastise her for cutting off her hair? Stay tuned to find out…

PLAN

First Della scrimps and saves on an already tight income.

But this isn’t enough for a decent gift so she donates her hair for a wig. This earns a substantial amount of money and with that she buys a chain for her husband’s fob watch.

Lisbeth Zwerger. The Gift of the Magi. Text by O. Henry
Lisbeth Zwerger. The Gift of the Magi. Text by O. Henry

BIG STRUGGLE

When Jim arrives home we are in Della’s head and a little anxious about what Jim’s going to do. We don’t know enough about Jim — might he even beat her?

ANAGNORISIS

The plot revelation is that they have each bought each other an expensive present which the other can’t use, precisely because they’ve each made a sacrifice for the other.

This advertisement plays on the same gag as the one in The Gift of the Magi.
A NOTE ON TWIST ENDINGS

There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

NEW SITUATION

They may be poor, but they are happy.

Here’s what’s not overtly critiqued, though readers may offer our own spin:

  • consumerism as expression of love
  • expensive items as markers of social status
  • men, women, control and beauty

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

O. Henry is the pen name of a guy (William Sydney Porter) imprisoned for embezzling money (after he tried to evade capture by fleeing from Texas to Honduras). He spent his time in prison writing cosy short stories, and he’s remembered mostly for this one, a lovely story about loving people who do nice things for each other.

Funny how that works.

Header painting: Henry John Yeend King – Twas the Night Before Christmas

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Paul’s Case by Willa Cather Analysis

Paul's Case

“Paul’s Case” is a short story by Willa Cather, first published in McClure’s Magazine in 1905 under the title “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”.

As a New Zealander, I have a longterm interest in Katherine Mansfield. I’m coming late to American Willa Cather, but the first thing I notice is that she was writing short stories in the same era as Mansfield. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather wrote novels as well as short stories. Cather lived a full life, to the age of 73. Mansfield died of tuberculosis age 34. Many have wondered if Mansfield would have eventually written novels had she lived longer, but I feel this wondering is afflicted by the belief that novels are somehow a ‘graduation’ of the short story. Short stories are an art form in their own right. Many successful novelists find short stories impossible.

Cather was a bit older than Mansfield, born in 1873. Mansfield was born in 1888. A lot was happening around that time, especially regarding women’s rights. There may well have been a generational difference between the two women (as well as a geographical one). Also, Mansfield was right into Freud, whereas Willa Carther may not have even heard of him. (Does it make any difference, when it comes to ideas that pervade the culture and influence writers?)

What interests me after reading the title of “Paul’s Case” is the writers’ shared interest in the field of psychology. “Paul’s Case” is an exploration of a high school student’s inner thoughts. One of Mansfield’s short stories is even titled “Psychology“. That said, “Paul’s Case” reminds me most of Mansfield’s “Bliss“: A character exists in a dreamworld where everything is perfect, but in ‘returning home’ (actually in Paul’s case, metaphorically in Bertha’s case), our main characters are forced to face the mundane existence of their actual lives.

He spent more than an hour in dressing, watching every stage of his toilet carefully in the mirror. Everything was quite perfect; he was exactly the kind of boy he had always wanted to be.

Paul’s Case

She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happy…

— Bliss

  The original full title is “Paul’s Case: A Study In Temperament”. These days, we tend to use ‘personality’ for humans and ‘temperament’ for pets.

Paul’s Case” is available to read online, and there’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. My own interest is in the plot structure, from a short story writer’s point of view.

STORY WORLD OF “PAUL’S CASE”

Paul grows up in comfortable, white, suburban Pittsburgh. He has no understanding of his own privilege and despises the entire place. I suppose the irony is that if it were a more culturally diverse place, it would be more interesting to someone like Paul. Yet he despises what little cultural diversity does exist.

Later the story shifts to Newark. Unlike Paul, Willa Cather herself didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, but did live there as an adult for 10 years, working as a young teacher. Like Paul, she later transplanted herself to New York, as Paul transplants himself to New York to start a new life (with a wholly invented back story).

This is a world in which it’s easy to run away, never to be found again. Pre Internet, pre-DNA, when businesses dealt in cheques rather than direct transfers. It’s entirely plausible that Paul might get away with his crime.

New York is described like this:

Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue toward the Park. The snow had somewhat abated, carriages and tradesmen’s wagons were hurrying to and fro in the winter twilight, boys in woollen mufflers were shovelling off the doorsteps, the avenue stages made fine spots of color against the white street. Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow-flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow. The Park itself was a wonderful stage winter-piece.

Which reminds me very much of another Katherine Mansfield short story, also about a fantasist who doesn’t really belong in the city — “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Rosabel looked out of the windows [of the bus]; the street was blurred and misty, but light striking on the panes turned their dullness to opal and silver, and the jewellers’ shops seen through this, were fairy palaces.

Like Rosabel, Paul gets to his room and flops about in a tired fashion, loving the city but viewing it as an outsider, accustomed to doing so after a lifetime (thus far) of imagining his situation is better than it really is.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PAUL’S CASE”

“Paul’s Case” is basically a ‘character study’. Paul might be any number of young men of this era.

But even the most interesting ‘character studies’ are not stories in their own right, until they include the following seven elements. In a character study short story, these elements sort of take backseat to the narrator’s description of character. But they’re still there.

SHORTCOMING

Paul is described as a ‘dandy’ which is now a comical word in English. I remember my native-Japanese Japanese language lecturer giving us a Japanese word then telling us that it means ‘dandy’ in English and the entire class laughed spontaneously.

Literary scholars have named Paul as an example of ‘the village sissy’ trope.

But at the turn of the 20th century, ‘dandy’ described a certain kind of well-dressed man who was also self-absorbed. The dandy was transgressive, gender-wise, which Willa Cather explains in her narrative. Transgressing gender norms provokes an uncanny response in a culture which works with a clear gender binary. So Paul has that against him.

Paul’s on-the-page shortcoming is revolves around the huge gap between his ideal imagined life and his reality.

Cather begins the story speaking as a distant narrator, but here we are inside Paul’s head:

Paul alighted from his car and went slowly down one of the side streets off the main thoroughfare. It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.

If Paul were a child of one of those business men he so despises, he might actually be happier. Nothing breeds unhappiness like affluenza, as we might now call it. Paul wants to live in an exotic world, “a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease”.

in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness…a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty

Instead, he lives in an environment which test his phobias:

He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified least he might have awakened his father.

Willa Cather uses what others have called ‘side-shadowing‘ to describe the way Paul thinks about his life. He plays numerous circumstances out in his head. I do wonder how common this is, in a population. Here, Paul goes through all the scenarios that might happen if his father caught him sneaking in through the window:

Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window, and come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With this last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.

(I’m glad I live in a country with strict gun control. My father was required to hand in his inherited antique WW1 gun in the late 1980s. He couldn’t buy bullets for it anyhow. I have never once wondered if an action might lead to me being shot.)

Paul has a holier-than-thou, condescending attitude towards the people who sit on ‘stoops’ — the word itself is in rubber glove quote marks, showing he doesn’t approve of the word, or of the practice.

Paul is eventually revealed to be a full-on fantasist. Willa Cather reveals the extent of Paul’s lying slowly. At first she reveals that Paul lies to himself. This feels harmless. After all, doesn’t everyone fantasise about a better life sometimes? But as often happens in stories, when a character has an active imagination, Paul is eventually revealed to be an outright liar:

When these stories lost their effect, and his audience grew listless, he became desperate and would bid all the boys good-night, announcing that he was going to travel for a while, going to Naples, to Venice, to Egypt. Then, next Monday, he would slip back, conscious, and nervously smiling; his sister was ill, and he should have to defer his voyage until spring.

Fantasists can have huge moral shortcomings. An interesting portrait of a fantasist, played by Emily Blunt, is Tamsin in My Summer Of Love — a film which I felt from the beginning would fit nicely into Katherine Mansfield’s oeuvre.

Is Paul really gay? Willa Cather is thought to have been lesbian, and well-used to portraying a different persona in an era when same-sex love is illegal, let alone taboo. The dissonance between Paul’s reality and his illiberal environment are his main off-the-page psychological shortcoming.

Fictional Paul reminds me of real life Stephen Fry. While Paul is coded as ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ by some scholars, Stephen Fry was driven by bipolar disorder, as yet undiagnosed, when at the age of 17 he stole a credit card from a family friend, ran away from home and had a grand old time in Swindon. He was required to serve 3 months in a Pucklechurch prison.

Stephen Fry has published a letter to his 16-year-old self, which may as well be written to Willa Cather’s fictional Paul.

FANTASISTS AND GENDER

Have you noticed the gendered nature of fantasists in fiction? It’s far easier to come up with a list of female fantasists—from dreamy to dangerous—than to come up with male equivalents.

Willa Cather’s Paul may be an exception, gendered male, but Cather codes him as feminine and gay.

The idea of fantasist overlaps with our idea of ‘liar’, since fantasists are so often depicted as lying, either to themselves or to everyone else around them. There is a long history of women portrayed as liars, in fiction, in media, in pop culture. Fantasy is on the lying spectrum.

There is a ‘silence’ (and a hole in the market) for stories about masculine male characters who are fantasists.  Male fantasists certainly exist in real life, but we don’t tend to think of them as such. For instance, a male stalker fantasises about dominating a woman, controlling every aspect of her life. This type of man is nothing if not a fantasist. Yet in fiction we are rarely allowed inside his head. An exception would be Paul Spector in The Fall, in which we see the scribbled notebooks kept by a male serial killer.

Don Draper is another male fantasist, though his own invented backstory is depicted as accidental and purely pragmatic — we get no indication that Draper fantasises inside his own head about what it might have been like to enjoy a completely different childhood. Yet I suppose he must, because his entire job was about coming up with fantasies in order to sell products to consumers. Instead, Mad Men offers the character of Peggy as more of a classic fantasist. When Peggy goes to dinner with a potential suitor, boasts about her important Madison Avenue job and starts smoking—although she doesn’t normally smoke—she is shown up in a humiliating way as a complete phoney, and with fantasist overtones.

Ultimately, though, Paul is lonely. Main characters with the psychological shortcoming of ‘loneliness’ are very common in short stories. Some have even suggested the short story is all about loneliness, specifically:

“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”
—Frank O’Connor

DESIRE

Paul is in love with Charley Edwards, or with the Romantic image of Charley Edwards. He wants to spend as much time as possible with this young man, but he must also keep it secret.

In case we mistake his intentions, Willa Cather tells us what Paul doesn’t want:

He had no desire to become an actor, any more than he had to become a musician. He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything.

OPPONENT

Because if Paul’s father knew he was sneaking out to see Charley Edwards he would not approve. (We are told that the father has a gun. Is this Chekhov’s gun?)

PLAN

Paul asks his father for money to ride the car — I guess this is what we’d call a train — to study with another boy when he’s really going to visit Charley at the theatre.

He has also secured a job as an usher, which gets him into that theatre world. His father approves because he think Paul should be earning a little money of his own.

In part two, which has its own 7 steps, the reader remains in audience inferior position as we learn after Paul arrives in New York that he’s done a Marion Crane and stolen money from his work, planning to escape at the weekend to start a new, more glamorous life. (In fact, Hitchcock re-used a trope employed by Willa Catha, not the other way round.)

BIG STRUGGLE

This story is interesting because of what Willa Cather chose to dramatise and what she chose to summarise. Here she summarises a big struggle rather than dramatising it:

The upshot of the matter was, that the principal went to Paul’s father, and Paul was taken out of school and put to work. The manager at Carnegie Hall was told to get another usher in his stead, the doorkeeper at the theatre was warned not to admit him to the house, and Charley Edwards remorsefully promised the boy’s father not to see him again.

So that’s not the Battle, as such. The general writing rule is that the Battle must be dramatised. Otherwise the reader feels like the story has no ‘point’. We feel ripped off.

Battles don’t always look like fights and arguments, by the way. They quite often happen entirely inside a character’s head.

Like Mansfield does in “The Wind Blows“, the psychological Battle is preceded by a description of setting which heightens the atmosphere:

His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color—he had for a moment the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.

In contrast, Mansfield manages to make a big struggle scene out of wind blowing plants by a quiet beach — Willa Cather has more to work with in this city environment.

At this point in “Paul’s Case” he crosses the boundary between ‘fantasist’ to ‘deluded’. He’s hallucinating now. His lies have become so habitual that he has fully convinced himself:

He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged-looking business men got on the early car; mere rivets in a machine, they seemed to Paul—sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes.

Now the Battle is purely psychological. Once more, Cather cuts out the argument (or whatever happened) between Paul and his potential new buddy:

The young man offered to show Paul the night side of the town, and the two boys went out together after dinner, not returning to the hotel until seven o’clock the next morning. They had started out in the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship, but their parting in the elevator was singularly cool. The freshman pulled himself together to make his train and Paul went to bed.

ANAGNORISIS

When Paul runs out of money, he realises it’s money that is the difference between his ideal life and his middle-class reality and he has no idea how to go about getting that amount of money, partly because he’s in a discombobulated state.

His father was in New York; “stopping at some joint or other,” he told himself. The memory of successive summers on the front stoop fell upon him like a weight of black water. He had not a hundred dollars left; and he knew now, more than ever, that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted. The thing was winding itself up; he had thought of that on his first glorious day in New York, and had even provided a way to snap the thread. It lay on his dressing-table now; he had got it out last night when he came blindly up from dinner, but the shiny metal hurt his eyes, and he disliked the looks of the thing.

NEW SITUATION

Paul is dead.

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The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

The Tiredness of Rosabel Katherine Mansfield

Outside school magazines, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was Katherine Mansfield’s first published story (1908, when Mansfield was 20 years old).

Already we can see features the author became known for:

  • The ability of a character to impersonate another
  • Daydreams/fantasy used to reveal deeper desires
  • Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
  • A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

Rosabel takes a bus home after a tiring day working in a millinery shop. She thinks of a good dinner, feeling she would sacrifice her soul. On the bus, Rosabel sits next to a girl reading a sentimental novel. Once home in her room, Rosabel recalls two well-dressed customers who came to the shop to buy a hat for the young lady. They had been hard to please until Rosabel found a hat that entranced them all. Rosabel models the hat at the request of the young woman, who then buys it. The couple leave, but not before the young man has spoken to Rosabel with a touch of insolence.

Alone in her room, Rosabel imagines that she is the young woman with the new hat, inspired by the sentimental novel she noticed on the bus.

STORYWORLD OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

the limited OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN

In the first paragraph, Rosabel would like to eat a substantial meal at Lyon’s. This is a massive chain which closed the year before I was born, so I’ve had to look it up. Basically, Lyon’s sounds a bit like Starbucks today. In 1920, the waitresses who worked there weren’t allowed to bob their hair. (That rule was loosened up in 1924.) Young women who worked there were supposed to find it easy to find a marriage partner, which is a solemn reminder of the limited options for young women in those days. Mansfield’s character of Rosabel, likewise, existed in the world as a pre-married young lady, whose main purpose in life was to find a husband.

SENSORY IMAGES AND JUXTAPOSITION

Rosabel gets onto a London bus, next to a girl reading a ‘tear’ spattered book. The warm, humid bus with its garish advertisements contrasts with the magical streets outside.

All five senses are evoked:

  • The street is blurred and misty
  • Rosabel’s feet are horribly wet
  • The sickening smell of warm humanity
  • The girl licks her fingers and mouths her words
  • Rosabel feels stifled

Rosabel’s own room is marked by poverty, with the chipped enamel on the wash basin and the overall grimy description. We already know she’s living in poverty because she’s hungry. She would like a meal including meat but can only afford a scone, tea and boiled egg. Later in the story, a male customer will compliment her on her petite figure. The irony is one that endures today — Rosabel is fashionably petite (in the 1920s, a straight-up-and-down, boyish body for women was the dominant ideal). But Rosabel’s small body is due to lack of nutrition. The man wouldn’t suspect that for a moment, never having experienced hunger himself.

In this era, hats were a booming business because no one was seen in public without one. Hat shops are far fewer now, beause elaborate hats are worn only on very special occasions.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE TIREDNESS OF ROSABEL”

The structure of “The Tiredness of Rosabel” juxtaposes Rosabel’s reality with her imagined world, highlighting the difference between them. In 1908, ‘structure creating metaphor’ was something of a revolution in British short fiction. Mansfield grew up in New Zealand but was part of that revolution. At the time, short stories were not considered an art form in their own right, but rather a sort of inferior novel for beginners.

NARRATION AND LANGUAGE

Apart from the final sentence, the point of view is consistent. The narrator’s comments merge with Rosabel’s thoughts to minimise the distance between readers and the story. This serves to draw the readers into Rosabel’s world and keep us there.

Language employed by the narrator is the same as Rosabel’s, and we hardly notice a difference between Rosabel’s voice and the that of the unseen narrator.

Some critics have said that the final sentence is not in keeping with the tone and focus of the story, violating point of view.

Critics have also said that Mansfield’s parenthetical expressions break the narrative at awkward places. For example, we don’t need to know that Rosabel’s knees are getting stiff and that she is so taken by her own fantasy that she laughs out loud. What kind of details should authors include in stories? For more on that, see this post. What do you think about these details? Alice Munro is another short story specialist who includes unexpected detail.

SHORTCOMING

A young woman makes her way home from work in central London. She works in a hat shop.

Rosabel is also a fantasist, but not in a way that damages others, as in the Mansfield-esque movie My Summer of Love.

This story opens with Rosabel buying violets for herself. Later, she dreams the young man buys her great sprays of violets yet still there is enough money for a lavish lunch. Throughout the day, serving customers, she imagines being at a ball. The ball tires her out in the same way serving customers tires her out, hence the title. The story is full of parallels between Rosabel’s real world and her fantasy world.

Fantasising about another life is Rosabel’s way of coping with her own economic reality. She is weary (and I submit, undernourished, probably iron deficient). Mansfield makes use of sentence structure to reflect the weariness of Rosabel. The sentence structure of Rosabel’s real world contrasts with the light structure apparent in her dream state.

We are inclined to be quite harsh on fantasists.

Stop dreaming and face facts, Australasian Post 17 August 1972 (Not a sentiment I agree with.)

But what are Rosabel’s options, really? Her best hope is meeting a well-off young man to marry.

Rosabel’s innocence is underscored when her imagined night with the man does not include sex – she may not have considered what comes next in a real world relationship.

DESIRE

Rosabel would like to escape living in poverty. That’s her long-term desire, which we deduce from her immediate desires:

  • First she imagines she ate a much more expensive and sustaining evening meal.
  • Once home and in bed, she imagines scenario in which she and her rich customer swapped places.

The violets in the opening sentence are a motif throughout; like the violets, Rosabel herself is delicate of taste, sensitive, charming and innocent. Perhaps the purple colour of the flowers suggests royalty – the role Rosabel would like to play.

OPPONENT

Rosabel’s foil character is the rich young woman who comes to buy a hat. Rosabel imagines herself in her place later, and she is attracted to (as well as repelled by) the young woman’s beau. The young man is obviously attracted to Rosabel, which is Rosabel’s entry point into her imagined other-self.

PLAN

Perhaps a story like this one challenges the idea that a character needs a plan in order for the story to work.

But Rosabel does have a plan. Her ‘plan’ is to go home and continue her fantasy in private, really delving into her secret, other world.

I’ve often wondered what proportion of people have a secret fantasy world they regularly dip into for fun and escapism. I know anyone who writes definitely has this facility. What about the proportion of humanity who does not write?

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘Battle’ of this story is the interaction Rosabel has with the young man and woman. She almost cries from anger. We don’t necessarily know exactly what this anger is borne of until afterwards — plain unfairness. When Rosabel is required to try on that hat, she’s literally trying on another girl’s life.

Hats are often used this way in stories, as well as in real life — crowns are the ultimate ‘hat’ which are used to symbolise a new role for its wearer. The addition of a crown suddenly makes one a prince. Hats exist partly to tell the world who you are. White hats and black hats in Western movies tell the audience who’s good and who is bad. Jon Klassen’s tortoises fight over a hat for a good reason — a hat would make one tortoise more important than the other.

ANAGNORISIS

When the young man (creepily, in my opinion) cracks on to Rosabel, despite being there with his own girlfriend, Rosabel seems to realise that finding a rich boy to marry might not be out of her reach after all, because of the way she looks.

As I mentioned above, because she happens to be fashionably slim, Rosabel matches the female fashion of the era, and in a rich girl’s hat she looks exactly the same as a genuine rich girl.

Why could that not have been her? It’s all down to luck and circumstance. And she knows it. Perhaps she has realised it fully, only after literally trying on another woman’s hat.

NEW SITUATION

Rosabel goes about her day, eventually building upon her regular fantasy of a better life.

We extrapolate that she will go to work at the hat shop the next day and the next and the next. Because of her looks, who knows? She may well attract the serious attention of a rich boy.

But I doubt it. Rich boys don’t enter hat shops unless they’re there with an existing girlfriend. And this boy isn’t serious about Rosabel. I think he enjoys the adrenaline of temporary attraction, and the power he has over a shop girl, unable to respond as herself, bound to formality by her subservient role. I learnt this as a young woman working in customer service: some customers love this dynamic and seek it out.

So what of that final sentence? Mansfield seems to be saying that because of Rosabel’s youth, she’s still optimistic that she’ll marry her way out of poverty. She is still able to smile, unlike Miss Brill of a later story, who realises suddenly that she is old. For Miss Brill, an unpleasant day out seems to mean her life will keep going the way it is, possibly without change, until she dies.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

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The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter Analysis

Squirrel Nutkin cover

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.

Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.

When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a continuum of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:

  1. The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
  2. Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
  3. And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals—the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.
Illustration from Johnson's Household Book of Nature (1880) squirrels
Illustration from Johnson’s Household Book of Nature (1880) squirrels
John Hassall (English, 1868-1948) from Our Diary or Teddy and Me, Edinburgh 1905 squirrel up a tree. Two children look up at it.
John Hassall (English, 1868-1948) from Our Diary or Teddy and Me, Edinburgh 1905. A squirrel up a tree.
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973) squirrels
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973)
HARRISON CADY (1877-1970) The Adventures of Chatterer the Red Squirrel 1915
HARRISON CADY (1877-1970) The Adventures of Chatterer the Red Squirrel 1915
In Animalville 1939. Caption: Mrs Bushytail shops late in the fall.
Thanksgiving card snow squirrel cottage
Vladimir Brewery, 1971 squirrel
Vladimir Brewery, 1971
Mirko Hanak, 1972 squirrel
Mirko Hanak, 1972
りすとかしのみ 1972
りすとかしのみ 1972
Marie-Madeleine FRANC-NOHAIN [1878-1942] Alphabet In Pictures 1933 squirrel
Marie-Madeleine FRANC-NOHAIN [1878-1942] Alphabet In Pictures 1933

THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

Squirrel for gun advertisement 1909
Squirrel for gun advertisement 1909

Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behaviour as opposed to promoting outlaw behaviour. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.

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STORY STRUCTURE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

Does Squirrel Nutkin work as a story for you? Graham Greene didn’t think so:

Graham Greene called The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin “an unsatisfactory book” in comparison with Beatrix Potter’s earlier tales, and it deserves this designation only insofar as it does not satisfy the accepted formula of the nursery morality tale. The ambiguity of Nutkin’s tale is very satisfying indeed. Whether or not Nutkin’s dismemberment is read as justice for nonconformity or a further celebration of nonconformity, what is more startling and poignant than the loss of Nutkin’s tail is the loss of Nutkin’s tales, as he proves unable to speak or sing after his chastisement.

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Scholars of children’s literature have identified a technique common to many children’s stories — the switch from the iterative to the singulative, in Maria Nikolajeva’s terms. This is where the author sets up the characters and the world via telling rather than showing:

This is a Tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin.

He had a brother called Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.

In the middle of the lake there is* an island covered with trees and nut bushes; and amongst those trees stands a hollow oak-tree, which is the house of an owl who is called Old Brown.

*Notice, also, how Beatrix Potter switched tense from past to present in her set-up. This is slightly unusual.

After the setting and main characters have been introduced, the story switches to the iterative (one-time event). This switch will be marked with something like, “One day, On this particular morning” or something like that:

One autumn when the nuts were ripe, and the leaves on the hazel bushes were golden and green—Nutkin and Twinkleberry and all the other little squirrels came out of the wood, and down to the edge of the lake.

Modern picture book authors more rarely make use of the switch from continuous to the iterative. Bear in mind, if you are making use of it, as many have done before you, the story will have an old-fashioned feel. Which may be fine, if that’s what you’re going for.

SHORTCOMING

Squirrel Nutkin is basically Peter Rabbit in squirrel form. He’s a fun, merry prankster who doesn’t see danger until danger almost kills him.

Today, mischievous childlike characters in picture books are the norm. But in 1903, Pollyanna, Goody-Two-Shoes characters who behaved properly as models were the norm. Squirrel Nutkin is a political little book, as all children’s books are, whether they mean to be or not:

Nutkin’s is the attitude that does not obsequiously succumb to the formalities of, say, nineteenth century landowners, despite their pride, power, and sovereignty. Nutkin is the ancient Squirrel of Mischief: the irresistible agent of insubordination that launches itself against the rigid systems of the world in the struggle between the playful and the pragmatic. The contract between the silly songs that ring through the woods and the serious industry and poise that rises above them is reflective of a reality that every child knows—and so does every parent.

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DESIRE

The squirrels want to collect nuts on Owl Island. Following human-like procedures, they decide to ask permission rather than just take them. Although Nutkin is a cheeky scoundrel, he’s doing things by the book.

OPPONENT

The owl, whose reticence makes him deliciously scary.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

I read the owl as a godlike figure. When the squirrels make offerings they’re basically performing a pagan ritual to their god, who they think is probably listening, but they have to keep the faith.

PLAN

The squirrels make little rafts out of twigs and paddle over the water to Owl Island where they plan to ask permission from Owl, and then they’ll be allowed to gather as many nuts as they need.

They do this time and time again and the owl does not say no, so they conclude if they take offerings they’ll be allowed to continue.

BIG STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, Squirrel Nutkin does not take the entire ritual seriously, revelling in riddles and fun rather than affording the scary owl the respect he probably deserves.

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!…

Then all at once there was a flutterment and a scufflement and a loud “Squeak!”

The other squirrels scuttered away into the bushes.

ANAGNORISIS

The ‘self’-revelation is a simple revelation—an unexpected, funny turn of events.

When they came back very cautiously, peeping round the tree—there was Old Brown sitting on his door-step, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened.

But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!

What makes this funny? All this time the owl has been presented as an ordinary animal owl, and he’s not even wearing a waistcoat. Also, being in an opponent’s pocket foredooms being inside their stomach.

The anagnorisis—of the page—is that Squirrel Nutkin may respect the owl in future and not be so bold.

NEW SITUATION

Beatrix Potter knew that she couldn’t leave the story there:

This looks like the end of the story; but it isn’t.

If she had left the story at that, it would have felt cut short to the reader. Now we have the REAL big struggle scene, which is actually pretty gory to the sensibilities of the modern reader. Children of the first golden age kept chickens at home and saw them beheaded, they saw their cats give birth and their father drowning them… I feel confident in saying that children of 1903 had a closer connection to animal death than contemporary 2018 readers.

SECOND BIG STRUGGLE

Old Brown carried Nutkin into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.

NEW SITUATION

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin ends in mythopoeic fashion, as a fictional, myth-like explanation for why squirrels behave as they do.

Cheeky squirrels who throw little sticks at you are definitely my own experience. Beatrix Potter has just explained why they’re so cheeky and timid at once:

And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you, and stamp his feet and scold, and shout—

“Cuck-cuck-cuck-cur-r-r-cuck-k-k!”

What is Does Mythopoeic Mean?

Authors who make up their own mythologies for the sake of a setting are said to be writing ‘mythopoeic’ stories.

Mythopoeia is a narrative genre in modern storytelling where a fictional or artificial mythology is created by the writer. Tolkien coined the word, and Lords of the Rings remains a standout example. Harry Potter is another.

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