“Marriage á la Mode” (1921) is a Modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, first published in a December edition of The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home. Magazines don’t normally publish summery stories in winter, but it makes more sense to know this magazine was aimed at British citizens living in the colonies.
This story was later published in The Garden Party And Other Stories.
Love letters are a risky business. Revealing yourself to another person opens the risk of rejection, but if you had to do it onstage? What if the recipient of your ardour and your expression of vulnerability thought it was funny, and shared your most private, loving self with others for jokes?
Have you ever sent a love letter? What about a revealing email? A selfie? A naked selfie? This story is 100 years old, but we are still sharing ourselves with others in ways that leaves footprints. In fact, we now do this in a variety of uber-revealing ways. People we trust still betray us by sharing our secrets more widely, without our permission. With the Internet, the size of the audience, and the size of possible shame, has grown many times over. The point of shame in this story is probably even more relatable to a contemporary audience.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1922) is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in The Garden Party And Other Stories.
This story contains some classic horror tropes, and if you didn’t know what a barrel-organ sounded like before, here’s the creepy-ass thing. Honestly, I’d rather go to sleep listening to the tinkle of an ice-cream van driven by the clown from IT:
A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.
Although Katherine Mansfield died at the tender age of 34 and so never lived long enough to experience the invisibilisation which comes to women around menopause, she must have either felt it as a younger woman or observed it in others. She did grow up in a household which included two unmarried aunts — younger sisters of her mother. Belle did eventually marry, around the time Katherine left New Zealand the second time, and if Claire Fallon’s biography is anything to go by, Harold Beauchamp (Katherine’s father, Belle’s brother-in-law) didn’t really like everyone leaving his home, where he had been surrounded by women (and lest we forget, so was King Henry the Eighth).
“Poison” (1920) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the last in the Something Childish and Other Stories collection, published by Middleton Murry four years later, after her death. Commentators have noticed veiled references to “My Last Duchess“, a poem by Robert Browning about a murderous duke. Browning’s poem in turn is based on popular imaginings surrounding historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century.
Literary and Historical Allusions
In Browning’s dramatic monologue of a poem, a duke is showing a visitor around his castle. They stop in front of a painting of his dead young wife and the story becomes ekphrastic. At first the duke describes his dead wife in glowing terms. But as the poem progresses, we are meant to realise it was the duke who killed her. This is the story of a coercively controlling man. He didn’t like how his wife flirted with everyone (according to him). The poem is especially disturbing because the visitor has arrived to negotiate the duke’s marriage to yet another young woman, and we extrapolate that he may kill her, too. It’s basically a Bluebeard story.
Likewise, the real Duke of Ferrara may have been a Bluebeard figure of the Italian Renaissance. He married three times and never had children. Some historians think he may have poisoned his first wife when she was just 17. His next wife died from tuberculosis, but the third outlived him. But who else might the Duke of Ferrara have poisoned? These powerful men lived in an era of unmitigated power.
Browning forces his reader to become involved in his poem in order to understand it, and Mansfield asks the same of us in “Poison”. What’s going on behind the words? Who is wearing the mask?
When it comes to the turbulence of emotional valence, some commentators are reminded of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In Keats’ poem, as in “Poison”, a character is almost tortured by the extent of their own happiness. (Happiness as anguish.) The character is anguished because they know a deliriously happy moment can never last. It’s always punctured by something.
Oh, God! What torture happiness was — what anguish!
Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life
It’s difficult to separate the author from her work. Some Katherine Mansfield biographers feel that “Poison” is covertly about her relationship with John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s long-term male partner. They were pretty turbulent as a couple.
I’m reluctant to go there myself, because writing “Poison” may have simply been a cathartic act. Perhaps Mansfield read Browning’s poem and imagined that one of his wives killed him off instead. There’s certainly plenty to be angry about when it comes to partner violence. Mansfield may have been doing an Angela Carter, who turned victimhood of “Bluebeard” right around in her re-visioning of the archetypal tale: Carter called hers “The Bloody Chamber“.
Significantly, the fictional newspaper article in this story flips the general feminine connection to death by poison, because this time it is a man who may have poisoned his wife:
Either some man did or didn’t murder his wife, and twenty thousand people have sat in court every day and two million words have been wired all over the world after each proceeding.
SETTING OF “POISON”
France is synonymous with romantic stories, then as it is now. A villa in Southern France is the perfect setting for this guy to carry out his romantic fantasies.
Mansfield paints a setting but in words, and the words she uses put us in mind of Impressionist paintings. A good description of an Impressionist painting: It’s like you only got a glimpse of a scene. You are left with an overall ‘impression’, rather than fleshed out details, as in a dream.
There’s a lot of white, a lot of green in the setting of this story. We’re seeing this image through tulle (net) curtains. We’re shown moonlight, shadows, lamps, twilight in the narrator’s imagination.
Apart from the flowers and birds (commonly used across Mansfield’s short stories), Mansfield chooses two details of the environment which come up more than once and are therefore probably motifs: the blue beetle and the pearl ring Beatrice wears on her third finger.
Pearls are found in oysters — hard to crack open. Pearls suggest containment and also working hard for rich reward. Over the course of “Poison” our narrator prizes Beatrice open a little. Ignoring subconscious misgivings, he continues to see her beauty shining from within.
The motif of the blue beetle is less clear to me. Mansfield may be talking about the Hoplia coerulea, found in humid environments, generally near a stream or a swamp, in Southern France and Northern Spain.
The narrator may be focusing on the beetle as a strategy to avoid dwelling on his deep fear that Beatrice is pretty far from perfect. A beetle can also look a bit like a pearl — especially certain iridescent beetles, especially when light hits them, say through net curtains on a sunshiny day. The beetle might almost be the grotesque symbolic equivalent of the pearl. The difference is that beetles crawl/fly away, whereas Beatrice’s pearl is stuck to her finger forever.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “POISON”?
With nothing else to do apart from walking around and eating snacks, two upper-class characters return to their hotel in the South of France after a walk and a poke around the shops. A servant called Annette brings them food. They wait around for the post. This is all from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. His companion is Beatrice, a twice-before married woman who he is over-the-top smitten with.
The entire story is framed around an ironic ticking clock: the pair of them are waiting for something, actually nothing, to arrive (in the post).
“”Who? The silly old postman? But you’re not expecting a letter.”
“No, but it’s maddening all the same…
I believe ‘waiting around for the post’ is a metaphor for the narrator ‘waiting around for something to happen in his life, more generally’. By the end of the story the reader is waiting for the penny to drop with him.
Otherwise, this storytelling decision perplexes me a little. Mansfield introduces what we might deem ‘false suspense’ with all that waiting around for post. Because when the post arrives, it’s not some amazing life-changing letter, but is simply the newspaper, which they surely get everyday and is therefore not a surprise. An article in the newspaper leads to a semi-revelation for our narrator, although in true literary Impressionist form, he doesn’t have any major breakthrough. It simply sets him thinking.
Just before the newspaper arrives, conversation has turned to the couple’s future together. The narrator wants to marry Beatrice. But Beatrice remains unknowable, to both the narrator and to us. The basic worldview of Impressionists went like this: People don’t really change very much. Plus, there’s no such thing as the veridical truth of a situation anyway. We can only ever view the world through our own particular prisms. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Two people in the ‘same’ relationship experience completely different versions of it.
Throughout “Poison”, Mansfield is playing with the various permutations of the word ‘poison’. First the narrator has a cigarette, both deliciously necessary but also a type of poison.
There are times when a cigarette is just the very one thing that will carry you over the moment. It is more than a confederate, even; it is a secret, perfect little friend who knows all about it and understands absolutely. While you smoke you look down at it — smile or frown, as the occasion demands; you inhale deeply and expel the smoke in a slow fan. This was one of those moments.
Mansfield doesn’t touch on the criminal meaning until the newspaper is opened and read — literal as in ‘putting something into someone’s food and then watching for them die in agony’.
Instead she encourages us to go there ourselves, by delving into the metaphorical meaning, in which it’s possible to poison someone invisibly. We could apply plenty of modern terms to describe this form of poisoning within a relationship: Passive aggression, emotional withdrawal, coercive control… We never hear any backstory about Beatrice’s former relationships so we don’t know the exact nature of the ‘poisoning’. We don’t even know Beatrice’s degree of culpability. However, Mansfield makes use of symbolism to give Beatrice the appearance of innocence:
She was dressed in white, with pearls round her throat and lilies-of-the-valley tucked into her belt.
Mansfield was very aware of the symbolism around flowers. Unlike lilies, lilies of the valley most often symbolise chastity, purity, happiness and humility.
The white dress emphasises Beatrice’s innocence, and the reader will think of a wedding dress, and its associations with virginity.
We are therefore surprised when Mansfield reveals that Beatrice has already been married twice. (This makes her a ‘fast woman’ for the era.) The flowers ‘tucked into her belt’ suggest Beatrice exercises restraint — a desirable feminine virtue. Of course, we are told these details because these are what the narrator is looking for: evidence of a good woman. (Significantly, the narrator is also dressed in white.)
But appearances can be deceptive. And people can see only what we want to see, especially when romantic love is involved. The reader is not deluded by love for Beatrice and can see infatuation. In contrast, the narrator is yet to achieve a clear-headed view of Beatrice. But by the end of the story, he seems to have understood more of Beatrice over the course of recounting their conversation ‘out loud’. This often happens in first person narratives with storyteller narrators. The very point of them telling their stories (to no one in particular) is to come to some greater understanding.
Until the newspaper arrives, Mansfield never touches directly upon the literal meaning of poison. But because she so clearly goes there in the metaphorical sense, the reader is primed to suspect that perhaps Beatrice has poisoned both of her earlier husbands. At this point, Mansfield is leaning upon an age-old trope which connects ‘women’ to ‘poisoning’.
Witches, Women and Poisoning
This notion of women as sneaky, murderous poisoners harks back to the era of witchcraft and hasn’t entirely died. During the European witch craze, women were often accused of poisoning their victims. (Men were also tried for witchcraft but in England it was 90 per cent women.) These so-called poisoners didn’t need to be anywhere near their victims in order to do away with them — these witches were supposedly making use of necromancers and magic.
Historical Women and Poisoning
I would be interested to know if Mansfield knew about the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman ever hanged in Australia. Louisa Collins was found guilty of poisoning two husbands with Rough on Rats (basically arsenic, available at any local store). Her hanging was carried out in 1889, and happened across the Tasman Sea, not in New Zealand, and when Mansfield was just one year old. However, it’s possible this case was much talked about in New Zealand, because both New Zealand and Australia were grappling with how to treat those found guilty of heinous crimes: to hang or not to hang? It was shocking to the public that a woman was being hanged. Three women in New Zealand had been sentence for execution by this time, but all three women (accused of murdering children) had their sentences commuted to imprisonment. Louisa’s hanging in Australia was certainly reported in the Auckland newspaper in 1889. Media coverage of this Australian case in New Zealand, as well as the mythology around it over the next few decades as Mansfield was growing up, may have furnished the writer with ideas for “Poison”.
Minnie Dean and New Zealand Imaginations
I guess Mansfield would’ve known about the Louisa Collins case because in 1895, when Mansfield was seven years old, New Zealand agreed to hang its first (and only) woman: Williamina (Minnie) Dean.
Scottish born Minnie Dean settled near Invercargill (near the bottom of the South Island.) She took in unwanted young children for money. Minnie Dean was found guilty of murdering some of them, sometimes by suffocation, sometimes by poisoning (with laudanum). Dead little bodies were found buried in her yard. New Zealand never hanged another woman after that. It was that shocking. But it was salaciously shocking. People clearly enjoyed the drama of it. Outside the court house, vendors were selling hat boxes with figurines of babies inside it. (Minnie had apparently killed a baby then tried to hide the body inside a hat box.) While some New Zealanders no doubt found this distasteful, for others this was the late 19th century equivalent of going to the movies for a murder mystery then buying a plush toy.
I was born in New Zealand 90 years after Katherine Mansfield. The case of Minnie Dean was never a formal part of our history curriculum, but the figure of Minnie Dean, this formidable child killer, loomed large in our collective consciousness. There is a highly wooded park we called “Dean’s Bush” near where I lived in Christchurch. This bush and historic house is not named after Minnie Dean at all, and is now more regularly called Riccarton Bush, but in my subconscious I connected this wooded area to ‘child killer’. It’s actually a beautiful Christchurch spot, but the area took on a sinister tone in my mind. I hated walking through there.
In any case, if the trial of Minnie Dean had that much effect on me, born 90 years later than Mansfield, I can imagine the case had a large effect on the childhood games Mansfield played with her sisters, and on her writer’s imagination.
NARRATION OF “POISON”
“Poison” is told through the mind of a male narrator whose point of view is best described as thinking about the events as they occur in the present. Of course, such a narrative perspective cannot really be achieved, but this narrator is certainly not telling the story with any kind of judgmental stance after the fact. Again, the story represents Mansfield’s blend of the immediacy of a stage performance with the internal point of view of one of the actors on the stage. It cannot happen, but it does. The story is like a soliloquy without the rest of the stage performances around it.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
Beatrice and her narrator-lover are presented to us without backstory —in statu nascendi— though it is eventually revealed that Beatrice has been married twice before. He is 24 years old at the time of the story, and because he mentions his age in hindsight, we deduce he’s had a little time to reflect on this conversation. This story is atemporal. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between this particular conversation and the retelling of it. Has he now married Beatrice or has he made a clean break? Or perhaps this only happened yesterday?
I do see evidence of reflection on the part of the narrator, suggesting some time has passed since the events of the story:
Not because I cared for such horrible shows, but because I felt it might possibly perhaps lessen this ghastly feeling of absolute freedom, her absolute freedom, of course.
That passage shows the reader that our narrator has realised his love is a controlling kind of love.
Despite these insights, the voice is quite ‘immediate’, as in, he is narrating this story not long after events happened.
This immediacy of voice doesn’t stand out as unusual today, especially if you read a lot of young adult literature. A large proportion of young adult novels are written in first person and from the perspective of a young adult who is still young. In fact, if a significant amount of time has elapsed between the happenings in a story and the supposed retelling of it, and if the first person narrator has changed so much that they are now a heterodiegetic narrator, the work is no longer classed as young adult literature. (Many works for adults cover the young adult years.)
“Poison” almost counts as young adult literature by today’s conventions of narration, except Beatrice must be in her late twenties (at least) if she’s already been married twice. The voice of the narrator suggests to me he is younger than Beatrice. In fact he tells us he ‘was twenty-four at the time’. His dramatic monologue feels like the headiness of unmoderated first love.
Our narrator is not only naive — Mansfield has gone one step further and painted him as a bit of a ridiculous figure. Mansfield the author is winking at the reader when she writes, via the voice of her narrator:
And when she lay on her back, with the pearls slipped under her chin, and sighed “I’m thirsty, dearest. Donne-moi un orange,” I would gladly, willingly, have dived for an orange into the jaws of a crocodile— [wink] if crocodiles ate oranges.
(Crocodiles eat almost anything, including oranges.) What’s humorous here is not that the narrator is saying something factually inaccurate about crocodiles, but the fact that he’s made a ridiculous analogy then immediately second guessed himself. He could be laughing at himself, though I see no real evidence of that. Later, at the most serious part of the story (when he has his anagnorisis) he tells us ‘I made a little joke’. This positioning highlights that he is not joking at all.
In Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler notes that Mansfield made much use of ‘nervous’ characters, meaning ‘characters whose nerves are of primary concern’. Several of these stories are filtered through the viewpoints of women: “Revelations” and “The Escape“. One portrays a man: “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“.
Tense and terribly “modern” relationships between a man and a woman occur in three other stories: “Psychology“, “A Dill Pickle” and “Poison“.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
Kobler is not alone in then saying that the best Mansfield short story about modern heterosexual relationships is “Bliss“.
It’s always interesting when an author avoids naming a character. There could be many reasons for doing so. One common reason: To keep a character as an archetype in the reader’s mind. The fewer details we have about someone, the more likely we are to avoid seeing them as human. This — in my own experience — is also the exact reason why some readers get really annoyed when authors avoid naming characters, especially when an unnamed character has a marginalised identity or is a woman. (Not the case here.) This is to do with a long history of symbolic annihilation. To name someone, it is thought, is to individualise them, and to give them power.
Below, Kobler noties a pattern in Mansfield’s decisions to avoid naming certain characters, and also questions Mansfield’s decision not to name this particular narrator:
Like the majority of the males in Mansfield’s stories about these modern liaisons, the narrator of “Poison” has no name, a fact that lends credence to the belief that Mansfield really did believe that the men of her generation were all alike — unless, of course, they were so different as to be named Reginald, as in Peacock, and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove.” This narrator, however, perhaps ought to have a name, because he seems to embody more of the loving and caring sensitivity of Henry in “Something Childish but Very Natural” than he does the hurtful men of “A Dill Pickle” and “Psychology“.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
(Male commentators really don’t like it when male characters go unnamed. I wonder if they apply the same outrage to the fact that many, many more female characters historically go unnamed.)
But I would like to draw attention to the following sentence:
“Who are you?” Who was she? She was — Woman.
Our narrator himself has realised that he regards Beatrice as an archetypal perfect Woman, as indicated by the capital W. Sure, the author does not name him, but he hasn’t noticed that Beatrice is an individualised character. Not at all. (Not until the retelling of his story.) This is Mansfield doing to him as he is doing to Beatrice.
The narrator seems to have realised how different they are, and how it will be impossible to please her in the way he hoped to.
There is no plot revelation of the kind that would tie up a genre short story, say a mystery. In that kind of story the reader might understand that Beatrice is a poisoner, and that the narrator is in danger of being poisoned himself. But this is instead a lyrical short story and Mansfield gives us only a symbol web as a lens through which to interpret events. This is in line with the Impressionist’s view that we are all viewing events through our own blurry lenses.
The true revelation comes for the reader. Guided by Beatrice’s insights into how relationships work, we now understand that the idealised relationship between this couple has now been ‘poisoned’.
“Guilt!” she cried. “Guilt! Didn’t you realise that? They’re fascinated like sick people are fascinated by anything — any scrap of news about their own case. The man in the dock may be innocent enough, but the people in court are nearly all of them poisoners. Haven’t you ever thought”— she was pale with excitement —”of the amount of poisoning that goes on? It’s the exception to find married people who don’t poison each other — married people and lovers. Oh,” she cried, “the number of cups of tea, glasses of wine, cups of coffee that are just tainted. The number I’ve had myself, and drunk, either knowing or not knowing — and risked it. The only reason why so many couples”— she laughed —”survive, is because the one is frightened of giving the other the fatal dose. That dose takes nerve! But it’s bound to come sooner or later. There’s no going back once the first little dose has been given. It’s the beginning of the end, really — don’t you agree? Don’t you see what I mean?”
At this point, Beatrice unpins her lilies of the valley. She is taking off her ‘mask’ of purity and innocence. Mansfield chooses a slightly unusual ‘body language beat‘ to garnish this line of dialogue:
She unpinned the lilies-of-the-valley and lay back, drawing them across her eyes.
But this is not just a ‘beat’ — by drawing these symbols of innocence across her eyes she is drawing attention to the fact that our narrator has been blind.
We had very little backstory about these characters. Completely in line with that, they depart from the stage/page as abruptly as they came onto it. Mansfield offers no hint about what happens next. We can extrapolate that this narrator will never be so heavily enamoured about anyone again, and certainly not when it comes to Beatrice.
“Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest (1930). Our main character Edna should be feeling great right now. She’s eighteen, she’s beautiful and she’s in love. One slight problem. She is about to become a Bride of Christ, also known as taking the veil. (Or so we think from the title!)
Mansfield was expert at varying emotional valence from scene to scene on the page, and “Taking The Veil” is an excellent example. Check out “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “The Singing Lesson“ and “Bliss” for others.
“Old Man Minick” is a short story by Edna Ferber, published 1922. A widower learns how to live contentedly after his wife dies unexpectedly before he does.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “OLD MAN MINICK”
Set in Chicago in the early 20th century, nearish the union stock yards, which were infamous for their stink. There’s mention of a stock market crash, which I think would be the one in 1914 (preceding The Great Depression and coinciding with WW1). This is an era when women did everything for men, including making their beds.
Old Man Minick opens with a detail which summarises the nature of the relationship between an old married couple of 40 years: The husband thinks he needs two pillows, his wife provides it, and every single night he throws the pillow off the bed. Every single morning the wife puts it back.
Old Man Minick is frightened of night vapours but Ma Minick overrides him and they sleep with the window open.
Ma Minick dies, which blindsides Old Man Minick, because you rarely see widowers — only widows. It is decided that he’ll live with his son and daughter-in-law. He occupies a bedroom off the kitchen. He makes a bit of a nuisance of himself, visiting his son at work when everybody’s busy. He makes friends with the women help, and the seamstress tries to persuade him to marry her. He rebuffs her advances, thinking it ridiculous.
Nettie, his daughter-in-law won’t let him have two pillows, since it’s her who’s expected to make his bed and she gets real sick real quick of picking up that second pillow off the floor.
Old Man Minick’s life improves when he discovers the locus of all the other old widowers — at a Club on Washington Park. He divides them into two main types — those who live with a child and those who live in aged care. Each group has convinced themselves his choice is better than the other.
The mindless conversation feels like ‘oral death’ to Old Man Minick. Mostly it’s phatic communion. But even when there’s a meaty conversation, winning his point seems to have no point.
Edna Ferber makes use of the Symbolism of Seasons, and Old Man Minick dreads the coming winter. (Winter = death.)
One day he returns to his daughter-in-law’s house (to which he’s never been given his own key) and overhears her talking to her friends. She’s saying she can’t have a child so long as she has her father-in-law to look after, with him occupying the spare room. Old Man Minick creeps out, pretending he hasn’t heard. But he does tell Nettie he’s moving in to the old people’s home. Nettie realises he’s overheard her.
At the old people’s home he enjoys his life, in which he actually has more freedom, because he’s paid someone to allow him to have two pillows.
CHARACTERS IN “OLD MAN MINICK”
Ma Minick — In contrast to her husband she is practical. 66 years old.
Old Man (Jo) Minick — 70 years old. he thinks of himself as modern but is mistrustful of ‘miasmas’ in the night air. Once upon a time this was a legitimate fear… in the Middle Ages through to Early Modern England. Noxious fumes were widely thought to descend from the sky. “Night fogges” and “noysom vapours”. You’ll find this idea in Shakespeare — “the daylight sick”. “Make haste, the vaporous night approaches.”
George — Their son, probably a real estate agent or similar. Lived at home until he was 36.
Nettie — George’s wife. They married late. ‘A plump, handsome, eye-glassed woman with fine fresh colouring, a clear skin that old man Minick called appetizing, and a great coil of smooth dark hair. She wore plain tailored things and understood the bond business in a way that[Pg 42] might have led you to think hers a masculine mind if she hadn’t been so feminine, too, in her manner. Old man Minick had liked her better than Ma Minick had.’
Alma — Their married daughter who lives in Seattle. Her husband’s nickname is Ferd. Married young.
Paul — Another son, but died at 13. Paul is probably the reason why Mr and Mrs Minick never talked about death between them.
Canary The Negro Washwoman — eats lunch with Jo Minick once a week. a rich throaty voice, a rolling eye, and a kindly heart.
Sewing woman — hired for several weeks per year. Becomes great friends with Old Man Minick. Then she comes onto him. She is compared to a hawk. As a consequence, we are to understand that she is interested in him for his modest amount of money.
Ferber makes a good job of painting a character who is at once sympathetic and irritating. I can see exactly why Nettie wouldn’t enjoy picking his pillow up off the floor — she never asked to have her father-in-law move in with them. She probably expected it would be Mrs Minick, if either of them. Mrs Minick would’ve made her own bed, but since it’s the man, she’s expected to make his bed.
And Old Man Minick’s moral shortcoming is that he likes things just so.
He doesn’t really like sleeping with two pillows — he likes the fact that someone else is allowing him to have them, and is picking them up after him each morning. To use modern lingo, that’s his ‘love language’, as annoying, patriarchal and minimising as that actually feels to anyone other than his wife, who saw many other parts of him and therefore put up with it.
The pillow therefore stands in for an aspect of Old Man Minick’s psychology.
His opponent is Nettie, since he can’t feel at home in her house — for many small reasons. He focuses on the pillow which she won’t let him have, though it’s eventually revealed she hasn’t given him a house key, which you’d think is a greater imprisonment.
His romantic opponent is the unnamed seamstress, who he knows is hoping to make an arrangement in which she gives him homely services and he provides her with a comfortable income. He sees through this.
This is an example of a story in which the main character has no strong plan — a grieving man is reactive. But eventually, as he comes out of his intense grief, he joins the Club and meets other old men.
His final plan is made on the spur of the moment, between eavesdropping and reentering through the front.
He realises that living at the old people’s home affords him more freedom, despite the inane conversations and being surrounded by fellow septuagenarians. This anagnorisis is prompted by the old man who tells him that he’s never been so lonely than when living with his own family and five grandchildren in their big, noisy house.
Does he realise that the old must move over in order to make way for the young? All the way through, I got the impression Nettie doesn’t want children. She’s using the father-in-law as a reason not to have any, in an era when women need a good reason.
The New Situation phase of this story is broken off into its own section. For Old Man Minick, this marks a completely separate phase of his elderly life. He now lives at the old folks’ home, where he can feel like the boss due to his paying people to do menial things for him, such as pick his pillow off the floor each morning.
“Rain” (1921) by W. Somerset Maugham is a fish-out-of-water story, in which characters wholly unsuited to their environment become marooned somewhere due to external circumstances. As a result, they undergo many trials and change as a result… or they don’t, if it’s a tragedy.
The incessant tropical rain is pathetic fallacy which foreshadows tragedy.
In this case we have Christian missionaries hellbent of converting native Pacific Island culture into something foreign and entirely unsuitable (Protestant, puritanical, cold climate culture). It’s worth remembering that the mainly white, Christian audience of Somerset Maugham’s contemporary readership had to be converted themselves to the view that this was not acceptable.
These characters get stuck on an island because of a travel ban due to a measles outbreak, which is deadly for local populations if not to themselves. By the time we’re told there’s no hotel for them at Pago Pago, we despise them so much we are glad to see them suffer.
SETTING OF “RAIN”
Somerset Maugham does a good job of placing us geographically within the first few lines of story:
It was nearly bed-time and when they awoke next morning land would be in sight. Dr. Macphail lit his pipe and, leaning over the rail, searched the heavens for the Southern Cross.
From that we know that it is dark > our characters are on a ship > on the deck of a ship > they are in the Southern Hemisphere > nearing a landmass.
I deduce that because this person is looking for the Southern Cross, they have traveled from the Northern Hemisphere (otherwise it would be a fact of the skyscape and unremarkable). Perhaps they are about to arrive in New Zealand or Australia or one of the Pacific Islands.
I also deduce that because they are travelling a lengthy journey by ship that this takes place in the early 20th century or before, and that the person smoking is male, because smoking was a masculine thing to do in this era.
We are soon told that they are about to reach Apia, which is the capital of Samoa. In the background, a war is going on.
Pago Pago is the territorial capital of American Samoa. Somerset Maugham stopped here in 1916. The ship will stop there, some passengers are supposed to disembark, the rest are supposed to travel to Apia.
LANGUAGE IN “RAIN”
propinquity — the state of being nearby
carp — to go on complaining about trivial matters
Samoari — seems to be an outdated word for Samoan, which seems to have been only used by Christian missionaries e.g. the book The Samoari Culture and the Christian Gospel.
yaws — a contagious disease of tropical countries, caused by a bacterium that enters skin abrasions and gives rise to small crusted lesions which may develop into deep ulcers.
obsequious — obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree
copra — dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained
chafing dish —A chafing dish (from the French chauffer, “to make warm”) is a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the “fierce” heat of direct flames.
ducks — pants made of duck fabric, a kind of strong linen which is also used for sails.
burg — an ancient or medieval fortress or walled town
CHARACTERS IN “RAIN”
Narrator — An Englishman. ‘It was not like our soft English rain that drops gently on the earth’. We don’t know much else about him. Was he lurking unseen at the same establishment?
Rev. Davidson — With his tall, spare form, and his great eyes flashing out of his pale face, he was an impressive figure. He worked in the Solomons for five years before he met his wife. She had been a missionary in China, and they had become acquainted in Boston, where they were both spending part of their leave to attend a missionary congress. On their marriage they had been appointed to the islands in which they had laboured ever since. He was a medical missionary, and he was liable to be called at any time to one or other of the islands in the group. He has done his ‘missionary’ work by issuing fines to locals minding their own business.
Mrs Davidson — described like a bird, with her small frame and shrill voice. She seems to turn a blind eye to the violence of her husband. “When he is on the Lord’s work I never ask him questions.”
Dr. Macphail — A little more open-minded than the Christian missionaries he hangs out with. Is able to see the funny side in situations. Smokes a pipe. Treats locals for their tropical diseases and whatnot. Dr. Macphail was a timid man. In the war, he had never been able to get used to the hurtling of the shells over the trenches.
Mrs Mcphail — Mrs. Macphail is shy, and in the habit of doing what her husband bade her. She spends all her time making comforters for the war effort.
Miss Sadie Thompson — Also gets marooned on the island. Described by the missionary women as ‘fast’ which is probably more a comment on her lower socio economic status. Loud and cheerful voice. Dresses in a white frock, and her shiny white boots with their high heels, her fat legs bulging over the tops of them. Of all of them, fits in best with the locals. Mr Davidson concludes she boarded the ship from Hawaii, where she worked in the sex trade.
Mr Horn — owner of the place where they’re staying. A ‘half-caste trader’.
Who is the main character of “Rain”? Reverend Davidson is the main focus of the narrator’s point of view. Normally, the main character is the character who has the anagnorisis. Because he gets killed, the reverend gets no revelation, though he may have realised something before he died. (However that death happened.)
The reader is let in on only one side of Reverend Davidson’s desires—the desire to punish others for what he considers human failings.
The part of his desire kept back as a reveal is that he is the worst of the lot.
This second part of his psychology isn’t much of a surprise, and I wonder if the modern reader is more jaded, and if a contemporary of Somerset Maugham would’ve been genuinely surprised that a reverend (even a fictional one) would behave in such a way. The fairly recent history of reverends and priests as above human infallibility is very recent.
The group’s opponent is Sadie Thompson, as she doesn’t conform to their high moral standards. They dislike her for her corrupting influence and perhaps because of fears of contagion — sex workers are considered dirty, because they can be a vector of sexually transmitted disease in a time when people don’t understand how these things work.
Davidson’s other opponent is the doctor, who the audience sympathises with. The doctor is a non-confrontational, laidback sort of man, so not exactly a formidable opponent. He gives up trying to keep Sadie being sent back to San Francisco, where she will serve time in prison, presumably for the crime of sex work.
The reverend plans to send Sadie Thompson to San Francisco and sets that up very effectively, by strong arming. First he plans to do sex to her, and then she’ll be safely gone, so she’ll never tell.
The doctor has ‘counterattack’ — to try and persuade people with reason not to enforce Sadie’s return to San Francisco, but to allow as she wishes — to find straight work in Sydney. This plan is ineffective.
Someone else — the murderer — has a different plan. Either Sadie kills him, the reverend’s wife kills him, or else she somehow finds out, leading the reverend to kill himself.
Leading up to the big struggle we have a ‘big struggle-state-of-mind’ in which the author describes the weather, the surroundings, in an ominous, restless kind of way:
[Dr Macphail] scratched his mosquito bites. He felt very short-tempered. When the rain stopped and the sun shone, it was like a hothouse, seething, humid, sultry, breathless, and you had a strange feeling that everything was growing with a savage violence. The natives, blithe and childlike by reputation, seemed then, with their tattooing and their dyed hair, to have something sinister in their appearance; and when they pattered along at your heels with their naked feet you looked back instinctively. [sideshadowing] You felt they might at any moment come behind you swiftly and thrust long knife between your shoulder blades. You could not tell what dark thoughts lurked behind their wide-set eyes. They had a little the look of ancient Egyptians painted on a temple wall, and there was about them the terror of what is immeasurably old.
Note that the violence in that paragraph is imagined, and W. Somerset Maugham is making use of sideshadowing when describing what a character thinks could happen.
That paragraph is necessary not only as foreshadowing because the big struggle which leads to a death takes place off-stage.
The ‘twist’ in this tale is that we are first given a false Anagnorisis. (Though if you read it like me, you saw it coming.)
”It’s a true rebirth. Her soul, which was black as night, is now pure and white like the new-fallen snow. I am humble and afraid. Her remorse for all her sins is beautiful. I am not worthy to touch the hem of her garment.”
How do we know this is all fake? Because the narrator has already primed us to not expect a didactic, Christian tale. All this time he has been highlighting the nasty side of the missionaries, and the more Christian they are, the worse they behave.
The revelation, which comes in the last line, and which we are left to deduce (somewhat) is that Rev Davidson was either raping Sadie or offering to pay for sex, all the while hypocritically punishing her for her sins.
The reader is left not knowing whether it is Sadie or Mrs Davidson who killed the reverend. I think the point of withholding this information is to avoid creating a moral hierarchy in the reader’s mind regarding murder — humans are all the same, so we are told. This point becomes underscored when the reader is left to consider that every woman, from a lowly sex worker to a respectable reverend’s wife is a murder suspect.
“I’m A Fool”(1922) is a short story written by American Sherwood Anderson, who was born around the time Lonesome Dove is set, and who died at the beginning of the second world war. So, he came along at the end of the cowboy days, lived through one world war and was heading into another.
Anderson had four wives during his relatively short life. I’m immediately suspicious of a man who has had four marriages. “I’m A Fool” demonstrates a possessive, objectifying attitude towards a woman character which isnt challenged. This doesn’t improve my impression of the writer. To understand this story the reader must also understand that being attracted to a woman and not acting on those strong feelings is about one of the worst things that can happen to a man. If this story were a contemporary song, it’d be “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2004). A young man catches sight of a pretty woman on a train, can’t be with her and is sad forever that he can’t have her. All because she smiled at her.
James Blunt swears he’s got ‘a plan’ but never tells us what that plan is, making the narrative arc incomplete. Like the narrator of “I’m A Fool”, Blunt spends the entire music video punishing himself physically, in this case by taking off all his clothes in the snow, laying out all his pocket possessions and jumping (probably to his death) into the sea below.
Sherwood Anderson’s own young life working various jobs will have influenced this story, about a young man who also feels he has little in common with more sheltered boys of his own age. I recently rewatched Terminator 2, and the very annoying kid in that movie has the same superiority complex of a boy who has been let loose on the ‘real’ world and immediately starts dividing between men and boys, putting himself in the category of man, prematurely.
Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.
Some think Sherwood Anderson is a genius. Others think he’s mediocre. Mark Twain did the first person vernacular style first. Every English speaking country has their own iconic male writer of the early 20th century who got famous for daring to write in the regional working man’s vernacular. There’s Frank Sargeson of my own home country (New Zealand). In 1935, Sargeson wrote a piece in a New Zealand liberal newspaper in praise of Anderson’s literary devices. I had to study Sargeson at high school, so it’s interesting to see his main influence. I don’t remember Sherwood Anderson ever mentioned. New Zealand likes to think Sargeson was wholly original in coming up with the idea of eschewing that fancy book learnin language for normal everyday speech.
Anderson also influenced Hemingway and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth.
I don’t get a ‘genius’ vibe from this snippet of Anderson’s oeuvre. But I sure am sick of stories about the regrets of men who don’t get to do exactly what they want to with their dicks. Especially when it’s for being dicks.
Apparently, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. This mode of death is trumped only by Margaret Wise Brown, who died after kicking up her leg to show doctors how well she (ostensibly) was. In any case, I’ll be very careful with toothpicks from now on. And I won’t be kicking any legs up in hospital, either.
SETTING OF “I’M A FOOL”
The time and place are very specific. Authors do this to create a strong sense of verisimilitude.
It began at three o’clock one October afternoon as I sat in the grandstand at the fall trotting and pacing meet at Sandusky, Ohio.
I checked to see if horse racing is big in Sandusky. It’s not anymore, but used to be, notably between the 1860s and 1920s.
Gee whizz, gosh amighty, the nice hickorynut and beechnut and oaks and other kinds of trees along the roads, all brown and red, and the good smells, and Burt singing a song that was called “Deep River,” and the country girls at the windows of houses and everything. You can stick your colleges up your nose for all me. I guess I know where I got my education.
Black people and women were not respected. People were afraid of Black men and didn’t trust women could understand stuff.
There’s a lot of things you’ve got to promise a mother because she don’t know any better.
Young women (Janes) are peachy, or they are mutts.
that girl wasn’t any mutt of a girl.
Young women are classy or they are trash.
when you’re out with girls like that, you can’t get careless and miss any trains and stay out all night, like you can with some kinds of Janes.
This is the character speaking, of course. But these were the times.
The narrator uses the word ‘dude‘ in a slightly different way we’d use it today. I think he means poser types who dress well and parade around for the ladies. (More like a modern hipster.)
Sherwood is lauded for creating characters trapped by their own eccentric natures in a hostile world.
“I’m A Fool” opens with the narrator telling us that he’s been stupid, and he gives us a reason for writing. This technique is often used in diary format novels as well. Many middle grade diaries open with the main character telling us why they would bother writing something down. Here, the narrator hopes to take ‘a kind of satisfaction in making [himself] look cheap by telling it’.
I had got too big to mow people’s lawns and sell newspapers. Little chaps who could get next to people’s sympathies by their sizes were always getting jobs away from me.
Although taking the job as swipe is justified, Anderson is sure to show us his moral shortcoming. This is what our narrator imagines in his darker moments:
There was one fellow who kept saying to everyone who wanted a lawn mowed or a cistern cleaned, that he was saving money to work his way through college, and I used to lay awake nights thinking up ways to injure him without being found out. I kept thinking of wagons running over him and bricks falling on his head as he walked along the street.
The narrator’s shortcoming is most evident via his mode of narration, in which he digresses often, trying to impress us, his narratee.
I’m reminded of these graphs you see sometimes on social media. Unfortunately I don’t have an attribution:
The ‘nigger named Burt’ exists functionally in this story about a white boy, but is not fleshed out in his own right. The narrator can see that this black man is just as good as a white man, and this has two functions for the white narrator’s character development:
It’s got a Save The Cat vibe about it. This guy is empathetic to those below him and sees the guy’s skills.
Shows how close to the bottom of the social hierarchy the narrator is himself.
Burt taught me how to rub down a horse and put the bandages on after a race and steam a horse out and a lot of valuable things for any man to know. He could wrap a bandage on a horse’s leg so smooth that if it had been the same color you would think it was his skin, and I guess he’d have been a big driver, too, and got to the top like Murphy and Walter Cox and the others if he hadn’t been black.
First, he wants to earn his own living, but jobs are scarce and he has to take what he can get. What does a horse swipe do?
You got to a county seat town, maybe say on a Saturday or Sunday, and the fair began the next Tuesday and lasted until Friday afternoon. Doctor Fritz would be, say, in the 2. 25 trot on Tuesday afternoon and on Thursday afternoon Bucephalus would knock ’em cold in the “free-for-all” pace. […] And then at the end of the week when the race meet was over, and Harry had run home to tend up to his livery-stable business, you and Burt hitched the two horses to carts and drove slow and steady across country to the place for the next meeting, so as to not overheat the horses, etc. […] looking down on the swipes coming out with their horses, and with their dirty horsy pants on and the horse blankets swung over their shoulders
Next this guy wants to impress a girl with a view to having her for his own. But he also wants to do his job, and these two things conflict.
He plans to get these kids to spend a lot on horse racing and he’s going to take the opportunity to big himself up. He’ll enjoy being another person for a little while — a middle upper class person, worthy of a middle upper class girl.
The Anagnorisis phase has been brought to the front as an opener (in much the same way as action scenes are often brought to the front in TV and film, to hook the viewer in).
He realises he has been a fool, as it says in the title. He realises not that he should have acted differently — he’s robotic in that regard — but that he just brushed up against a relationship which was never meant to be.
The twist in this tale is that the horse doesn’t lose any of them their money. It’s not that. It’s the narrator’s own lying about all the other stuff — about his social standing. In a different kind of story, the mask would come off the narrator because the horse he recommended would have won.
The fact that he wasn’t lying about the abilities of the horse but was lying about all the rest makes everything feel so much worse for our narrator. If only he could switch them round — if only he could know nothing about harness racing but belong to the same class as this girl he’s so keen on. This idea of switching is seen throughout the story, but there’s no regret until this point — he is happy being a swipe and happy being a yap, wherever he happens to be. But now he’s not happy.
How much does the narrator really know about his own situation? Well, I don’t trust he’s able to tell what the girl is thinking.
And I was with that girl and she wasn’t saying much, and I wasn’t saying much either. One thing I know. She wasn’t stuck on me because of the lie about my father being rich and all that. There’s a way you know … Craps amighty. There’s a kind of girl you see just once in your life, and if you don’t get busy and make hay, then you’re gone for good and all, and might as well go jump off a bridge.
He thinks she wants him because he wants her. End of. They’re not saying much so how else could he know? More recently than this story was written, numerous studies have shown that men tend to overestimate romantic interest shown to them by women (Levesque et al., 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012; Treat et al., 2015).
Where there is no clear Anagnorisis in this story, it can be interesting to look at The Range Of Character Change. The difference here is between the narrator as he tells his story (the extradiegetic, autodiegetic narrator) and the person he was when this story was happening in real time. There’s not a great difference between the guy he was then and the guy he is now. This all could’ve happened last week. When he describes his strong feelings after the train leaves it feels very raw and unprocessed. He wants to punish himself physically (e.g. by having a train run over his foot) to take his mind off the mental anguish.
He is romantically alone and he will return to his underbelly life, but with a newfound dissatisfaction. He probably won’t be quite as happy to be an underdog from now on. He’ll always look back to this night and wish things were different.
“Flowering Judas” is the standout short story by Pulizer Prize winning Katherine Anne Porter, included in a collection published 1930 when Porter was 40. This short story reminds me of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield. Both stories are clearly about the way in which women are socially acculturated into providing emotional labour for men, but written in a time before such language existed to described the phenomenon. Instead, female short story writers showed it by dramatising such relationships in fiction.
I have compared Katherine Mansfield to Willa Cather, but Katherine Anne Porter seems to have much in common with Katherine Mansfield.
Katherine Anne Porter was just two years younger than Katherine Mansfield.
They both changed their names to Katherine, though neither was born Katherine. (Callie and Kathleen.)
As a young woman, Porter was diagnosed TB but it turned out to be bronchitis. In one way they both had their mindsets affected by the looming spectre of this deadly disease. And Porter did have a brush with death (the flu).
Both women are remembered as being duplicitous, rewriting their own histories, perhaps even to themselves. I have no hidden husbands. They just slipped my mind. — Katherine Anne Porter
Both were woman short story writers, of course. Neither was especially prodigious in output, but both remain hailed as standout contributors to the literature of their respective countries.
As young women they both spent time in Europe. Not only that, but both lived in a German pension.
They were both involved in the arty, liberal crowd of their time and place.
I think they even look quite similar.
Then again, the differences between them are just as stark:
Porter was more politically active, but this may have been partly about geography rather than temperament. I have wondered what Mansfield’s thoughts were on women’s suffrage but we don’t need to wonder about Porter’s. Porter published a defence of women’s suffrage when she was 14, converted to socialism at the age of 15, and took on all social and political problems when she was 18.
Porter grew up in a log cabin in Texas whereas Mansfield enjoyed an upper-middle class suburban lifestyle in Wellington, New Zealand, in which her family enjoyed high social status. Porter’s social status came later, though the fact of her being a white woman is what allowed her to enter the world of the Southern Belle.
Porter’s simple roots may be why she was more politically active, supporting causes that aimed to alleviate human suffering and promote individual freedom. (American ideals have always been more about ‘freedom’, whereas New Zealand and Australian ideals have focused on ‘equality of opportunity’.)
The author’s own life provides important context for this short story. I’m loathe to go down this path, especially when the author is female, because we’re inclined to assume greatness in female writers is only because they are writing autobiographically. However.
Katherine Anne Porter herself spent part of her time in America, part of her time elsewhere, and for a time, that ‘elsewhere’ was Mexico:
In 1919, Porter moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and made her living ghost writing, writing children’s stories and doing publicity work for a motion picture company. The year in New York City had a politically radicalizing effect on her; and in 1920, she went to work for a magazine publisher in Mexico, where she became acquainted with members of the Mexican leftist movement, including Diego Rivera. Eventually, however, Porter became disillusioned with the revolutionary movement and its leaders. In the 1920s she also became intensely critical of religion and remained so until the last decade of her life, when she again embraced the Roman Catholic Church.
Between 1920 and 1930, Porter traveled back and forth between Mexico and New York City and began publishing short stories and essays.
It’s relatively safe to assume that most of Laura’s revolutionary activity described in “Flowering Judas” was inspired by Porter’s time as a revolutionary.
When Porter was in Mexico, she transformed from an idealist to a pessimist. This seems to be what’s happening to Laura.
Background: By 1930, Porter had suffered a life-threatening illness — not even counting the misdiagnosis of TB (which is a death sentence, and was for Katherine Mansfield in the same era). The TB turned out to be bronchitis but she did almost die from the flu. (The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people, which made it more deadly than WW1, which claimed 16 million.)
As for her ability to see the underlying patterns that drive male-female relationships, by 1930 Porter had already been married and divorced twice. She first married very young (at 16, due to economic necessity) and this was a physically abusive relationship. By 40 years of age, Porter knew how relationships worked.
Laura’s shortcoming is that she is a woman in a patriarchal culture, in which she is expected to subordinate her own feelings for that of a man. She also appears to be displaced — an American woman living in Mexico. She doesn’t seem to have the emotional support of long-term female friends. (She teaches English in a foreign country — in this respect she reminds me of Miss Brill from the Katherine Mansfield short story.)
Her loneliness is felt keenly: She knocks at unfamiliar doors not knowing whether a friend or a stranger shall answer, and even if a known face emerges from the sour gloom of that unknown interior, still it is the face of a stranger.
Laura is also young — 22 years old. In psychological terms she is suppressing her emotions. Porter explains her psychology at times throughout her narration: She tells herself that throwing the flower was a mistake, for she is twenty-two years old and knows better; but she refuses to regret it, and persuades herself that her negation of all external events as they occur is a sign that she is gradually perfecting herself in the stoicism she strives to cultivate against that disaster she fears, though she cannot name it. Another way of putting that: She suppresses her own intuition, learned after a lifetime living as female, thinking that the ideals of the masculine stoicism will serve her better. Porter’s father was reportedly a big reader, and read a lot of rationalists. Porter probably learned the concepts of Stoicism from him. Modern Stoics are keen to point out that Stoicism isn’t limited to men, despite the original Stoics often drawing a distinction between ‘manly’ (ideal) and ‘effeminate’ (not ideal). This doesn’t change the fact that throughout recent history, the ideals of Stoicism have been coded as masculine: strength, fortitude, freedom from passions such as anger and petulance. So when the narrator of “Flowering Judas” writes that Laura is ‘not at home in the world’, this is because she is trying to bend herself to a world in which feminine ideals are intolerable.
Laura wants to run away from Braggioni but for the time being she can’t think of how this might ever happen. Still she sits quietly, she does not run. Where could she go? Uninvited she has promised herself to this place; she can no longer imagine herself as living in another country, and there is no pleasure in remembering her life before she came here. Mrs Braggioni is presented to the reader as a contrast to Laura — perhaps Laura’s future middle-aged self if things had gone slightly differently. Unlike Laura, Mrs Braggioni spends time crying, fully in tune with her own unpleasant emotions. Laura wishes she could do the same.
Braggioni is the male embodiment of the early 20th century patriarchal system in which women were wholly subordinate to men. Braggioni is the socialist equivalent of a religious cult leader, surrounding himself in young women, objectifying them sexually (and probably more), all united by the common cause of extending an American form of socialism to Mexico.
Whether Porter did this mindfully or not, when describing Braggioni she inverts a trope most often applied to women when she compares the man to a cat: ‘When he stretches his eyelids at Laura she notes again that his eyes are the true tawny yellow cat’s eyes.’ (It’s most often women who are described as either cats or birds, or both, in fiction.)
Braggioni engages in psychological mansplaining, first telling Laura he feels sorry for her, then how her psychology will change as she matures, what her life’s purposes is, and then emphasises that the two of them are very much alike, in a romantic pattern well-recognised by many women, I bet.
New lovers are inclined to focus on their similarities, only much later noticing the differences. He’s trying to woo her sexuall. Laura understands this completely. She’s ahead of his game. She is more advanced in understanding this relationship than he is, despite the huge age difference. Comically, Braggioni ends his little monologue by talking about himself in third person, the way parents sometimes do to their young children: He shakes his head. ‘You, poor thing, you will be disappointed too. You are born for it. We are more alike than you realize in some things. Wait and see. Some day you will remember what I have told you, you will know that Braggioni was your friend.’ There’s a Seinfeld episode which makes fun of a guy called Jimmy. Jimmy only refers to himself in the third person. The writers of Seinfeld, like Katherine Anne Porter, observed that people who talk about themselves in third person are also likely to condescend in other ways. “Jimmy got himself some new shoes. Before Jimmy got himself these shoes, he played like you.” When [Braggioni] was fifteen, he tried to drown himself because he loved a girl, his first love, and she laughed at him. Margaret Atwood once observed, and it is now much quoted, that women are afraid of being killed; men are afraid women will laugh at them. Note that Katherine Anne Porter is making this same observation only decades earlier. Because Laura’s next opponent is the youthful version of Braggioni — a young man who stalks her: A brown, shock-haired youth came and stood in her patio one night and sang like a lost soul for two hours… Laura is (ill-)advised by a female acquaintance to throw him a flower (give him attention) and he will go away. In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker advises the exact opposite when it comes to people who won’t leave you alone. Give them nothing, or they will keep coming back for more. Sure enough, that’s what happens and now Laura has a stalker. Though she doesn’t allow herself to feel afraid for her life, this is because her way of dealing with the situation derives from manly stoicism.
To deal with living with an insufferably condescending, controlling man, Laura avoids him as much as she can: She spends part of her days in Xochimilco, near by, teaching Indian children to say in English,’The cat is on the mat.’
During her leisure she goes to union meetings and listens to busy important voices quarreling over tactics, methods, internal politics.
So, this is interesting, and Mansfield does the same thing in some of her stories. The Anagnorisis happens after a wholly internal Battle. There will be some outside symbol of a Battle. Here it is the cleaning of the gun. Laura’s internal Battle goes like this: Laura peers down the pistol barrel and says nothing, but a long, slow faintness rises and subsides in her; Braggioni curves his swollen fingers around the throat of the guitar and softly smothers the music out of it, and when she hears him again he seems to have forgotten her, and is speaking in the hypnotic voice he uses when talking in small rooms to a listening, close-gathered crowd. Someday this world, now seemingly so composed and eternal, to the edges of every sea shall be merely a tangle of gaping trenches, of crashing walls and broken bodies. Everything must be torn from its accustomed place where it has rotted for centuries, hurled skyward and distributed, cast down again clean as rain, without separate identity. Nothing shall survivethat the stiffened hands of povertyhave created for the rich and no one shall be left alive except the elect spirits destined to procreate a new world cleansed of cruelty and injustice, ruled by benevolent anarchy: ‘Pistols are good, I love them, cannon are even better, but in the end I pin my faith to good dynamite,’ he concludes, and strokes the pistol lying in her hands. ‘Once I dreamed of destroying this city, in case it offered resistance to General Ortiz, but it fell into his hands like an overripe pear.’
These passages are the most difficult to write when composing a short story, I find. Short story writers use the same techniques time and again, which is perhaps precisely why it’s so difficult to make them original. Porter uses the following tricks:
Though there is no fight happening, she’s using verbs which would describe an actual fight.
She is making use of the miniature in fiction by stretching time out, with mention of ‘the eternal’. This makes the happenings of this particular story seem very small, and a piece in a mechanism much larger than ourselves. She’s giving us The Overview Effect by talking about the ‘edges of the sea’ — it’s like we’re viewing the Earth from space.
The narrator then sums up in a sentence (‘Nothing shall survive…) Laura’s shift from idealism (her wish to eradicate poverty) to pessimism (the world runs on pistols and cannons).
Porter uses a simile which indicates a fatalistic attitude. A modern fatalistic short story writer is Annie Proulx, so check out her stories for fatalism on steroids. Here, the imagery of an overripe pear dropping into a general’s hands indicate the political state of Mexico is inevitable. Individuals are powerless to stop him.
Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true.
Katherine Anne Porter
The revelation for the reader (in which we are left to deduce for ourselves) is that Braggioni is interested only in power, not in the people he ostensibly fights for. When Laura tests him (to confirm her own anagnorisis), by telling him that a prisoner has tried to kill himself, Braggioni responds callously, as if the man’s life does not matter.
We realise (or this is my revelation, at least) that Braggioni is fighting on the side of ‘good’ (for freedom and equality) but he does it for the same power hungry reasons as the bad guys on the other side.
To symbolise Laura’s change of attitude, Porter shows us changing her clothes. ‘Serge’ is the fabric of fighting whereas the ‘white linen’ symbolises purity, normally. Is that what it symbolises here?
Like Katherine Mansfield does in “Bliss” and various other of her short stories, Porter describes a tree in her final paragraph — a Judas tree ‘that bent down slowly and set her upon the earth, then to the rocky ledge of a cliff, and then tot he jagged wave of a sea that was not water but a desert of crumbling stone.’ Judas Tree is a common name for a flowering tree, Cercis siliquastrum from which Judas Iscariot is reputed to have hanged himself. “Flowering Judas” is the other common name for this tree, hence this short story is named after a tree. I didn’t know that when I started to read. Part of the legend behind this name and this lovely native goes back to Christian folklore. The mythology surrounding all Redbuds originally dealt with a species in the same Genus found in Judea and various other parts of the Middle East that is also called the Judas Tree, Cercis siliquastrum. The legend says that originally all Redbuds were tall, strong and stately trees that bore beautiful white flowers. However, when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and committed suicide by hanging himself, the tree he chose to use was the Redbud. The tree was so ashamed of the role it played that forever more it would not grow big or strong enough to be used for hanging. The wood from then on would be brittle and the flowers, no longer pure, lost their white color and blushed instead. Thus we get the alternate name for Redbuds: the Judas Tree, the tree he chose for his death. Probably closer to the truth was that this tree grew throughout Judea and thus was called “Judea’s Tree” which was changed somewhere along the line to just being referred to as Judas Tree.
In Laura’s mind, the dead prisoner Eugenio has metamorphosed into a tree. The ghost she imagines calls her a murderer and a cannibal, because she starts to eat his flowers.
Then she awakes from her nightmare and we are left to extrapolate what happens now, though if the reader is familiar with the entire legend of the Judas tree, we can happily extrapolate that Laura is ‘ashamed of the role she played in Eugenio’s death’.
Whether she stays in Mexico to be a part of the Revolution or whether she returns to America, she is no longer an idealist. She sees herself as part of the system of oppression, I guess.
“The Killers” is a short story by Ernest Hemingway, first published 1927. Dorthy Parker goes on record as declaring “The Killers” the best short story of 1929. The great Dorothy Parker had this to say about it:
The Best Short Stories of 1927 is distinguished by the inclusion of in it of Ernest Hemingway’s superb “The Killers”. This is enough to make any book of stories a notable one.
Dorothy Parker, The Short Story, Through A Couple Of The Ages, December 17, 1927
This surprises me at first, but I need reminding: “The Killers” did something brand new, something we’ve since seen in stories such as:
In a related way, the opening sequence of Mohawk by Richard Russo
That is, Hemingway took gangsters out of what regular people consider their natural environment — or murdering, torturing, drug dealing, money laundering etc. and placed them in the down-to-earth, domestic environment of a cafe. Readers hadn’t really realised, until this point, that gangsters need to eat, too. Gangsters rub up against ordinary people on a daily basis. And what happens when they do?
This is a beautiful description of toxic forms of dick-waving masculinity, which in a few snippets of dialogue Hemingway adeptly intersects with racism, anti-semitism and sexism. The two gangsters use these tools of violence to effectively establish their situational dominance.
And that story of dominance, of masculinity taken to its extreme, is the meat of the story. It pays to remember that, because otherwise the ending feels like an anti-climax.
Much has already been said about this short story. My focus is on the writing techniques, focusing on story structure.
“Big Blonde” (1929) by Dorothy Parker is a short story in five parts, included in various collections. We can read it for free online. The ‘Good Sport’ girl is the grandmother of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Cool Girl’.
When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, our culture had a new phrase to describe the kind of woman who spends her time modifying herself to men’s fantasies: The Cool Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
SETTING OF “BIG BLONDE”
Dorothy Parker offers us the early 20th century version of The Cool Girl, who’s really not so different from Gillian Flynn’s early 2000s version. Parker calls her the Big Blonde, in line with pin-up fantasies at the time. The men call her a ‘good sport’. The phrase used to refer to sex workers (and adjacent cottage industries) of the time was ‘sporting woman’, which says a lot, I think. These ‘sporting women’ were ‘cool girls’. They were women who’d go along with what a man wanted, and what men wanted was often sex, which gave rise to the euphemism.
Parker’s story focuses on the psychology of a woman in transition, from Cool Girl to Middle Aged Lonely Woman.
Parker wrote this story at an interesting time for beauty politics. This is a woman whose larger build was considered attractive during her youngest years as an adult, but who found the culture shifted around her to idealise the slim, boyish silhouette. 1920s Western fashion preferred the slim, straight-up-and-down body type found more typically in men than in women, but revered in women all the same.
To avoid placing undue emphasis on our bodies, it’s important we all understand the extent to which women’s BMIs (in particular) have always been judged according to external beauty standards which are nothing to do with some inherent measure of health and unchanging beauty, but everything to do with external forces. For instance, in times of famine and epidemic, women are expected to be fatter. In times of plenty, women are expected to be slimmer. This ‘perfect body’ has constantly changed all throughout history.
And sometimes it changes in a single lifetime. Dorothy Parker was around to see that, and in Big Blonde she writes a portrait of how that milieu can affect a woman on the level of the individual. Parker grew up in an America which idealised The Gibson Girl (not a real person but an image) and then idealised the Flapper.
Of course, beauty standards don’t just change from era to era — they also vary according to place. This is a Western story, set in New York, around and bubbling and roiling of the first world war. It’s not easy now to imagine the psyche of living in such a tumultuous time. Alcohol was the socially acceptable drug of choice. Did the men in this story realise they’d be going off to war soon, some of them never to come back? “Big Blonde” is not a story about the war, but we can’t separate the state of the world from the actions of these individuals — their hedonistic recklessness may have had political influences.
The way men and women’s beauty is considered differently can be seen even at a linguistic level. Take the word ‘blonde’. I have in the past looked up a usage dictionary to understand whether it always needs an ‘e’ at the end or not. Here’s what my Australian usage dictionary says about that:
blond(e): There are two words concealed here. The first, blond, is a perfectly normal English adjective meaning fair, which can be masculine or feminine. The second, blonde, is an imported French noun, meaning a blond female. Those who use the word blond as a noun, meaning a fair male, should consider the situation with brunette. Its French male form, brunet, exists in The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary but not in the language, i.e. the imported words apply only to females.
Whoever wrote this usage dictionary tries to put it nicely, but is forced to eventually just say it: We really only refer to women by their hair colour, not men. Male forms of blonde and brunette exist, but only technically. This is precisely why Dorothy Parker chose to use the word as her moniker for what Flynn calls the Cool Girl. This is a specifically feminist story — a portrait of a real life sexist trope, whom Parker sets up specifically to encourage critique.
Later in the century, Peggy Lee remade the 1921 song Dorothy Parker quotes in “Big Blonde”. Lee’s is my favourite version. The original sounds like something out of a horror movie.
NARRATION IN “BIG BLONDE”
The danger in writing a story like this: The reader might critique the individual, and not the culture who creates her. This is always a problem for a writer, especially a short story writer, in which it must be done concisely.
How does a writer get around the danger of misplaced critique? I believe there’s only one way to try and avoid it (and even then, we don’t achieve it for every reader): These stories are heavy on narration. In some stories, like John Cheever’s “Reunion”, for example, Cheever does nothing more than painting a scene via first person narrator. There’s no critique from an unseen narrator. Readers are left to draw our own conclusion, because the conclusion is shared by any decent human being: That the father in that story is an asshole, and the son did well to get him out of his life.
But “Big Blonde” is a critique of an aspect of culture rather than of a person, and a large chunk of readers will have never thought on this topic beforehand — the ways in which ridiculous, ever-changing beauty standards affect women as individuals, and the way young women are expected to do the emotional labour for men at the expense of knowing themselves. We have terms to describe these phenomena now — the term ’emotional labour’ is itself a new phrase. The term was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 1920s readers would not have considered the concept unless they were especially astute, forward-thinking feminist types. The language did not exist. Therefore, in a story like “Big Blonde”, the typical reader required heavy guidance from a narrator.
This leads to an important question for short story writers to ask before we set out to write a story, or perhaps only in the revision. Have we critiqued an aspect of culture with which typical readers are already on board? Or are we saying something seldom considered and/or widely misinterpreted?
The answer to that will affect our choice of narration, and the ratio of action/dialogue to narrative summary.
Marriage was different in this era. Parker’s narrator explains that in this circle, husbands aren’t all that important to the women. She means as an emotional support. The men offered nothing of that sort. Of course husbands — or husband proxies — were vital for economic support. Women are unable to support themselves financially. If they do work they earn a pittance (even for the same work), there’s no social security for divorced or single women, and they’ve been brought up to rely on men. They can’t think and plan their way out of a culture in which women are meant to be breeders and homemakers.
Hazel needs emotional connection, but the tragedy is she never finds it.
Hazel is often shortened to ‘haze’, making it a symbolic name — this character lives in a haze of drunkenness.
Hazel initially wants to have fun with her husband in the same way she had fun as a young, attractive, single woman. But marriage requires a different set of skills. Neither Hazel nor her husband develop these skills, and the culture doesn’t encourage it, either.
Beneath the surface, Hazel wants human connection.
Hazel’s opponents are the men who come in and out of her life. Her biggest opponent is her husband because she initially expects more from him. Subsequent men are absolved by Hazel’s absent expectations.
Hazel’s opponent is also the culture which values her for how she looks and what she can offer sexually to men.
Hazel is an example of a main character whose plan is barely conscious let alone thought-out. The plan of an alcoholic is to lurch from one situation to the next, living in the moment, focussed only on the next drink.
This doesn’t make for a satisfying story on its own, but if other characters have their own plans, and these plans affect our main character, then that makes a story that works.
A woman without a plan for her life finds herself at the mercy of other people’s wishes for her. In Hazel’s case, she becomes a proxy ‘good sport’ wife, to complement men’s images of themselves, and to allow men to have both a domestic goddess at home and a sex kitten in private, in a culture which separates women into these binary categories.
Hazel realises that killing herself isn’t easy and she must therefore bear the rest of her life in this way:
She dropped the card to the floor. Misery crushed her as if she were between great smooth stones. There passed before her a slow, slow pageant of days spent lying in her flat, of evenings at Jimmy’s being a good sport, making herself laugh and coo at Art and other Arts; she saw a long parade of weary horses and shivering beggars and all beaten, driven, stumbling things. Her feet throbbed as if she had crammed them into the stubby champagne-colored slippers. Her heart seemed to swell and fester.
Hazel will go on living her life under the haze of alcohol.
Oh, please, please, let her be able to get drunk, please keep her always drunk.
MESSAGE OF “BIG BLONDE”
With this realisation and this new situation, Parker seems to be saying that alcohol helps some people to endure their lives. Living in a haze is one way to live. That’s just how it is. Some people live and die like that. This makes “Big Blonde” the opposite of a didactic tale.
I’m reminded of Helen Garner’s novel “The Spare Room” in which Garner explores the numerous ways to die slowly (of cancer). Dominant culture tells us we must accept that we’re going to die. Garner points out that many people never accept it, then they die anyway, and what’s wrong with that? That’s one way to do it.