Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.Continue reading “Little House On The Prairie”
“Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.
For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter.Significantly, McCullers still liked this story after it was unearthed, and even though she had clearly grown more sophisticated as a writer. Many writers look back on their early work and cringe. Eleanor Catton can no longer enjoy The Rehearsal, for instance, saying she no longer writes in that style.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “SUCKER”?
Sucker is the nickname of a gullible 12-year-old boy — symbolically nicknamed, of course. Later in the story, Sucker will lose this insulting nickname, which will signal the shift in power dynamics. Sucker idolises his older cousin, Pete, who is not very nice in return. They have grown up in the same house, more like brothers than cousins. The age of twelve is pretty magical, in storytelling and in real life — people change a lot around this time. And so does Sucker in this story. He realises that his cousin Pete is not a good role model.
NARRATION OF “SUCKER”
You might expect such a plot to have been written from Sucker’s point of view, but no. This is all narrated by the sixteen-year-old cousin and reads like a catharsis in which Pete wrestles with his feelings of being adored while adoring someone who ignores him. Shit travels down, as they say.
Although Pete is sixteen at the time the story takes place, he must have had a little time to process all of this by the time he’s written it down. Storyteller narrators are like that — the reason for writing the story is to learn something. In the act of writing itself, they learn something. The Anagnorisis in such a story therefore occurs throughout the entire plot, and you’ll typically find wise observations scattered throughout.
The arc of looking up to someone and then realising they’re not worth your effort is well explored in literature and film. Go back to Vladmir Propp, who listed the plot point in every single classic fairytale. (See step six, in which the main character is ‘tricked’ — often into trusting the untrustworthy Opponent.)
So McCullers made an excellent choice to examine this dynamic from the idol’s point of view. We hear less about the trials of being adored.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSFERENCE
Shit travels down. That’s everyday speak for what psychologists call ‘transference‘. Freud came up with it. Transference describes a situation in which the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person.
In the case of “Sucker”, Pete is rejected by a girl he likes. So he deals with this highly uncomfortable feeling by rejecting his younger cousin in turn.
There are gender issues here, too. Boys, more than girls, are culturally conditioned to expect love and romance. Think of all those stories and computer games in which the ‘reward’ is a girl. Enter the teenage years. A few boys are so shocked to learn that a girl’s time and attention is not a god-given right that they feel a sense of injustice where they should simply feel sadness and disappointment.
Pete’s treatment of Sucker shows that he is trying to restore his own version of worldly justice by treating someone else as he has been treated.
Although Carson McCullers kept growing as an author, she demonstrated a preternaturally mature understanding of human psychology when she wrote “Sucker” at the age of seventeen. I can see why she always liked it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUCKER”
Robert Phillips (1978) said of Carson McCullers’ characters that they seem fine on the surface but suffer from an “inner freaking-out”. They are “spiritual isolates of circumstance”. Themes of rejection (and unrequited love) are seen over and over, in both her novels and in her short stories. (Worth pointing out because the short stories are qualitatively different from the novels.)
Pete is at the mercy of his own feelings of unrequited love toward a girl at school called Maybelle. Because of the environment in which he’s been brought up, these uncomfortable feelings are expressed as a silent, inward rage which must come out. Since he doesn’t have access to Maybelle, the target is Sucker. Sucker’s admiration for Pete only reminds Pete of his own admiration for Maybelle. Pete therefore has a strong Moral Shortcoming, treating his cousin very badly.
Pete is uncomfortable with being admired. This is probably because he doesn’t especially admire himself. He describes himself as a poor student. He feels Sucker is very stupid for admiring him. Stupid people are annoying.
Pete wants to go out with Maybelle. This is the outworking of a deeper Desire — to be loved for all the right reasons — for being himself.
Maybelle is the romantic Opponent. Sucker is the proxy for the romantic opponent, since Maybelle is not there to heap shit on.
Proxy romantic partner is strongly suggested at various points — the boys share a bed; Sucker’s wrists look thin and white like girls’ wrists. Maybelle’s hands are similarly ‘little and white’. When Pete dreams of Maybelle, he hears Sucker’s voice — the characters become conflated. This is a kind of coitus uninterruptus trope.
Pete’s focus is on getting Maybelle to like him in return, so he uses his own money to take her out to the movies, tries to impress her and so on.
When Maybelle finally musters the courage to tell Pete she’s really not interested in him (I suspect she’s been trying to avoid hurting his feelings until now), Pete wakes up in the middle of the night squeezing Sucker’s arm really hard. Then he tells Sucker he’s never liked him, in a reenactment of what Maybelle has said to him.
By the time he narrates this tale, storyteller character Pete has already achieved the following wisdom: “If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care… it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire”.
So how does the Anagnorisis phase work in a story like this, narrated by someone who has already had quite a few epiphanies, sprinkled like aphorisms throughout?
Basically, it comes much earlier. We are told of Pete’s Anagnorisis at the beginning, in fact.
But you could argue that Sucker is the main character of this story. For Sucker, the Anagnorisis comes in the expected place, right after the Battle. He realises Pete is not a worthy object of his affection and hardens up like the ‘man’ he is expected to be.
The reader can see that in the two or three months since this all happened, Pete has come to an understanding about how he treated Sucker badly. For him, the outcome isn’t bad. It’s doubtful he’ll do this exact thing to anyone else. He has started to call Sucker by his real name, Richard. This indicates a new respect. But the dynamics haven’t disappeared — they have been flipped. Now that Sucker doesn’t care about Pete, Pete suddenly cares quite a lot about Sucker.
It seems he hasn’t realised this yet, though the reader does. His Anagnorisis is only partial, as in all coming-of-age stories.
Pete has wreaked much damage upon the character of Sucker, who has found another target of his admiration, this time it’s a bad lot of kids who may get him into irreversible trouble.
Sometimes, in service of us learning a valuable lesson, we damage someone else.
Header image from this site.
Have you ever lived in close quarters with strangers? Perhaps you went out of your way not to know these people, but in the name of etiquette rather than aloofness. There’s something discomfiting about living in a stranger’s pocket. Like commuters on a packed train, we avoid each other’s gaze.
Failure to know our neighbours is said to be a modern ailment — “In the olden days communities were stronger!” we are told, as evidence of modern societal breakdown. But was that ever true of the cities?
Whenever humans are forced to live in close proximity a tacit rule plays out: we pretend to be less proximal than we really are. Desmond Morris wrote about this in The Human Zoo (1969). In cities, we think of other people as trees. There’s no way we can stop and say hello to everyone. Yet if we were in the forest and saw another human for the first time in days, we’d stop and have a conversation.
This rule of ‘polite ignoring’ has been in play ever since humans have lived in close proximity. Try walking through a city and saying hello to everyone. People will assume you’re not right in the head.
This rule applies to our neighbours. The closer your neighbours, the more the rule applies. I bet it has always applied. In lieu of evidence from the Stone Age, today I offer evidence from the 1930s — a short story by Carson McCullers, born 1917: “Court in the West Eighties”.
STORYWORLD OF “COURT IN THE WEST EIGHTIES”
- New York, 1930s, and as the title says — in the West Eighties. This is not a story that could have been told in my home country of New Zealand, say, because 1930s New Zealand didn’t have the population density of New York.
- The story begins in Spring — a time of new beginnings — and also warm enough to allow windows open. When the narrator says ‘I cannot understand why I was so unconscious of the way in which things began to change’ she is ostensibly talking about the changing of the seasons, but she is also describing her own gradual epiphanies about life and human nature. Epiphany is the wrong word, in fact, because an epiphany is sudden. There is no ‘epiphany’ here — more like a realisation akin to ‘the thing, sooty-gray patches of snow disappearing’. McCullers is using the seasons as a metaphor for the range of character change (not much, and slowly).
- The narrator is living in cheap housing as a student — ‘Four walls of little rooms’. In 2018 The New York Times made a time capsule which included 1930s New York. But I’m having a bit of trouble visualising exactly how the narrator’s court and rooms are laid out.
- The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world (so far), lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to 1939. Though the depression is not mentioned directly, it is almost certainly the reason why the husband next door is out of work. McCullers makes sure to introduce economic woes early on by mentioning the friend back home who can’t go to university (despite being a natural academic) because his father is out of work. This was a time of mass unemployment. Adults who’d never experienced starvation as children went hungry for the first time — an historically unusual form of hunger, and one which comes on the back of entitlement. Frustrated entitlement leads to anger.
- The narrator’s eye functions as a floating camera. The ‘camera’ of the viewpoint narrator functions like a fish swimming through water. She can see details such as stockings in close up — enough to see that only the feet have been washed. She also sees her neighbours as long-shots, with full bodies included in the composition.
My spatial imagination thereby fails me. I end up imagining a dwelling like a painting by Cinta Vidal:
I’d like to find a photo which shows how the real apartments of the upper eighties would’ve been laid out. In the meantime, Vidal’s Escher-esque painting is actually pretty good as a metaphorical representation. As interpersonal dynamics play out, the narrator’s viewpoint shifts until she is no longer sure how the world works, or what happiness looks like for a woman.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “COURT IN THE WEST EIGHTIES”
This story is a good example of ‘main character subversion‘. The first paragraph leads us to expect a somewhat eventful story about the red-headed man, but as we eventually find out, there is no real story to this guy:
During all this time I can remember seeing only a few incomplete glimpses of this man living across from me — his red hair through the frosty window glass, his hand reaching out on the sill to bring in his food, a flash of his calm drowsy face as he looked out on the court. I paid no more attention to him than I did to any of the other dozen or so people in that building. I did not see anything unusual about him and had no idea that I would come to think of him as I did.“Court in the West Eighties” by Carson McCullers
This subversion is helped along by the fact that, in the history of storytelling, red hair marks out a character as somehow special — a person things happen to. They stand out. But this man’s red hair is ironically without significance.
It would be interesting to know how Carson McCullers would identify if she were born 80 or 90 years later. Would she be gender expansive, gender non-binary, bi romantic ace? McCullers was certainly not an uncritical follower of the strict gender binary of her era. This short story serves as a critique of accepted feminine norms, about a narrator who, looking back on herself from a slightly removed distance, sees that she was naive about gender roles when she first came to New York.
I have often thought that when you are an eighteen year old girl, and can’t fix it so you look any older than your age, it is harder to get work than at any other time.Carson McCullers
The young narrator is developing ideas — or merely articulating preconceived notions — about femininity.Julianne Newmark
When establishing the Psychological Shortcoming it’s often useful to ask what a main character is wrong about. (Julianne puts it so well):
We know [the narrator’s] situation in New York City is somewhat unique, as a young woman far away from home in the city alone for her studies, and we know that she perceives the young married couple as very much in love and “happy,” in the early pages of her story. She thus reinforces the traditional trajectory for a woman’s life: marriage and then child-rearing. These she equates with “happiness.”Julianne Newmark
Susan Faludi wrote an entire book about this, but as it specifically applied in America after the 9/11 attacks:
when we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction.
All of women’s aspirations — whether for education, work or any form of self-determination — ultimately rest on their ability to decide whether and when to bear children.Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women
However, the terrorist attacks only served to strengthen a phenomenon already in force. The Shortcoming of this narrator at the beginning of the story is the personification of a societal one: Don’t sit back and yearn for men to save whatever is wrong with the world. Failure to step up is the narrator’s Moral Shortcoming.
The narrator has been brought up to rely on men to step in and save the day. In short, the narrator wants a man to step in as patriarch of the apartment complex.
This is so she doesn’t have to do anything herself, other than exist.
This is a cultural comment on accepted gender divisions of the 1930s, but it’s still in play today, evident less at a household level perhaps, but still most alarmingly evident in politics. I’m talking about the idea we’re seeing around the world right now — that ‘good people’ need a ‘strong man’ leader to save everyone from those foreign, evil men.
As viewpoint character, the narrator of this story is not the character involved directly in the web of Opposition. Like us, she bears witness.
The violent, surface opposition exists between the husband and his wife, then between the cat-like man and the cellist.
The married man above the cellist is perhaps using the cellist as a proxy wife upon whom he exacts his deep-seated misogyny. (It would be too much against his morals to attack the woman he married for his woes — easier to criticise some other woman, objectified as ‘loose’.)
Who is the married man avenging, really, when he yells at the cellist to be quiet even though she is in the middle of being manually strangulated? (By the way, despite what movies tell us, this often leads to real, long-term, life-changing physical injury.)
The married man’s real — though unacknowledged — opponent is a society in which men lose masculine privilege when suddenly unable to provide economically for their families due to forces beyond their control.
It’s dangerous to read too much into connections between fiction and its author’s life, but I was interested to learn that as a youngster, Carson McCullers would practice Bach fugues on the piano for five hours a day. I suspect that puts the author’s sympathies more firmly with the cello player than with the viewpoint narrator.
Directly linked to the narrator’s moral shortcoming — that she waits around for a man to save the day — is the fact that she makes no Plan. Her only plan is to observe and hope.
In this case, other characters in a story must make plans, though ‘plan’ is a bit of a weird word when describing actions that take place out of rage — or perhaps it wasn’t rage. Perhaps when the husband raped the young cellist he was undertaking a well thought-out plan to keep her in her place. It’s a myth that murderous, violent people ‘just snap’. Often their attack is cool, calm and well-calculated, more like Hannibal Lecter than The Incredible Hulk.
On first reading I wondered if there had been a murder, and that the sounds refer to manual strangulation. Did you think that, too?
It is soon revealed that the Battle sequence culminated in assault, probably sexual. This was carried out by the cellist’s male visitor — described only as a cat (who comes and goes in the night). The other men nearby either shout at her to be quiet (the married man) or look on, doing nothing (the red-headed man).
(Cats are very useful to storytellers. When femme coded characters are described as cats, the result is often sexualisation. When masculo coded characters are described as cats, it’s often more reminiscent of a big cat who can kill you.)
The narrator does not undergo a complete Anagnorisis, choosing to continue with her belief that the red-headed man will still save them all from bad in the world. But now she is actively ‘choosing’ to believe this, and you can’t ‘choose’ to believe something unless you know there’s more underneath, right? And since the narrator is telling this story herself, she must understand that the red-headed man is not going to save anyone — that no one is going to save anyone else, because we are all caught up in our own small day-to-day lives.
This type of short story ending is therefore in keeping with Literary Impressionism, because the Impressionists didn’t believe people changed all that much, and if they did, it was only very slowly, not in epiphanies.
As Julianne Newmark explains at her blog, the narrator’s arc is shown to the reader by the motif of borders:
McCullers’s story is, though not as overtly, a story concerned with a woman’s development (the narrator is in the city to be educated), with borders (the distinctions that reverberate in McCullers’s work between North and South), and with other kinds of borders . . . such as the physical ones that separate her from her neighbors in the apartment building, such as the “age” ones that make it hard for an eighteen-year-old woman to get a job in New York City, as she says, and the class borders on which the narrator comments upon her realization that her married neighbors are becoming increasingly “poor” even though their building is not a building occupied by poor people and it does not look shabby at all from the outside. This young narrator is learning a lot about the transgression of borders and the maintenance of them in this story, even though she doesn’t comment on this directly.Julianne Newmark
To comment on them directly would mean she has experienced a complete emotional arc. But the narrator is still young at time of writing. Carson McCullers only lived until the age of 50, so never experienced the long hindsight of old age.
The reader can extrapolate that the red-headed man will go to his next place and live in a very similar fashion. People are creatures of habit.
The young woman who was assaulted will continue living with trauma. She has already changed her habits, symbolised by the fact that she no longer dries her stockings where others can see them. (This simple detail is psychologically telling — she blames herself for the rape, at least a little. And she thinks that if she is careful enough, it won’t ever happen again. Another form of self-delusion.)
The narrator’s fate remains less clear: Self-delusion is to her huge psychological advantage, after all. I am somewhat envious of those who successfully convince themselves everything is fine even though it’s clearly not (e.g. climate change deniers, ‘egalitarian’ women who eschew ‘feminism’, believing gender equality has been achieved). There are huge penalties for seeing injustice at close range, especially if this insight leads us to action.
We are highly rewarded for conforming to gender expectations as well. There is a lot at stake for this young woman narrator if she were to fully realise and accept her own gender equality, and the idea that perhaps it was herself — not just the Jesus figure of the red-headed man — who could have done something to help the cello player that night.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
FOR THE ANAGNORISIS
I am fascinated by people’s ability to choose self-delusion. (Some better than others.) Although I only read McCullers’ story this week, I made use of the same Anagnorisis arc in our picture book app Midnight Feast (2014). The main character Roya looks out the window, sees that she is surrounded by homeless and starving people, then makes the active choice to retreat into her imagination, which includes imagining they don’t exist.
FOR THE NARRATION
Contrast this narrator with the narrative voice of Alice Munro’s short stories, in which elderly women often look back on their younger years with a full understanding of who they were then and how they were shaped by their environments. This is then juxtaposed with the clarity of hindsight they have now. Clarity of hindsight is evident across Munro’s work even when the narration is (close) third person (rather than first, as it is here).
FOR THE STORYWORLD
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is also the story of someone quietly observing his neighbours, eventually witnessing a crime. In the trailer for this 1954 film, notice how the camera moves like a fish swimming through water. Again, this is ocean symbolism at play, showing that the city is a dangerous food chain where bad things can suddenly happen.
Carson McCullers herself was partially paralysed by strokes by the time she was thirty. I imagine this made her an acute observer of her neighbours at time, similar to the character in Rear Window, who is laid up with leg injury.
FOR THE NARRATIVE VIEWPOINT
We remain fascinated by viewpoint narrators spying in on other people’s lives. The Girl On The Train was the tentpole psychological thriller of 2015, and led to many more like it.
Header photo by The New York Public Library
As soon as I read “Back For Christmas” by John Collier (1939) I thought of Roald Dahl. Sure enough, I google both names in a single search and learn that, for Dahl, among many other male writers, Collier is listed as a heavy influence.
Credit where credit is due, though: Roald Dahl’s two most famous short stories — “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one — was actually plotted by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. I learned that listening to the interview between Neil Gaiman and Tim Ferris. (The other Dahl story plotted by Fleming is “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the evil antique dealer.)
Why is that list of Collier-influenced authors entirely male? That’s not to say women haven’t also been influenced by Collier, but this does feel like a very masculine story.
I have a working theory on that. This sort of story, in which a criminal trickster type gets his comeuppance after a twist at the end, is closely related to the tall tale, and the tall tale tradition is very masculine. That begs the question, though.
Why are tall tales so popular with men? Masculine humour tends to be more about establishing hierarchies than feminine humour, and there’s nothing more hierarchical than a character at the top of his profession, beloved among his fictional peers, ending up on his knees in prison (we extrapolate).
This story is admirable partly because of the swift pacing. Notice how Collier takes us across continents with nothing in the way of boring logistical detail. And once the outcome is revealed, story over. Get in, get out, short story writers are told. Collier omits the entire New Situation phase. He can, because he’s given us all the information we need.
I considered saving this story until the Christmas season, but it’s not a Christmasy story at all. It is set three months before Christmas — the gift-giving of Christmas is useful to the plot and that is its function.
If you’re after a heartwarming Christmas story try “The Gift of the Magi“. O. Henry’s story also involves a twist in the tail, but rarely, that twist says something positive about humankind. These two stories fit at each end of a single continuum — optimistic at one end, pessimistic at the other. “The Gift of the Magi” is sort of like a biter-bit inversion story.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BACK FOR CHRISTMAS”
Mr Carpenter is clearly high on the psychopathic spectrum. At least, that’s how we might fictionally diagnose him today. This isn’t his shortcoming, though. I’m reminded of Kevin Dutton’s proposition in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, in which Dutton argues that psychopathy confers certain advantages (for the psychopathic themselves). Top doctors (especially surgeons) can benefit in their work. They don’t tend to have the same fear response as the neurotypical population. The amygdala tends to be under-aroused. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NSCWW_xRrI
So I’m not going to say that his sociopathy is Mr Carpenter’s shortcoming. His shortcoming is that he doesn’t appreciate his wife. I mean that in several senses of the word: He doesn’t like how organised she is, and he doesn’t realise the extent of her organisation. Her organisational skills annoy him. In one short paragraph we learn that his main beef with her is that he feels she over-schedules his life. (That is her entire job as housewife to a doctor, back in 1939.)
Mr Carpenter, it is suddenly revealed, is moving from England to America. He is taking this opportunity to kill his wife. He wants to start a new life with a new woman. He wants to stay on in America, where he justifiably believes (in 1939) he will never be caught.
Mrs Carpenter doesn’t realise she is his opponent, but she is.
After the murder itself, Mr Carpenter’s plans make up the bulk of the story. The narrator offers a look inside his head. It is a point of pride that I don’t understand how a sociopath thinks, and you probably don’t, either. That’s why this phase of the story is so important.
What makes him think he can get away with this? Why would a man kill his own wife? The interest of the story lies in answering these questions.
As in a story like “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, the murder happens swiftly and quickly — the story is about what happens after. There is a symbolic Near Death Moment:
He threw himself down in the coal dust on the floor and said, “I’m through. I’m through.”
But no meaningful Anagnorisis follows. This is just him panicking. To find the structural Battle scene, look for the part that comes before the Anagnorisis. Except there is no Anagnorisis in this one. The point of this character is that he is so full of confidence that he never once doubts that he’ll get away with murder.
Mr Carpenter has no meaningful Anagnorisis, but the twist at the end leads directly to a satisfying Plot-revelation for the reader. (And also for him as a character, though his response is left off the page.)
Comic characters don’t often have anagnorises. That’s part of what makes them funny — their enduring stupidity. This lack of self-awareness is part of what makes “Back For Christmas” a darkly comic tale.
“Back For Christmas” is a good example of a story which lets the reader extrapolate the New Situation.
The title is meaningful, but only at the end. Mr Carpenter will indeed be back for Christmas, but he will have been summoned by police detectives, alerted to the presence of a dead body after the excavators visit the house for a renovation and dig up Mrs Carpenter’s corpse.
FORESHADOWING TECHNIQUES IN “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”
I’ve written about literary shadowing elsewhere. In stories with surprise endings, the writer must be expert at foreshadowing. There’s a fine line between giving too much versus not enough.
How did Collier do it so masterfully in this story?
First of all, there’s the meaningful, clue-y title, mentioned above.
“He shall be back,” says Mrs Carpenter when we first meet her. She says this before the reader is told how very resourceful and organised she is. If we fully remembered what she had said, we’d know, after getting to know her later, that what she says goes. But we sort of half-forget detail like this. Instead, it all seems to somehow make sense after we learn the ending. (It is significant that every one of their acquaintances believes Mrs Carpenter. They know her much better than we do.) The takeaway writing tip: You can invert parts of the story in this way. Collier could have made the outcome more obvious by FIRST setting Mrs Carpenter up as a reliable type for whom plans always work THEN have her tell everyone (and us) that they definitely WOULD be back for Christmas, but showing us the other way round is the perfect degree of subtle.
“Anything may happen,” says Dr Carpenter in retort. This snippet of dialogue does double duty: The reader fully expects something to happen (as it always does in good stories) and it therefore functions as a suspenseful hook. But it’s also ironic in hindsight, because the ‘anything’ does not line up with Dr Carpenter’s expected outcome. There’s a meaningful gap between what he thinks and what actually happens.
This story would not have worked as well if Collier had left out the backstory of how Mr Carpenter has been ‘trying to scrape out a bin for wine’ and it would not have worked had he left out its addendum: ‘he had told Hermione’. In hindsight, we understand that Hermione saw him scraping out a barrel meaning to put her in it, but her interpretation was different: She thought he was developing an interest in wine, so arranged a renovation of the cellar as his Christmas present. It is important when writing a tale like this to attach a connecting thread of backstory to the simplicity of your poetic justice by explaining exactly how the pieces have come together in this way. It doesn’t take much, as shown here by Collier. It’s done in a single paragraph, embedded into action and forward motion.
There’s also a ticking clock, which Collier uses to divert our attention from this obvious clue about the barrel. The ticking clock is ‘the ringing’ from the friends, who will come back in half an hour.
Imagery works as foreshadowing here, too:
The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain.
This should tell us that the doctor will come to a sorry end, but it doesn’t, directly. And that’s why it still works.
Importantly, Mr Carpenter’s plot comes full circle, which gives a sense of ending. Seems simple in post hoc analysis, but it’s important that Collier chose to write such a direct and simple plot: A man buries dead wife in cellar; wife has planned a cellar renovation. The key is in the simplicity of that. This is poetic justice. Readers find poetic justice very satisfying.
Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed.
This has more to do with the supernatural belief of karma and heavily retribution than with legal justice. Poetic justice is the highly satisfying emotional response we feel when the innocent is vindicated and the guilty punished when the law doesn’t accomplish it.
In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap.Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact
In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the big struggle in Archenland. When he jumps down while shouting “The bolt of Tash falls from above,” his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging, humiliated and trapped.
In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a concentration camp commander’s son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing.
In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Sweetest Fig, a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is a picture book in which a wolf builds a contraption to catch his guests and eat them, but he ends up getting trapped in it himself. His friends end up eating him without knowing.
A lot of Paul Jennings stories end with poetic justice.
I’ve written more about punishment in children’s literature here. A segment of modern book buyers avoid stories in which characters get punished at the end. You can see that by reading consumer reviews — bad behaviour followed by severe punishment is not always seen as suitable for kids. Others take delight in the very same endings.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by American humorist James Thurber. The story has been adapted several times for film, most recently in 2013. I haven’t seen the films but it’s interesting someone financed feature length movies out of a story so short — “Walter Mitty” is 2,512 words.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a short story adapted far more successfully for film (though not according to Annie Proulx, because they butchered the main message). “Brokeback Mountain” is a capacious, novelistic short story, and and gives the director far more to work with, coming in at 9,135 words.
My theory is that sometimes short stories (and picture books) are simply too short to fill a feature length film. Scriptwriters must artificially bulk them out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money out of short films, which they probably should be.
A reviewer at The New Yorker is rather more optimistic about this than I am:
The great thing about adapting a short story rather than a novel is that it demands expansion rather than reduction—it’s a springboard, not a blueprint.
SETTING OF “WALTER MITTY”
[This] was an era whose mainstream pop culture, embodied by the real LIFE magazine, was defined by an optimism that today’s culture is not.Tor
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WALTER MITTY”
The story opens in media res, in the middle of action, as many stories do. It is therefore a reveal to the reader when we learn in the second paragraph that Walter is not flying a big struggle plane but simply driving his wife to her hair appointment.
We learn that Walter is making up stories in his head with the following sentence:
Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.
Walter Mitty’s shortcomings are shown to us via dialogue from his chastising wife. Writers often use the technique of explaining things via arguments—it feels less contrived that way:
“You’re tensed up again,” said Mrs. Mitty. “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”
“You’re not a young man any longer.”
The other day in a post about “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, I wrote about the gendered nature of fantasists — most often it is female characters who are described as lying fantasists. Male examples are probably just as common but coded differently, not as ‘lying’ characters, but as pathetic. In “Paul’s Case” the main character is still encoded as feminine. Male fantasists are often depicted as victims of their own delusions.
Walter Mitty is an example of a rare example of a male fantasist, which is probably why ‘Mittyesque’ entered the English language:
The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word “Mittyesque” have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.Wikipedia
Yet you won’t find many references to Walter Mitty as a ‘fantasist’. Instead, reviewers do gymnastics to read some deeper meaning into a man’s bored daydreams. This is a review of the 2013 movie rather than of the original text, but might apply equally:
Mitty… is a curator and a facilitator of images; the movie, as Friend describes it en route to its realization, seems likely to suggest that the deeds that are done in the real world, and the images of them that are made and shown, are inextricable from the element of fantasy.The New Yorker
In other words, “everyman” Walter Mitty fantasises with purpose. Not as a form of lying (to himself and others).
Thurber’s use of made-up words throughout the story emphasises Walter’s underlying shortcoming — this is a man who doesn’t have the knowledge to actually engage in these important jobs he idealises. His ineffectiveness is also shown in the flashback scene in which he is unable to perform the manly but uncomplicated task of taking chains off his wheels. Nor can he easily remember the second item his wife instructed him to buy at the grocery store.
Walter wishes to escape his mundane life in which he is required to buy boring, functional items while waiting for his wife to have her hair done. He also has masculine power fantasies, which involve an attractive young woman swooning for him and making his way up the social hierarchy with his bravery, expertise and ability to save lives.
Walter is low on the social hierarchy. We don’t know if he has a job in his own right but he is presented as a man whose entire life is managed by his wife. I actually wondered if the wife was his mother.
His wife is his opposition, partly by requiring him to do certain boring jobs (how would he live otherwise, if she wasn’t there?), partly because she sees right through him, and regularly punctures his inner-world fantasies by talking.
Walter will do as is required of him, but all the while his mind will be occupied with far more interesting fantasies.
Mrs Mitty chastises Walter for ‘hiding’ in the chair at the hotel and for not putting on the overshoes she told him to buy.
I get the impression Walter has never before hinted to his wife that he has a rich inner world of fantasies:
“I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”
She looked at him. “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” she said.
This signals a slight character change in Walter—a smidgen of self-advocacy.
Apparently, the movie makes much more of the anagnorisis, personal growth stage of this story:
The movie doesn’t so much take the stance that one doesn’t have to grow up, but that there is more than one way to do so. Stiller’s Mitty finds—repeatedly and not subtly—that safety is brief and illusory, but that it’s possible with a bit of effort to stay one step ahead of disaster, to have a rope around one’s waist before leaping into the void, so to speak. But the most important thing, and probably the most fundamental departure from Thurber’s Mitty, is that Stiller’s learns that fantasy—and, at a crucial point, its close relative memory—is key in informing one’s personal reality, in an “if you dream it, you can make it real” kind of way. Fantasy is what drives reality in the new version, instead of the other way around.Tor
Leading a mundane life all the while indulging in fictional fantasies in your own head is one way to live. This is not critiqued — rather it is presented to us. Walter will go on living inside his head, and his wife will go on failing to understand that this is the cause of Walter’s absent-mindedness. She will go on micromanaging his life, in a vicious cycle.
The Red Pony (1933) by John Steinbeck is described as an episodic novella, or interconnected short stories. “The Leader of the People” is one of those stories.
I really enjoyed this story from The Golden Argosy collection (as recommended by Stephen King), as it still feels fresh. The viewpoint of the young boy is great, and when the ‘camera’ zooms out, there’s a real sense of place. The descriptions of the boy’s body language beats and play are very well done.
Also, Steinbeck is making wonderful use of a technique all writers can use: The miniature in storytelling. In fact, this is your archetypal example of it.
SETTING OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Set on a farm.
High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch cup.
White pigeons, a cypress tree, haystacks full of mice, barbed wire fences, surrounded by mountains. Dogs, squirrels, road runners and at night, large moths throw themselves at the windows. In the daytime, the heavy smell of sage. Ants and flies.
There’s a Pied Piper feel about this setting:
Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed. For eight months the had lived and multiplied in the haystack. they had been immune from cats, from traps, from poison and from Jody.
This is a bifurcated setting — the mountains seem ominous. Billy glances towards them as if there may be trouble. This juxtaposes against the utopian description of the side-hill:
Jody turned back and looked at the side-hill where the road from the outside world came down. the hill was washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushed.
Nearby we have the Horseshoe Club in Pacific Grove, which tells us this is in California. (East of where the father-in-law has settled.) By climbing the little cleft where the road comes through, Jody can see the huge green Salinas Valley.
Inside, the mother prepares beans, they eat steak and beans at a white oilcloth table, the room lit by a lamp with a tin reflector. Mother rings a triangle to alert the farmworkers when their meals are ready. They eat sugared mush for breakfast.
The parents are harsh on Jody by modern standards. Jody expresses excitement that his father has arrived home carrying a letter, so he runs inside to spread that excitement to his mother. But he is chastised and humiliated for failing to mind his own business. A modern parent would encourage the kid’s enthusiasm — after all, this is his own grandfather coming to stay. This is his business. Are these parents typical of the era, or are these especially harsh characters? In any case, they’re training him into a certain variety of masculinity, in which a boy expresses no emotion apart from anger and disapproval.
This is a time when kids are supposed to be kept busy, or else they’ll turn out lazy or get themselves into trouble. The mother admonishes the father for not giving him enough jobs to do. Today, we consider play the main job of children. And that is shown here — only by trying to engage the grandfather in play does Jody have the Anagnorisis and grow up a little.
THE MINIATURE IN STORYTELLING
It becomes clear that Steinbeck is using a tried and tested writing technique — he’s playing with our perception of scale to encourage us to consider what’s really important in life. First he gave us the mountains juxtaposed against the much smaller (and pleasant) side-hill. The small boy’s enthusiasm juxtaposes against the solemn, grim demeanour of his parents, and when the boy meets his grandfather the mice are coming in handy, symbolically:
Jody explained, “The dogs eat them, sir. It wouldn’t be much like hunting Indians I guess.”
“No, not much-but then later, when the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning tepees, it wasn’t much different from you mouse hunt.”
Later, when Jody is lying in bed, Steinbeck expands upon the idea that the Wild West, with heroic Cowboys and warring Indians looms large in contemporary (1930s) minds:
Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.
Later, after Jody’s father dismisses the grandfather, the old man looks literally smaller in Jody’s young eyes:
Jody turned disconsolately away, and walked down toward the old haystack. He tried to whip up his enthusiasm with thoughts of the fat juicy mice. He beat the ground with his flail. the dogs coaxed and whined about him, but he could not go. Back at the house he could see Grandfather sitting on the porch, looking small and thin and black.
Notice also how Steinbeck has listed the animal life all the way through the story, starting with the large animals (the horses, the dogs, the squirrels) and working his way down to the moths (last night) and now he describes the flies, then the ants. Everything is shrinking in Jody’s eyes as Jody grows more mature, by observing the interaction between the men, especially.
CHARACTERS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Billy Buck — The middle-aged ranch-hand. Black hat. His father was called Muletail Buck because he packed mules. Though a ranch hand wouldn’t normally shave mid week, he has shaved to meet the Grandfather, because the Grandfather holds him in high esteem. The Grandfather admires that he’s one of the few men who has not ‘gone soft’. (This feels like an accusation every older generation levels against every younger generation of men.)
Jody Tiflin— A spirited, enthusiastic little boy who finds excitement in small things. He tries to do the right thing.
Carl Tiflin — Jody’s father. At the start of the story he is away riding up the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains. Left after dinner (probably the midday meal).
Mrs. Tiflin — Jody’s mother. Inside shelling or chopping beans into a pan. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a first name. She is important to the story only as the mother, daughter and wife.
Mrs. Tiflin’s father — Steinbeck makes us curious about this old man by showing characters talking about him before he arrives on the scene. We learn that he talks only of Indians, and crossing the plains. He repeats the same stories about how the horses got driven off. Earlier in his life he led a wagon train across the plains to the coast. That was his life’s achievement. He was born for that job. But once he got to the ocean there was no more West left. So he settled by the ocean in Monterey.
Then he does turn up and we get the following description:
The grandfather was dressed in a black broad cloth suit and he wore kid congress gaiters and a black tie on a short, hard collar. He carried his black slouch hat in his hand. His white beard was cropped close and his white eyebrows overhung his eyes like moustaches. the blue eyes were sternly merry. About the whole face and figure there was a granite dignity, so that every motion seemed an impossible thing. Once at rest, it seemed the old man would be stone, would never move again. His steps wee slow and certain. Once made, not step could ever be traced; once headed in a direction, the path would never ben nor the pace increase nor slow.
Double-tree Mutt — the black dog. Likes to dig in squirrel holes. Doesn’t realise that dogs don’t catch squirrels by digging holes. There’s another dog as well. They have fleas.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
A little boy is excited to learn that his grandfather is coming to say. His father, not so much. The old man goes on and on about the short time in his life when he was in his element — leading a band across the prairie to California.
The old man turns up, and sure enough, tells the same old stories. Only the little boy is interested, though he, too, has heard all these stories before. Steinbeck doesn’t bother telling us much of the stories, on the understanding that everyone coming to this short story in 1933 knows the basics of Western expansion. So he summarises:
Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. the story droned on, speeded up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials and the great plains.
At breakfast, the old man overhears his son-in-law complaining about him telling the same old stories, so he takes a moment outside to reflect. He talks to the grandson, and explains the reason for telling the stories — to underscore the importance of collective spirit, not to revel in the glory of it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
The shifting third-person narration does the rounds, but settles most often on the highly empathetic young Jody. Much of the story is filtered through his point of view. Even when it isn’t, directly, the narrator describes things Jody would notice. In this way, “The Leader of the People” is a bit like “What Maisie Knew”, a novel by Henry James first published 1897. I suspect Steinbeck was influenced by James.
It seems Jody is quite isolated on that farm — there are no other kids to join him in his games, so his best hope is persuading an old man to join him.
Jody isn’t especially empathetic, either. He sees the mice purely as opponents to be conquered. Though is father has a more nuanced and grim view of the wars between the whites and the native peoples, Jody is yet to learn any of it. He’s all about the sticks and the guns. By the end of the story he’ll have a slightly more nuanced view on American history.
Jody wants to listen to his grandfather tell exciting stories about cowboys and Indians. then he wants to engage him in his own farm-sized Battle between himself and the mice, though the mice are only into haystacks that are no longer any use, and hurting no one.
The mother is positioned as Jody’s opposition because she is not playful and she also sees through his motivations.
The father is an even bigger opposition because, as Steinbeck describes, everything Jody does has to be run by him first.
As far as Jody’s concerned, his play opponents, in his miniature world, are the mice.
Jody will encourage his grandfather to tell stories, then coax him into the mouse hunting game.
This is an interesting technique I’m noticing a lot—the Battle promised is not the Battle we get. In this story, Jody is all about the big fight between himself, the dogs and the mice in the haystacks. Ostensibly, Steinbeck leads the story towards that. First the cast members turn up, then Jody finds a stick… we see the dogs on a mission for squirrels, so we know the actors involved.
But there is no mouse catching scene. That Battle is purely symbolic. Instead we get the awkward scene at the breakfast table, where the old man overhears his son-in-law. (The exact same plot point is used in “Old Man Minick” by Edna Ferber). We know this is the real, structural Battle because the Anagnorisiss follow swiftly after.
Both the old man and the little boy have their own Anagnorisis, in keeping with the gigantic/miniatures theme Steinbeck’s got going on.
The old man overhears his son-in-law and realises the time for those stories is gone, or rather, people mistake his reason for telling those stories. He doesn’t mean to turn himself into a hero. He means to convey the idea that ‘It was a whole bunch of people make into one big crawling beast.’
Here’s Jody’s more naive Anagnorisis:
Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his fail against the steps. “That’s to drive the mice out,” he said. “I’ll bet they’re fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.”
“No, nor you either,” Billy remarked philosophically, “nor me, nor anyone.”
Jody was staggered by this thought. He knew it was true. His imagination twitched away from the mouse hunt. Then his mother came out on the back porch and struck the triangle and all thoughts fell in a heap.
The Anagnorisis for the reader is that Western expansion was expansion for the sake of expansion. Pretty much every ‘Western’ since WW2 has been ‘anti-Western’ rather than Western — highlighting the fruitlessness and misery of American expansionism rather than the glory. So Steinbeck is slightly ahead of his time in writing a Western story (story within a story) in which an old man looks back on his life as a pioneer and sees it in a deterministic, pessimistic way:
But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering.
Then, in case we missed it, Steinbeck gives us some dialogue which directly compares the futility of human expansionism to the industry of ants.
We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs.
I’ll argue the mother and father have their own minor revelations as well: Carl learns that he’s better off letting the old man speak; the mother learns that her little boy has matured somewhat overnight, asking for a lemon for Grandfather’s lemonade, when previously he used the excuse of Grandfather to get away with doing things he might not ordinarily be allowed to do.
Everyone in this extended family has changed a little, and they’ll probably get along a little better now.
“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.
The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.
As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.
William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.Wikipedia, Naturalism
FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM
- Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
- Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
- Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
- In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
- Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
- Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
- How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
- We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,
Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.
STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.
Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.
Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.
The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.
At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.TV Tropes
Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.
Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.
The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.
I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:
- The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
- Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
- Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
- Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.
Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.
That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.
Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:
As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. […] We did not say she was crazy then.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.
There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.
But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.
It’s more about what Emily does not want.
She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.
The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.
The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.
Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.
The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory). The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.
Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—
The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.
The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.
With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.
And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was Ted Geisel’s first book. Well, he’d written an abecedary but failed to interest publishers in it. It took a while to find a publisher for this one, too, but compared to what author/illustrators are up against today, I’m guessing 20 rejections is actually pretty good.
Dr Seuss may never have moved into picture book world if Geisel had not ran into an old college classmate, who had just become juvenile editor at Vanguard Press. When I hear stories like this I wonder how many other wonderful writers and illustrators never see widespread success due to plain old lack of luck, and I feel the self-publishing movement is therefore a great thing.
RHYTHM AND PICTURES IN “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
Legend has it that Geisel came up with this story on a ship. To ward off sea sickness he concocted a story. The rhythm is inspired by the ship’s engine. Of course, Geisel continued to write his picture books in that signature rhythm — a rhythm many writers have subsequently tried to pull off — perhaps more young rhymsters should take a cruise on a clunky old-timey steam ship??
(Why did we not see a movement of poetry inspired by a dial-up modem in the late 90s? Haha.)
Perry Nodelman has this to say about the rhythm and ‘curious reversal’ of Mulberry Street:
The regular rhythms […] have the strong beats and obvious patterns we usually expect of pictures in sequence; and as usual in a Dr. Seuss book, the action-filled cartooning does much to break up the regular rhythms inevitable in a pictorial sequence. But as the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail — but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures both build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books. At the same time, the segments of text get shorter and tend to be interrupted by more periods. The result is a curious reversal, in which the text adds the strong regular beat and the pictures provide a surprisingly inter-connected narrative intensity. Indeed, many fine picture books create the rich tensions of successful narrative in pictures that strain toward the narrative qualities of text and in texts that strain toward the narrative qualities of pictures: they have repetitive rhythmic texts, and pictures with accelerating intensity.Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman
The details in this story plant it firmly in the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature.
Modern stories of the imagination don’t tend to include Rajahs riding elephants and ‘Chinamen’. This is why parents and book buyers should look a bit further for book gifts than literature from our own childhood. If you’re looking for a carnivalesque book for a gift, with great rhyme, you’ll find many examples on this website. (I recommend Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd.)
If you’re looking for something classic, as in old, the following were published at the same time:
- Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
- Madeline by Robert McCloskey (problematic in different ways e.g. the gypsies)
- Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (groundbreaking with its cinematic perspective)
STORY STRUCTURE OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
A boy imagines a series of incredible sights on his way home from school so that he will have an interesting report to give his father.
It’s interesting to see that the front cover has been published in varying shades of blue:
Marco is fanciful. He’ll lie about something in order to make his life more interesting. Some may see this as a shortcoming; the shortcomings of picturebook characters often have very benign psychological shortcomings — a big imagination is more properly considered a strength.
He wants to impress his father.
Throughout his work, Geisel seemed more at home writing about the typically male experience and it’s true here, too, with an understanding of how sons naturally want to impress their dads.
This book, of the Tall Tale type, is an historically masculine form.
The father is a kind of opponent in that he has no time for Marco’s fanciful stories.
He decides to make up a story that’s far more interesting than reality.
In a cumulative, imaginative, carnivalesque story such as this, there may not be any big struggle between the child and the other characters. Instead, the ‘battle scene’ will be ‘the moment of extreme chaos’.
This is the illustration with everything in it.
In a chaotic, carnivalesque plot, ideally there will be a ‘breather’. Here, the anagnorisis comes with the image of the crossroad.
Note all the white space — the picturebook equivalent of a musical sequence with no dialogue in film.
Humans have been fascinated by crossroads since crossroads existed. In each case there is a spiritual significance. Something about crossroads has made earlier cultures superstitious:
- Ghosts/apparitions appear at crossroads
- Crossroads mark hallowed ground
- Witches secretly meet at crossroads to conduct their nasty witchy stuff
- Zeus hung out at crossroads
None of this is going on here, exactly. In modern stories (like this) crossroads have lost their spiritual meaning but remain a psychological metaphor. Marco must make a decision very soon: Will he lie to his father or tell him the truth? In other words, crossroads in modern stories mean choice.
The anagnorisis is that Marco has the power to make his own choice.
In order to keep his father happy, the boy makes the decision to keep these fanciful imaginings to himself. He tells his father what he really saw.
Extrapolating somewhat, this boy seems embarrassed about his imagination running away on him, so I expect he’ll hit adolescence soon and leave his imagination behind.
By consensus, Dr. Seuss — born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Mass., in 1904 — was the greatest American picture-book artist of the modern era. Every one of the 44 children’s books he wrote remains in print (”Horton Hatches the Egg,” first published in 1940, has been reprinted more than 80 times), and to paraphrase the man himself, the number of readers is on beyond millions. Counting classics like ”The Cat in the Hat” and less well-known titles (including those published under the pseudonyms Theo. LeSieg and Rosetta Stone), total trade sales passed the 200 million mark a decade ago. Like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas morning, Dr. Seuss’s place in the cultural landscape has grown at least three sizes since his death. In addition to a handful of posthumous publications, there is Seuss Landing, a theme park within Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., ”Seussical,” a new Broadway musical and Universal’s live-action Grinch movie, which recently opened. (Three new movie tie-ins are available from Random House; two have already landed on The Times’s children’s best-seller list.)Sense and Nonsense, NYT, A. O. Scott
Even within the author’s own lifetime, it was acknowledged (by the author himself, when he was older) that imagery in his earlier work was racist.
We are also now just starting to talk about how the characters in his work are very white. Finally, come March 2021:
Dr. Seuss’ whimsical stories have educated and entertained generations of children. But many of his books are now being pulled for depicting racially insensitive images.6 Dr. Seuss Books With Racist Imagery Will No Longer Be Published
There is still a place for discussing the racism and whiteness of this book, but I’d keep that for older readers. (The implied reader is the preschool set.)
STORY SPECS OF “AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET”
Between 30 and 40 pages long, depending on the edition
And then it came out in yellow, and the recognisable red and white spine, along with the rest of the Dr Seuss collection.
COMPARE “AND TO THINK I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET” WITH
Marco appears again, ten years later, in McElligot’s Pool.
What might the ‘inverse of a superhero story’ look like? What if superpowers are given to ordinary men who do nothing with them? You may know Christopher Isherwood’s name from the film A Single Man or Christopher and His Kind. I Am Waiting is one of two short stories Isherwood had published in The New Yorker. This one is very much of its era, and must have been written near the time it was published, in 1939 when Isherwood was in his mid-thirties. There are at least two ways of reading this short story: By imagining we are right there with Americans in 1939, or with the benefit of hindsight as readers of the 21st century.
It is October 17, 1939. A man in his late middle age reflects on his very ordinary life. But he does have one strange ability: He can jump forward in time. After doing this several times he jumps forward to 1944, where he finds a newspaper. Eagerly wanting to know how the war has panned out, he searches the newspaper for relevant information, but finds only information about chicken breeding.
Is Connecticut the default American city where we are to imagine the suburbs — a coathanger of normalcy where strange and disturbing things happen behind closed doors? I have never been to America, but that is my outsider’s view of Connecticut as a fictional setting. This is an upper-middle class household, with a drawing room, tennis court, garden and a maid. These are the sorts of families who holiday at the Cape.
See also: Books set in Connecticut, a Goodreads list. My idea of Connecticut probably derives from the Stepford Wives story.
In this particular story, the setting is even more vital to the plot than the setting, which could have taken place in any American suburb. If you go to a site such as History Orb, you can see exactly what was happening in history in any given month. When this story was published Poland had just been invaded by Germany. Americans — like anyone — would have been anxious to know how the war was going to pan out.
My mind shouted questions: “Had the United States jumped into the war? Had there been a revolution? What is happening in Europe? In China? In the Near East?”
The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof—at leat not for the next five years.
When a story opens with a first person narrator describing him or herself, the reader’s radar is up: Is this narrator reliable? How well does this narrator know himself? Even if he knows himself, why is he spinning this version of himself for the reader? In this case, though, we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator — this man has reached an age where he has a realistic handle on his own station in life. This story is one of regret rather than boast — perhaps a kind of ‘setting the record straight’ as he heads towards the grave.
We’re more sure of the veracity of his character description because Isherwood drops supporting details into the text. For example, we are told that the narrator keeps himself almost invisible, and this is backed up by the following detail (which is not to say that unreliable narrators can’t be reliably unreliable, but still):
The others had all driven into town to go to a movie, so I could enjoy the luxury of drawing my armchair into the very middle of the hearthrug, facing and monopolizing the fire.
Wilfred — 67 years old, bachelor, lives in a house owned by his more successful lawyer brother. A self-described semi-educated bore (though he reads Browning) who keeps to himself and pays his way in life with a small inherited income. This is significant because the narrator has even failed to make his mark in life by contributing something to the world in the form of work. His sister-in-law suggests he even wears one of her aprons to search for old photographs in the attic; Wilfred is obviously not considered an alpha male character.
Wilfred’s younger brother — serves as a contrast to the narrator as a ‘successful and energetic lawyer’. His three male sons only add to his aura of social success. But this is not a Cain and Abel archetype; most sibling relationships in real life are less dramatic than that:
From boyhood I have admired, though somewhat grudgingly, the extreme lucidity of my brother’s intelligence. Now, as I stood there baffled, I asked myself what would he, who was never at a loss, have done in my place.
Mabel — the younger brother’s wife, very kind to her brother-in-law ‘on the whole, as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible’.
Three nephews — sons of the lawyer and Mabel. All grown with wives of their own; all have moved out of the natal home. These nephews are mentioned as a way of populating the story with a believable family network.
In late middle age we sometimes realise our extraordinary talents may come to nothing much after all.
Maria Nikolajeva writes of children’s literature specifically when she describes the general function of time travel in fiction, but if we can make any generalisations about the time travel in general fiction, the ability to travel through time is generally for some higher purpose:
Today we read that the whole purpose of time travel is to change history, either the private history of the character, as in Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by the Australian author Ruth Park, or The Root Cellar (1981) by Canadian Janet Lunn, or the history of the world, like A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) by Madeleine L’Engle. In this book the character changes the past so that the third world war does not break out in his own time. Time Travelers are no longer passive observers, but must take upon themselves responsibility for their actions in the past.Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva
However, in Isherwood’s short story, the ability to time travel is remarkable, but because the man who has this ability is so very unremarkable, nothing comes of it. What if he had learned something about historical events? What could a retired bachelor living in his brother’s house in Connecticut really do about any of it? The war was so much bigger than one man, let alone this particular man.
Anyone who has seen/read A Single Man (starring Colin Firth) or Christopher And His Kind (the biography of Christopher Isherwood) may find it hard to put aside the knowledge that Isherwood was a gay icon. Though Isherwood embraced his sexuality, he lived at a time when many gay people could not. Is the bachelor of this story gay? If so, he has spent his entire life failing to live up to his potential. The following is from the initial paragraph of the story and otherwise feels apropos of nothing:
I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.
Reading from a modern perspective, if only men such as this narrator could have time traveled forward another few generations, their lives would have been much different. The benefit of modern hindsight aside, this is a story about a failed superhero. What if the powers of Superman had been gifted to a repressed character and come to nothing at all? How many Supermen are out there, hiding almost invisibly in suburban rooms?
See also: Time Travel In Fiction
The unknown future is scary, but there is absolutely nothing to do but wait and see.
Though this character is facing the challenges of old age, even the young are now faced with thoughts about their own mortality. In wartime, every age shares this in common.
And now here I am, waiting for whatever may come next. Sometimes I feel frightened, but in general I managed to regard the whole business quite philosophically. I am well aware that the next adventure—if there ever is another—may be my last…let the moment call for me when it will—at whatever time, in whatever place. I shall be ready.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Realistic Character Memory Of Dates
When a first person narrator remembers a date, it helps to make that date somewhat significant. People don’t tend to naturally remember dates of events unless they happen on a holiday or anniversary:
On the evening of Friday, January 6th, of this year — I can be exact, for this was the day after the anniversary of my brother’s marriage—I was sitting in the drawing room of our house…
Two brothers: One successful, one a failure
This character ensemble is utilised to highlight the sad life of the narrator. One brother is heterosexual and therefore privileged, with a great job and three sons (the epitome of familial success), contrasted against the bachelor younger brother who is without valued achievements.
The drawing room clock is supported by a pair of china figurines. When Annie breaks the china boy’s left hand off at the wrist, this imagery would be familiar to those who saw men come back from the first world war with amputated limbs and disturbing disfigurements. The narrator refers to the broken figurine as ‘the mutilated boy’. In 1939, American readers would have been worried that this scenario would happen again, and no one could predict the extent of human damage.
When Wilfred stumbles upon a newspaper, it is significant that he has stumbled upon The Cage Bird Fancier. Wilfred himself is, at the time, locked in an attic in a house in the suburbs, in a country which may or may not go to war. Much like a caged bird, in fact.
The first time travel incident is astonishing; the second sets up a pattern; the third forms the meat of the story. This is such a commonly used narrative technique that it takes a brave writer to fiddle with it. Each incident is accompanied by an increasing amount of detail.
Detail To Accompany The Magical Realism
Fantasy lovers can avoid this term, preferring simple ‘fantasy’ to describe this kind of story — a realistic story with a little bit of impossible stuff going on. To make the concept of time travel believable within the world of the story, Isherwood has included a significant amount of detail: The characters, how they are related to each other, the snippets of dialogue from the tennis court, the weather. The book he is reading, where he is sitting in his chair. The direction he moves in (‘toward the bookcase’). A lot of this detail exists to provide verisimilitude. The author also relies upon the fact that at times of great stress or inner turmoil, people tend to remember details we may not otherwise:
I read on and on, learning all manner of highly relevant and unfruitful fact…These tiresome details are imprinted upon my memory forever.
Chickens are great for this purpose, and are used here to good effect. Though the whole world is entering a war, the newspaper reports on chicken breeding. Irony is a meaningful gap between expectation and outcome. Once understanding that this ordinary man has an extraordinary gift, we expect something to come of it, but nothing does. This is a form of ‘presentation irony’, and also may be considered ‘genre subversion’, since superheroes tend to save the world from disaster.
First published October 21, 1939 in The New Yorker
Available today in The New Yorker’s archive viewer (with a pay wall)
Collected in Short Stories From The New Yorker, published 1940
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
A commenter at The Mookse and the Gripes blog suggests a thematic comparison to I Am Waiting:
The perfect contrast is against Superman, which was new and popular at this exact time in American history. Everyone was wishing some superhero could swoop down from on high and save the world:
Superman is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. Superman is widely considered an American cultural icon. The Superman character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933; the character was sold to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938.
WRITE YOUR OWN
If you discovered you had a secret superpower, what might that be?
And given your life circumstances, what would you — in reality — be able to accomplish with it?
What would a duller, less successful version of yourself look like? And what if that character had the superpower instead of you?