Bathroom As Horror: Here There Be Tygers by Stephen King

Toilets are inherently scary. This holds true across cultures, even though different cultures (and even genders) experience public toilets differently. Below I take a look at a short horror story by Stephen King with a few examples of toilet horror by other authors, in which the public bathroom is utilised for storytelling purposes as a horror venue.

TOILETS AND JAPAN

In the final year of the last millennium I was a university exchange student, sent to a rural part of Kyushu, one of the four main island of Japan. (Kyushu is the big one at the bottom.) I was in Japan to study Japanese language. One of my Japanese language lecturers was a sociologist and, I shit you not, his area of interest (at least, that year) was bathroom culture, and how bathroom behaviour differs between Asia and the West

I can see how he happened upon that interest. He worked with us exchange students and he must have noticed how Japanese bathroom culture is quite different from the bathroom culture of my own home countries (New Zealand and Australia).

Namely:

In Japan, you won’t find toilet doors which stop about a foot off the floor. Japanese people, in general, absolutely hate using toilets in which passers-by can hypothetically see your feet. This isn’t only to do with the fact that many Japanese toilets are squat toilets (and your entire naked butt would therefore be visible), but also to do with the fact that, once inside a toilet, you’re meant to NOT EXIST.

One of my fellow exchange students had noticed this four years earlier when I was on a different, high school exchange program in Yokohama. She called goodbye to her host mother one morning before trotting out the door to school but the host mother was nowhere to be found. Had she slipped and fallen? Worried, my New Zealand friend went looking for her host mother.

The host-mother was in the toilet (with the door closed, of course). Why hadn’t she hollered back? Later, after returning home from school that same day, my New Zealand friend caught a tongue-lashing from the Japanese woman, who believed it the height of rudeness to chase someone down to say something to them when they’re in the toilet. In Japan, if someone’s in the toilet, they are dead to you.

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Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Sendak and Zolotow Analysis

Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is a 1962 picture book written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Zolotow and Sendak were both giants of American picture book world. Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present was also a Caldecott Medal Honor Book, so it’s interesting to look through a contemporary lens and see how picture books have changed, or how reader responses have changed. The word which frequently crops up in consumer reviews of Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present is ‘creepy’.

It’s wonderful, and probably necessary, for children to have the opportunity to do something nice for the adults in their lives. Children by their nature must constantly be on the receiving end of care, attention and gifts, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be a child and to do something you know is truly appreciated by those who normally take care of you.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Mr Rabbit seems to be more of a Pooka, as in the classic movie Harvey of the mid 20th century.

Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s 1944 play…The story centers on a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey, a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall invisible rabbit, and the ensuing debacle when the man’s sister tries to have him committed to a sanatorium.

Wikipedia
Harvey DVD cover rabbit mirror
A Texas Jackrabbit post card 1950s
A Texas Jackrabbit post card 1950s
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’
Elwood P. Dowd from ‘Harvey’

I’m Gen X, so for me the massive rabbit friend in Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present reminds me of Donnie Darko.

The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost; plural púcaí), pookaphouka is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.

WIKIPEDIA

There was a time when massive rabbits were in fashion. The example below is an ‘Illustrated letter to Grace Orpen’ by William Orpen, undated. Fantasy rabbits have gotten a lot smaller in children’s stories, perhaps because massive rabbits are CREEPY.

SETTING OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

This is a fairytale setting in a prelapsarian forest, where there is always enough food.

Noteworthy: the absence of blue. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a complete absence of blue in the palette, a decision clearly made by Maurice Sendak, who had plenty of opportunity to include some blue when the text talked about ‘blue’ grapes. He made them purple (close enough). Interestingly, blue as a concept is relatively recent. See for example reference to the ‘wine dark sea’ in Homer’s Odyssey. Sendak has ignored the concept of blue and gone in the reverse direction. Blue does not exist. Even the sky is greenish.

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Why might an illustrator avoid blue? Blue tends to feel ominous. Even the warm tones can feel a bit scary.

The forest is a European forest, which explains why The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit don’t find a banana tree, but instead stumble across someone’s abandoned picnic. I’m not sure if it’s a common reading experience to wonder who abandoned their picnic like that, and whether they’re about to come back to find their banana missing, but that’s where my mind went.

CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MR RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT

Not all carnivalesque stories are paced like The Cat In The Hat, or like one of Madeline’s adventures. Sometimes fun doesn’t look like a carnival, complete with the flying trapeze. Sometimes it looks very much like this: A retreat into imagination, where the pay off is simply doing something nice for someone you love.

The pace of the book is entrancing, part suspenseful, part predictable, feels like sailing in a light summer breeze. I can see why children have loved this book for half a century.

CONSUMER REVIEW

PARATEXT

One of the older covers of this book depicts the girl smiling at the ‘camera’.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”—show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

An Every Child is at Home

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

The Little Girl and Mr Rabbit start their story on a hill in the forest, but the the buildings of civilisation (home) are visible nearby.

The Every Child wishes to have fun.

The Little Girl wants to find the perfect gift for her mother. This is her idea of fun, and regardless of whether this character is a boy or girl, this is what gives the story a feminine sensibility. The female maturity formula is at work here, and so is our patriarchal culture in which girls are more likely to be encouraged to think about the needs of others than boys are. (This, after all, is at the heart of patriarchy.)

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 2
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962 “But what?” said the little girl.

We still need more stories in which masculo-coded characters are the stars of stories like these.

Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Adults in this story are physically absent but emotionally very present. The Little Girl spends the whole time apart from her mother thinking about her mother.

Appearance of an Ally in Fun

In this story, the rabbit is there from the start.

Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.

Unusually for a carnivalesque story, Mr Rabbit has the authority. We can even see it in the names: little girl versus Mr. The rabbit is the authority when it comes to saying things like “You can’t give red”. Usually, carnivalesque rabbits who turn up out of the blue are a bit more fun than this guy.

Modern audiences tend to read this rabbit as creepy. Some readers find him less creepy when they code him as imaginary. For others it doesn’t help. Here’s a man-sized rabbit suggesting red underwear, leaning on a little girl, hanging out with her in the woods… Not questions that were significant (or raised) in the 1960s when this book was nominated for a Caldecott.

Here’s Mr Rabbit invading the little girl’s personal space.

Fun builds!

Rather than ‘building’, this carnivalesque story utilises a repeating structure. Red, yellow, green… The story functions pedagogically, teaching the difference between concrete and abstract nouns (obliquely), colours (for younger readers) and also to consider whether the receipient of a gift would like it. This is complex for young readers, who are inclined to give gifts they themselves would like. The little girl is practising theory of mind.

Although this story is repeating, there is still a build. Ther always is. Sometimes the build is subtle. The build here is in the amazingness of the gift. By the time they look up at the stars and consider giving the stars, the story is utilising a version of The Overview Effect. Many stories feature a contemplation of sky at this part of the narrative. This helps readers to connect the events of any given story to more universal themes. (Yes, it’s very literal.) And because we’re used to stories structured in this way, a glance up at the sky (or down from the sky in a low angle shot) helps to convey the sense of an ending.

Peak Fun!

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1962

Surprise! (for the reader)

On first read, I half expected the story to end with the appearance of the mother, and her pleasure at receiving the thoughtful gift. But the mother never appears. We are left to imagine how much the mother will appreciate the fruit basket.

The gag in this story is very minor:

“Happy birthday and happy basket of fruit to your mother.”

(Because it’s not usual to say ‘happy basket of fruit’.)

Return to the Home state

The rabbit and girl have said goodbye. This particular carnivalesque story did not begin inside the house, so it does not end inside the house, either. ♦

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Cannonball Simp by John Burningham Analysis

Cannonball Simp cover

Cannonball Simp is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham, first published 1966. This is a story from an earlier Golden Age of children’s literature, one in which ending up in a circus is a good outcome, and also, well, words sometimes change.

It’s shame that the 2020 meaning of the word ‘simp’ means something completely different, but there’s always a chance that a harmless word used in 1966 by a children’s storyteller will be appropriated by terrible people at some point. I won’t link to a definition here. Those who don’t know the modern meaning are ill-advised to find out.

Cannonball Simp by John Burningham clown

SETTING OF SIMP

  1. PERIOD — The twentieth century
  2. DURATION — A week or so? In human time, not much. For Simp, it would feel more like a year, with the complete rollercoaster of emotions.
  3. LOCATION — England
  4. ARENA — The story is mythic structure and readers will conceive of this story as a road/path through a large arena of space.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — Cities and suburbs, finally the enclosed arena of a circus, narrowing down to a stage surrounded by an adoring crowd.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — This story is very much contingent upon human technology. Simp is a dog living within a human domain and utterly dependent upon the kindness of humans. There’s no fairytale forest where she might live a lonely but well-fed existence.
  7. WEATHER — John Burningham’s illustrations are gritty and the hand of the artist is evidence, resulting in a grungy feel which puts the viewer in mind of the dirtiness of the human inhabitated spaces but also of an inhospitable climate. This feeling peaks when Simp looks at the clown through the window of his caravan. The clown’s nose is clownish, but almost makes him look like he’s got a headcold.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The dog catcher and his van are crucial.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — The wider world is industrialised to the point where everyone is too busy getting on with their aspirationally capitalist lives to notice or care for an abandoned pup among them.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Simp sees the world exactly how it is — she knows she is unpretty and that this will hamper her chances of finding a family and a loving home. Until she happens upon the circus, she does not know that the circus is another place to find misfits, and that as a misfit she’ll find a home there.

STORY STRUCTURE OF SIMP

There are many stories about outcast animals or creatures who wander round narrowly avoiding death until finding a new family. We see numerous examples in fairytale. Cannonball Simp reminds me of two fairytales in particular: Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling. Hans Christian Andersen was especially attracted to stories about rejected outcasts.

PARATEXT

A small dog, abandoned near a trash dump and captured by a dog catcher, finds a home for herself when she is befriended by a circus clown whose act needs improving.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

Simp is ugly.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but only because people are ridiculous. Racism extends to black dogs. Golden dogs don’t suffer the same suspicion and are more easily rehomed.

She will eventually meet the human equivalent of an abandoned dog — a clown who is first outcast by society by dint of being a clown, and then by the circus men who will fire him if he can’t make enough money for them.

DESIRE

Simp wants a family. Every child’s basic need and readily relatable.

OPPONENT

First the owner of her mother doesn’t want her. Then society ignores her as an outcast. This general indifference coalesces in the dogcatcher.

Because this is a mythic journey, Simp also meets characters who help her. The rats at the garbage dump give her bread, but can’t find enough food for themselves let along a dog, and advise her to move on. (That’s the part that reminds me of Thumbelina.)

PLAN

Since this is a melodramatic tale, Simp has no plan until she starts to feel less thrown around by circumstances. The change happens when she has the idea to be a cannonball. (This is the point where I worry for Simp.) Normally the plan part of a story happens before the big battles, interwoven into the character’s struggles, but in this case, the planning stage comes later, after the near death experience.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The dog with the beard is functioning as the wise old man archetype. The knowing reader will understand that, without a family to collect her, Simp is destined for the gas chamber. This is a good example of a plot point that will be understood differently by differently aged readers; the reader too young to understand the stakes is also too young to deal with those stakes.

'Cannonball Simp' 1966 Written and illustrated by John Burningham (1936 - 2019)

But Simp manages to escape from the dog catcher.

ANAGNORISIS

Simp’s first revelation coincides with her plan — she may be ugly but she makes a good cannonball owing to her blackness and rotundity.

NEW SITUATION

Simp will continue to live with the clown, still on the road, but this time with a new family. Not only has he found a family, he has also found an adoring audience who love to see him shot out of a cannon.

We know the moment Simp has found her new family: She sleeps at the end of the clown’s bed.

Cannonball Simp bedroom

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

I know we’re supposed to believe this is perfectly safe, but I believe there’s an accident waiting to happen.

But even if the cannonball trick works well forever, I’m still salty that the clown and the dog are making money for those capitalist fuckers who run the circus, who are quite happy to metaphorically fire their talent. It would’ve been a happier ending if the clown and the dog struck out on their own, imo.

Green is well known as a calming colour, but is also useful if you want to create something magical and eerie.
Green is well known as a calming colour, but is also useful if you want to create something magical and eerie.

RESONANCE

Apart from the degradation of the word ‘simp’, a few other cultural evolutions have happened since Cannonball Simp was published, and these I can’t complain about: More and more parents avoid supporting the exploitative industry of the traditional travelling circus, which is basically terrible for animals. Therefore I’d guess that fewer modern children will have ever seen a circus, familiar with the basic concept only via retro children’s stories such as this one. Modern children, at least where I live, will have been to related festivals and carnivals such as rural ‘shows’, which are less and less about the stock animals and more about the coffee, the rides and the show bags.

I was a child of the 80s and I did visit the circus once. Significantly, I was taken by my Nana rather than by my parents. My grandparents’ generation were about the last en masse to consider a trip to the circus an important part of childhood.

The circus still exists. However, I haven’t been. I don’t know anyone who’d support the industry and fail to see how they survive in Australia. I guess the shows look a little different these days, but who knows.

Cannonball Simp was adapted for TV in the 1980s, which was the tail end of the golden age of the circus.

THE STORYBOOK CIRCUS

The change in approach to the storybook circus mirrors changes to the storybook zoo. Below are some circus illustrations from various picture books.

The circus hasn’t always involved the iconic big tent. These illustrations by Anto Pieck show how the circus evolved from showing off in the town square. Then I guess locals get bored of your tricks so you start travelling from town to town, finding a new audience.

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Higglety Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Analysis

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life is an illustrated short story, though some might just call it a picture book. The language is too sophisticated to count as an early reader, unlike the Mercy Watson series, of a similar length and also divided into chapters.

Why divide such a short story into chapters, anyway? In the case of the Mercy Watson series, the young reader feels a sense of achievement after finishing each chapter. Also, the point of view switches between Mercy Watson’s house and that of their neighbours, Eugenia and Baby. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! the chapters strike me as a parody of a longer, mythically structured work.

The Kirkus reviewer also had difficulty classifying this story as a picture book:

Maurice Sendak’s books have been, right along, projections of concepts rather than pictorializations of plots, so that it is almost gratuitous to hail his arrival as an author; but this tidy little package, despite its size and shape, is not a picture book, nor is it, like Hector Protector an elaboration of Mother Goose for little children – there is more to life, and his supple style matches his consummate skill as an artist.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite the title, the main character of this story is a dog. (The pig is secondary.) The terrier is called Jennie, and she is based on a real dog:

Dogs frequently appear in the picture books of Maurice Sendak. The best known is Jennie, the Sealyham terrier pursued down the stairs by Max in Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Reflecting on the fourteen-year partnership with his dog, Sendak said, “Jennie was the love of my life.” Jennie appeared in most of Sendak’s books from 1954 to her death, which is memorialized in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life (1967). The dramatist, Tony Kushner, has written that Higglety Pigglety Pop is “perhaps the most personal work of an artist who unstintingly mines his own psyche and soul for his art. Higglety belongs to the select library of essential art about death and grief.”

Jan Susina, Sendak Goes to the Dogs: Maurice Sendak’s Empathic View of Dogs

Sendak wrote this book while grieving the death of his dog Jennie.

Typically, picture books about death and grief require a metaphorical interpretation from the reader. See also Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Australian example also features a beloved dog with a typically human name.

Why are picture books about death so surreal and metaphorical? A young child, perhaps not yet ready for stories about death and grief, will instead be enjoying a surface level narrative, in this case the story of a dog who leaves him to be an actor in a play. I believe the thinking behind this is: The child won’t understand the sadness until they are developmentally ready to understand it.

Whether this works in practice, I don’t know. In theory it’s possible to have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of narrative and still not be developmentally ready for death plots.

Besides, there’s plenty that’s harrowing in the surface reading of this story: The absent parents who have forgotten how to get back home to baby, the fact that everyone else has forgotten baby’s name, the button near the ground that means the nurse will be fed to the lions and also its seventh victim (in a plot point reminiscent of Bluebeard).

There’s also this idea that children can hook into the deeper meanings of texts precisely because of their lack of experience in the world. The Kirkus reviewer clearly subscribed to that idea:

You can’t compress the reverberations into a review, and certainly not the ominous illustrations; it may by-pass some adults because Sendak speaks directly to the elastic imagination of children.

Kirkus Reviews

It’s worth noting that Maurice Sendak never self-identified as a children’s writer. He said he just made things, and others decided who would read it.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

Others have pointed out that Sendak’s illustrations are reminiscent of Doré and Dürer. They are rich in hatching and line detail, and relatively flat, tonally.

Sendak drew his toddlers with the faces and facial expressions of much older people, which I find creepy, though this creepiness fits the overall vibe.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life Story and pictures by Maurice Sendak 1967

SETTING OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS

  1. PERIOD — during the real Jennie’s lifetime, mid 20th century. But there are so many fairytale/mythological aspects to this story that it’s in some ways atemporal (save the details which place it firmly in the 20th century — the house furnishings etc.)
  2. DURATION — Unclear. Maybe a week, maybe weeks. Being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Stories about death tend to be ambiguous in this regard.
  3. LOCATION — Starts in the home, sees the hero on a mythic path, ends on a stage.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — The road is a literal road in this story (sometimes a river, for instance, in other stories). There’s a house, an aristocratic house (where the baby lives) and a castle.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS The Forest is significant. The flat land is bordered by mountains in the distance.
  6. WEATHER — Comfortable, like a utopian setting. Moonlit at night.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORYThe details of Jennie’s medicines are oddly specific, and once you know Jennie was a real dog, we can deduce that the real Jennie was using these medicines at the end of her life. This technology isn’t ‘necessary’ for the story to work, but do show the reader that Jennie is probably elderly.
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. Life and death is an evergreen psychological conflict.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. Jennie is wrong to think that nothing is better than everything, but she has to experience having nothing to see that this is not what she wanted, either. To have nothing is to be dead. After she experiences nothingness, she moves onto the next plane in something akin to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. However, Being-toward-death refers to the acceptance that one is going to die someday. The ‘acceptance’ that happens in this story is an end-of-life acceptance, and I think that’s something different. Perhaps a Heidegger expert can clarify.

STORY STRUCTURE OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE

Higglety, Pigglety, Pop,
The dog has eaten the mop.
The pig’s in a hurry,
The cat’s in a flurry,
Higglety, pigglety, pop.

Mother Goose nusery rhyme

Only the end (story-within-a-story play) part of the structure has much to do with the nursery rhyme, aside from the cast, which includes a dog (main character), pig and cat in both nursery rhyme and storybook. Clearly, there’s not a helluva lot to work with in five lines, so Sendak fleshed it right out and turned it into mythological journey into the darkest reaches of the soul, culminating in metaphorical death.

PARATEXT

A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a brilliantly original tale about Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, who seeks Experience and becomes the star of the World Mother Goose Theatre.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The ideology of this story: Satisfaction in life comes from wanting more. Humans are compelled to always want something more. This is psychologically true and explains how humans have come to dominate (and wreck) the planet. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that having nothing is also not great.

On the surface, Jennie leaves home because she is ineffably dissasfied. (It’s right there in the subtitle.) The young men of fairy tales often start out like this, leaving home to ‘seek their fortune’, presumably because they’re bored with how things are panning out at home. A significant number of children’s stories start with the character in a place of boredom. In this particular story, there’s an existential loneliness mixed in.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life  Maurice Sendak - 1967
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life Maurice Sendak – 1967

If we approach this story from a philosophical point of view, using the terminology of Heidegger, the words Vorlaufen and Erwarten come in handy.

Heidegger drew a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation, or awaiting (Erwarten). At the beginning of this story, Jennie is anticipating something, and we see her ‘awaiting’ something as she looks out of the window (a very common visual metaphor in children’s stories). But as soon as she leaves the house, she metaphorically enters a new phase of understanding: she is on a journey towards death acceptance. Not death in general — she doesn’t give a damn about the life of that plant she just ate — her own death. She won’t fully understand death until she contemplates the end of her own life.

(Heidegger worked on the idea that only human beings die. He thought plants and animals simply perish. Sendak has personified the plant. The plant’s death is clearly the first real death of this story.)

DESIRE

Stories don’t satisfy an audience until the main character wants something. Although Jennie starts out with no goal in mind (other than to get the hell out of the house), she very soon does settle upon a goal: she wants to act in a play. This desire is what propels her forward in her journey. First she requires ‘Experience’.

Sendak plays with the various permutations of this word and how we typically use it in English to mean

  1. Work experience, a prerequisite for many jobs
  2. A positive event in one’s life
  3. A negative event in one’s life (euphemistically)

Presumably because she is a dog, Jennie’s understanding of English is limited. She shares this in common with the child reader. Jennie embodies both adult and child at once — a naive child in the adult role of a nurse, and the brave role of a lion-fighting knight.

OPPONENT

Typically in stories there are two distinct layers of opposition: the ‘family’ and the ‘Minotaur’. Friends and family are natural opponents for wanting different things. These things don’t tend to be life and death. Jennie and the potplant are opponents because Jennie wants to leave and the plant clearly wants to dissuade her, craving company. Jennie eats off all of its leaves and it can’t talk anymore.

Next, Jennie and the Baby are opponents. The baby won’t eat, and if the baby won’t eat, Jennie will be fed to the lion. As far as ‘family opposition’ goes, the threat of death is stronger than average. Normally in stories, families are squabbling about relatively incosequential things (in comparison to the big, outside, Minotaur opposition).

As for the Minotaur opponent in this tale, that would be the big, bad opposition that represents life and death: the Lion — typically used as Minotaur opposition — unreasonable, with the huge appetite of an ogre. An ogre/Lion can like you perfectly well and still want to eat you up. It’s impossible to reason with this category of opponent.

Metaphorically, the Lion represents our greatest fear — fear of death. The following sentence offers clear insight into that:

Lions chased through Jennie’s head.

PLAN

Because Jennie is naively stumbling through the world, she misinterprets the requirements of acting. She is told she needs Experience, subtext reading she needs acting experience, but when she hears of a (dangerous) nursing job and is told that it will certainly be ‘an Experience’ she figures that’ll do nicely to propel her toward her goal.

Sendak employs the ticking clock technique by setting a time limit on applying for the role of actor.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Stories that culminate in a play/sports event/competition have a climax baked into the plot. But we shouldn’t confuse that part of the story for the near-death section — metaphorically the part where the hero reaches the centre of the labyrinth and confronts the Minotaur.

The mythological vibe of Higglety Pigglety Pop! is clear. Jennie pops her head right into the lion’s mouth. Turns out she was only bluffing as a way to save Baby and she escapes without her beard ‘which never grew back’. This is Jennie’s near-death experience.

In a differently structured story, also featuring a ‘play’, contrast with About A Boy. In that story, the stage performance is the near death experience. (Social death, for the young boy.) The stage scene also functions to show the audience that the older ‘boy’ (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has finally sacrificed his dignity to do something nice for someone else. He has grown as a human being.

ANAGNORISIS

To tie up this story, Jennie accidentally guesses the baby’s name, even though she never realised the importance of guessing it (contrasting with the similar plot point of Rumpelstiltskin.)

Jennie has come to terms with dying.

“You escaped from the lion!” […]

They all climbed up on the lion’s back.

Significantly, there is nothing morbid about Being-towards-death. And there is nothing morbid about Jennie at the conclusion of this book.

Everything = an unsatisfactory life; nothing = death.
Everything leads to despair because we no longer seek out new Experiences.
Life = Experiences.

NEW SITUATION

Surface reading: Jennie is a stage actor now.

Metaphorical reading: Jennie has accepted her imminent death.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Extrapolating for metaphor, the stage play has functioned as the portal into death, and a microcosm of the overall absurdism/futility of life. When taking a broad view of life, it’s difficult to take seriously things which once seemed so very important.

There IS more to life: death! Life and death are part of the same cycle, an ideology that wends its way right through children’s literature.

Scene: room in a very terrific place.

We can assume they end up in Heaven, or the reader’s cultural equivalent.

RESONANCE

Looking through the various reactions to this story from consumers, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a divisive story. Readers seem to find it either attractively surreal or creepily off-putting. But Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are cemented Sendak’s position as an influential American 20th century storyteller, ensuring that there will long be an audience who seek out his other work.

Sendak’s book is now better known (at least on the Internet) than the Mother Goose nursery rhyme around which it is written.

Higglety Pigglety Pop has been made into a short film.

SEE ALSO

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Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban Analysis

Bread and Jam for Frances original cover

Bread and Jam for Frances is a picture book written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, first published in 1964 as a part of a series about a girl in the body of a badger, who lives in a middle class house and has access to all the spoils you’d expect of 1960s middle class Westerner.

I never came across this picture book as a kid, but a book with a similar plot must have really affected me because it was probably read once in class, yet I remember it profoundly: The book I’m talking about is Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, one of the Pig Family picture books by Mary Rayner. This family of pigs might be considered the 1980s follow-up to the Hobans’ Frances stories. (I’ve taken a close look at Garth Pig and the Ice-cream Lady on this blog.)

In Rayner’s 1981 version of Bread and Jam for Frances, the mother pig of the Pig Family gets utterly sick and tired of her piglets hoeing into the tomato sauce so she feeds them nothing but tomato sauce until they crave a more varied diet.

No matter how carefully she flavored the stews or spiced the puddings, the piglets always squealed for tomato ketchup. She had always tried to stop them from having it, and make one bottle last a week, but it was always gobbled up by Monday and then the piglets would grumble until she went to the supermarket again.

“But things will be different soon,” thought Mother Pig happily. She reached down one of the big jars and emptied it into a huge soup tureen.

My mother was frequently complaining about the family using too much tomato sauce as well, which is probably why the story stuck with me. (Criticism was mostly directed at our father, though, who used sauce not only for flavour, but to cool hot food to a more scoffable temperature.)

DIDACTICISM AND FOOD PREFERENCES
Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich
Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich

Do these stories do what they intend, that is, to encourage children to eat a more wide and varied diet? One Goodreads reviewer of Rayner’s picture book said, “I read this to my daughter in the hopes of encouraging her to eat less ketchup, but all it did was make her want ketchup sandwiches.”

I doubt these stories work as intended. I do remember Rayner’s story, but I don’t remember going easy on the tomato sauce. They appeal to adults for didactic reasons, and to children for the carnivalesque element. Eating nothing but your favourite food is peak carnivalesque fun. The ending of both stories doesn’t resonate; doesn’t count.

Parenting culture has changed since the 1980s and certainly since the 1960s. For better or for worse, modern parents hand more food choice over to their children. I know plenty of kids who’d be quite happy to eat nothing but white bread and jam for weeks on end, possibly forever. Some of them have sensory issues around eating, which is the first thing I thought about Frances as she described and personified her eggs.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

PARATEXT

Frances is a fussy eater. In fact, the only thing she likes is bread and jam. So she’s delighted when Mother and Father grant her wish and give her bread and jam at every meal. This endearing story of how Frances faces unlimited bread and jam is a classic that will continue to be gobbled up by children, picky eaters, and parents everywhere.

marketing copy

Frances is also described as ‘America’s favourite badger’. (Frances is about as badger as Olivia is pig.)

SHORTCOMING

Frances has food preferences (possibly for sensory reasons) but she is a member of a family who have no tolerance for people who don’t eat what’s going.

Frances is disgusted by the egg.

DESIRE

Frances wants to eat bread and jam instead of eggs.

OPPONENT

Mother.

Is the school mate a plan or an ally. I find him insufferable. “Well, goodo for you,” I wanted to tell him, and, “I don’t remember asking for all those details about your damn lunch.”

PLAN

The mother has a secret plan, and we see it play out. The mother is basically a trickster, and I guess this is why she appeals to many mother co-readers; trickster mums are rare in children’s books.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Frances grows more and more tired of bread and jam. When the mother serves Frances the same dinner as the rest of the family is having, Frances is so keen for something different that she eats it up without complaining. Mother has won this battle.

ANAGNORISIS

Frances realises that a varied diet is an interesting diet.

NEW SITUATION

Frances is eating a varied school lunch.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.

RESONANCE

I was prompted to read Bread and Jam for Frances after seeing the following image memed around the Internet. It’s actually an abbreviated version of the relevant page, and almost functions as a tagline. In abbreviated form, without any context, this image is perfectly suited to modern meme culture. Perhaps it encapsulates our collective existential loneliness.

FURTHER READING

  • The Evolution of Breakfasts in Fiction. In the 1960s, America was in the middle of switching over from cooked breakfasts to breads and extruded cereals. Frances in this story has clearly been influenced by the modern Continental breakfast (probably from ads on the TV) but her old-school mother resists.
  • Egg Symbolism. I wonder how many humans across history have found eggs disgusting. Until battery farming, eggs were a hard won delicacy and an important element of many diets.
  • The idea that all of the other kids will get something, and that you, due to your own moral shortcoming will miss out, was utilised by Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, and in many stories after that, including Little Golden Books’ super popular The Poky Little Puppy. But can you think of any modern picture books which use this kind of punishment plot, withholding food from children? This was certainly how I was brought up. But I suspect it’s had its day.
  • Russell and Lillian were married Americans who moved to England together in 1969. However, Lillian moved back to America about a year later. Russell stayed in England and married someone else in the mid 1970s. They each continued to have a full and varied career in children’s books, independently. Russell died in 2011. Lillian died in 1998.
  • See also my collected notes on The Mouse and His Child.
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
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Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern by Richard Yates Analysis

Festival 1934 by Daniel R Celentano

Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is a short story by Richard Yates, the first in his 1962 collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The story of the new kid in school is very popular in children’s literature, which is of course written for children. But what might a New Kid In School story for adults look like? This is it.

Richard Yates himself was often the new kid in school. His parents divorced when he was three years old. Much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences.

I was also often the new kid in school, because my father worked for the New Zealand post office, and throughout the 1980s small toll exchanges kept being shut down and centralised. So our family had to move from smaller towns to increasingly bigger ones. I went to six primary schools in all. I identify with Vincent in this story because on my first day at the first of my new schools (I was almost six) I decided to put my hand up for news. I was of course selected, and I remember standing there in front of everyone and having no idea what to say. I didn’t even understand the concept of news, a new tradition for me at this new school.

So I made something up. None of the lies I told struck me as wrong, and I enjoyed it very much because the kids all laughed at my stories. Even the teacher laughed.

One day I reported that our neighbour’s chimney had caught fire. The firemen had come to put it out. This was all true, and my classmates listened in awe. But then I said the fireman’s hat fell down the chimney. I felt a little bad when my classmates all seemed to believe this too. Unlike Vincent, my teacher never told me to stop lying. He just laughed along, and I was often picked for news. Every single time, I had no idea what I was going to say until I got up there. Little of it was true. But the following year something must have happened to me developmentally because in my new classroom with a new teacher I would never volunteer for news. This new reticence continued until I was in senior high school when I again found my voice — this time, not lying.

A New Kid In School story written for adults can be more realistic than one written for a child audience. Everything about Richard Yates’ “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” rings emotionally true, including the climactic act, which would not pass the gatekeepers in a story written for kids, but which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in schools. We often say that the girl code is impossibly complex and full of pitfalls, but in this story Richard Yates shows us that the unspoken rules of boys are equally complex and exclusionary.

Another reason why this adult version rings true is because Yates’s omniscient, insightful narrator allows the reader understanding of the teacher’s actions. Miss Price is as rounded as the child main character, Vincent, nicknamed Dr. Jack-o’-Lantern. In contrast, most children’s stories make use of teacher archetypes, with rare examples in young adult literature bringing a teacher in as a rounded main character.

SETTING OF DOCTOR “JACK-O’-LANTERN”

I’m guessing this story is set in 1932, which is when the Dr Jekyll a Mr Hyde movie came out. In this adaptation more than in the 1941 release, the teeth as described by the children in this story are a prominent feature of the main character’s monstrous alter ego.

Richard Yates was born in 1926, which would make this a story set in the time of his own early school days. If Miss Price had been married, she may have been forced out of a teaching job, opening the way for someone ‘who needs it’ ie. a man. Miss Price is quite a forward-looking teacher for the era, probably because of her age. By inviting the students to the front of the class to share their own news she is engaging in what was then known as a Progressive education style, which is less chalk-and-talk teacher-centric. (Also for this reason, the story could be set later. But I don’t think it could be set any earlier.)

The school of “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is somewhere in commuting distance of New York, in the outer boroughs.

If I’m right about the timing of this story, what else was going on in America in the early 1930s? These were the dark days of the Great Depression, which hit America badly. Fourteen million people were unemployed. The world was preparing for another world war, though the children are busy with their own small factions to understand any of what’s happening in the wider world. It is likely that a kid like Vincent has had to move because his adult caregivers have been forced out of work, and have possibly found new work (hence some of his clothing items are new, some are old).

absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest

Vincent Sabella reminds me of Wanda Petronski of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Sabella is a Sicilian last name, and the new kid is speaking in an accent unfamiliar to his classmates, perhaps because he is a recent immigrant, perhaps because he has grown up around recent immigrants, speaking English as a second language. Vincent’s new classmates probably don’t know the scary connection between Italians and the mafia, but they seem to have absorbed some of the xenophobia of their dominant culture.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DOCTOR JACK-O’-LANTERN”

SHORTCOMING

Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952
Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952

Vincent Sabella’s strength is also his shortcoming, and this is partly what makes this short story masterful. He is desperately lonely. We know from the omniscient narration that he comes dangerously close to burying his head in his teacher’s lap. But this is not how the other boys see him at all. His isolation is what makes him a mysterious figure. Vincent will face a dilemma. We can’t call this a moral dilemma, because he is too young to really understand what he is doing and why he is doing it. But the adult reader can see that Vincent can either remain an outcast among his peers by following the code of conduct set down by their teacher, or he can have a shot at being included by his peers by following the code of the playground.

In both Eleanor Estes’s story for children and in Richard Yates’ story for adults, an immigrant child is ostracised by white, middle class children for being a liar (or perceived as one, in the case of Wanda Petrowski). Certain demographics are more likely to be seen as liars. The playground code in this white microcosm of society is complex for the uninitiated: Writing rude words on a wall in chalk: Admirable. Lying to peers: shun-worthy.

We can guess that the rules of Vincent’s New York world are quite different. There, bigging yourself up is probably an expected part of masculinity. It seems to me that Vincent is indulging in a particularly masculine form of storytelling — the tall story — when he tells his ‘lies’ to his peers. The tall story is more popular in some cultures than in others. Here in Australia it is an historically masculine tradition, told to mates in the bush, and the understood code around the tall story is that your narratees know you’re spinning a story. The rule is: believe nothing, lest you open yourself up as gullible. The more ridiculous the story, the more obvious the lie.

Vincent has told a ridiculously improbable story, but has made a huge social faux pas by assuming the kids in his new school would understand he is telling a tall story. He has already seen Nancy ‘lie’ by saying “Well” when she knows she’s not supposed to open that way. The minor untruth in that case is that Nancy never reveals to Miss Price that she knew all along not to say it. But Vincent will take that cue and run with it.

DESIRE

Vincent wants some friends. This connects to his underlying need: To avoid loneliness. Many stories have this exact desire — this part of a story doesn’t need to be sophisticated at all. All New Kid At School stories start from a place of loneliness.

OPPONENT

The children in the class are presented to us via the omniscient narrator as both highly recognisable and not especially empathetic.

The opponent of Miss Price is interesting because this story is an excellent example of a story in which the opponent genuinely wants the best for the main character. Again, the omniscient narration is an excellent choice for this particular story because the reader sees exactly why Miss Price behaves as she does. As adults, we probably put ourselves in her shoes. But because we’ve all been children, we can equally put ourselves in the shoes of the children.

PLAN

Importantly, Yates doesn’t let us inside Vincent’s head in the way we’re allowed inside Miss Price’s head. The story plays out before us, and we are as surprised as anyone else when Vincent’s plans take shape. ‘Plan’ is a loose term to use here because I imagine Vincent doesn’t ‘plan’ things out so much as follows his childlike, desperate instincts. Although we aren’t afforded a glimpse into Vincent’s motivations, Yates has given us enough to work with: We understand exactly why he does what he does.

This illustration was for Life Magazine , January,16, 1919 by William Gratz. Writing on a wall has long been the only avenue of discontent for the powerless, perhaps since caveman times.

BIG STRUGGLE

Vincent has two main opponents, the kids and the teacher, so we see two struggle scenes, the first with Miss Price, which is ironic because it’s the exact opposite of what Vincent wants. The second struggle takes place in the conversation with the other boys, in which Vincent lies he’s had the ruler on his knuckles. When Miss Price walks past and is very nice to Vincent, she unwittingly reveals him to be lying yet again. By being so nice, she has ruined Vincent’s shot at social capital.

ANAGNORISIS

Miss Price remains oblivious to what she has just done. We have earlier been told that children are a mystery to her, though I suspect boys are a mystery to her — she probably understands girl culture quite well. This is why Yates has chosen a young female teacher instead of an older, more experienced one. A male teacher may or may not have understood the rules of boyhood better and almost certainly would not have treated Vincent with so much motherly care. The complicated proto-sexual feelings these boys have for their pretty teacher is also important to the ending. Vincent epitomises the adolescent confusion of boys: Their teacher is both motherly and sexually appealing. These feelings together are supremely uncomfortable for them, and Yates shows this beautifully throughout the story by making use of juxtapositions. Finally we face the biggest juxtaposition of all: The loving care with which Vincent draws a lewd image of Miss Price.

NEW SITUATION

Yates can end his story as Vincent draws the image of Miss Price because he has given us enough information to extrapolate that Miss Price will be completely baffled by this act. She has already considered the fact that Vincent is a trouble child and she is out of her depth and will need to bring in outside help. That was for a lesser crime. So we extrapolate that this is now going to happen, and Vincent has unsuccessfully tried to fit in at his new school. The story probably won’t end well for Vincent.

This is where a similar story but written for children must end differently. Any child starting at a new school eventually finds friends and does reasonably well. At the very least, they find the inner strength to get through continuing tough times at school.

But Vincent Sabella has now branded himself as a sexual deviant, and in conservative 1950s America, he is doomed. This is a tragic story because as readers we’ve had our hands held by the narrator, and we know that Vincent does not deserve what’s coming to him.

This is especially true when we consider the longer historical view. Yates wrote this story decades after it is (probably) set, and the situation for Italian immigrants trying to settle in allied power countries was very grim throughout World War 2. After first being ostracised by his white classmates at school, Vincent may well have found himself ostracised later in life as an ‘enemy alien’. To avoid that, he may have gone to fight on behalf of America as a young man. Many Italian Americans fought on America’s behalf. This can’t have been easy, fighting for your country and also against your ancestral land. Vincent will have always felt like an outsider.

Header painting is “Festival” 1934 by Daniel R Celentano, set in East Harlem’s Little Italy, New York — “a lively scene, evoking the scents of tasty Italian food, is overshadowed by the immense natural-gas tanks at the right that once blighted Manhattan’s immigrant slums,” according to the Smithsonian website.

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The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry Analysis

The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR

Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.

Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits.

Fine art by Molly Stephens. Oil on Masonite with plaster ‘cat section’

In short, both writer and illustrator were well-travelled women who lived through the 20th century wars. They both worked with children and settled in Tasmania. I’m guessing — though it’s just a guess — they knew each other and collaborated, unlike most writer/illustrator combos today, who are set up by the publisher and rarely meet until the job is done, if at all.

STORYWORLD OF THE CIDER DUCK

The reader is left in no doubt about the setting:

  • When? 1832, conveyed as intratext across the bridge. Night time.
  • Where? The Eider Duck Inn, Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania), Australia. Richmond is not far from Hobart, to the NNE. I’m not sure if The Eider Duck Inn was a real place — let me know if you have the answer.
  • Weather: windy, rainy, with lightning.

Pictured above is The Richmond Bridge.

The Richmond Bridge is a heritage listed arch bridge located on the B31 (“Convict Trail”) in Richmond, 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) north of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It is the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.

Wikipedia

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CIDER DUCK

SHORTCOMING

Well, the duck gets drunk. Drunk on fermented apples, to be specific. This isn’t on the page, but deduced after she wanders into the kitchen and ‘falls asleep’ so soundly that she doesn’t notice all of her feathers being plucked out. Because she is drunk she is powerless to stop it.

I figure this duck had a brush with death by alcohol poisoning. The child audience believes the little duck is gloriously happy frolicking about in the utopian world of wind-fallen fruit, finally getting so tired she simply nods off.

DESIRE

All the duck wants is to walk about eating delicious things.

We assume she does not want to be eaten herself. But she’s out to it. Instead, this desire is transferred to the child audience, now reading a harrowing story about a duck who’s about to get cooked.

OPPONENT

The duck is more duck-like than human-like, though we are to believe the duck has human emotions (such as pride, in the end). Therefore, the plot revelation is had by the human main character — the ‘kind hostess’ realises the duck wasn’t dead at all. It was simply asleep.

So the duck’s opponent also functions as the human proxy after this harrowing near-death experience.

PLAN

To make amends, the hostess knits jumpers for the duck — one for every day of the week. Here I am reminded that the creators of this book had pedagogical interests — this sequence feels like an overt exercise in teaching young children the days of the week.

We see the teaching of the days of the week in a Little Golden Book from around the same era — The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This was also the era of ‘animals who aren’t quite animals but aren’t quite human, either’.

By the time The Cider Duck was published,  half a century had passed since Beatrix Potter, but Potter’s influence remained strong. Reading these stories today, they seem horrific. Sure, the animals seem to live in utopias with beautiful forests full of food, but death lurks behind every corner. There may be food on the ground just waiting for you to enjoy it, but you yourself are food for someone else.

BIG STRUGGLE

The modern reader may find the plucking scene disturbing in itself.

Live plucking causes birds considerable pain and distress. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds, paralyzed with fear, are left with gaping wounds—some even die as a result of the procedure.

Down Production: Birds Abused for Their Feathers, PETA

But in this book from 1969 we are to imagine being plucked as akin to taking one’s clothes off. This is therefore not the Battle scene of the plot.

For that we get a trope borrowed from cosmic horror. I’ve recently seen this trope given a name: ‘Spatial Horror’.

When the Cider Duck wakes up and doesn’t know where she is, she is completely disoriented and falls into a dark hole. (Actually off the table.)

I’d offer this is a picture book example of spatial horror. It also marks the end of the Big Struggle sequence.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis phase gives way to the utopian world of the apple orchard. The duck is basically famous now, for her ability to escape death. She becomes a local celebrity.

The anagnorisis in this story is implicit — after admiring herself in jumpers, the duck seems to realise her value. The humans will not eat her, because they have welcomed her into the human world, removing her from the menu. She must realise at some point that she is safe.

NEW SITUATION

The Cider Duck becomes the mascot for the inn. This is her job now.

This is a different take on the rags-to-riches tale — it’s the menu-to-mascot tale.

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Symbolism and The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst Short Story Analysis

three scarlet ibis flying

What can I say about “The Scarlet Ibis” that isn’t on Wikipedia? This 1960 short story is loved by English teachers because of its clear literary symbols — a good introduction to symbolism, especially to colour symbolism.

COLOUR SYMBOLISM

Students can be highly suspicious of close reading when teachers talk about colours and their symbolism. Colours can have multiple readings e.g. red can mean heat and anger but also love. So what’s the point, right?

Let’s take one step back. What even is a symbol?  As shown by the ‘blue curtains’ meme in that post, sometimes a colour is simply an off-duty detail.

But the colour symbolism in “The Scarlet Ibis” is very much ‘on-duty’.

There is a good, watertight reason why Hurst’s older, wiser narrator sits in a green parlour, and here’s why.

Take the distinction between the youthful main character and his wiser, older narrator self, who I consider two separate characters (despite being simply the younger and older versions of the same person).

The older narrator barely resembles his younger self. This distinction — and his flipped sense of old man morality — is conveyed nicely in the opening paragraph via the complementary colours of red and green.

Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree. It’s strange that all this is so clear to me, now that time has had its way. But sometimes (like right now) I sit in the cool green parlor, and I remember Doodle.

Colour symbolism varies significantly between cultures and context, but red and green will always be opposite in a scientific sense —  unlike many instances of colour symbolism, colour theory does not change from context to context, from culture to culture.

Complementary colours, in stories, can be unambiguous markers of inversion. In other words, something in the story has done a one-eighty.

red green complementary colours

Young narrator: immoral.

Older, wiser narrator telling this story after many years of reflection: moral.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE SCARLET IBIS”

Apart from peripheral parents there are two characters in this story — big brother, little brother. And, as mentioned above, the big brother has two alters — young character, older narrator.

Take note of the ways in which Hurst compares the children to old people:

  • Doodle was born when I was seven and was, from the start, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man’s.
  • So I dragged him across the cotton field to share the beauty of Old Woman Swamp.

Alice Munro uses this technique a lot. She tends to write across a person’s entire life, in which a young woman is simultaneously an old woman, perhaps because the old woman is looking back. Yet the older woman is right there alongside the younger woman the entire time, affording the reader a compressed but also expanded sense of time. This has the effect of expanding time even within the brevity of the short story format.

Annie Proulx has a different way of achieving similar ends — Proulx tends to write inter-generationally — sometimes across three generations. Then she connects those characters to the landscape, focusing on the magnitude of the landscape, miniaturising the characters.

So what does Hurst achieve in this story, with mention of ‘old man’, ‘old woman’? Perhaps this story is an examination of culpability. Can the narrator’s younger self be excused for this reprehensible behaviour just because he was young? If he imagines himself as a person, simultaneously old and young — just a person — it is harder to justify his own actions. Hence the regretful, confessional tone.

SHORTCOMING OF THE NARRATOR

Values The main character starts with a set of beliefs and values.

This is a story of the patriarchy, in which there is only one way to be a man: Strong, able-bodied and protective. The narrator learned this young. He has learned to be disgusted by anything that doesn’t fit this stereotype. When Doodle cries he is chastised by his father:

“What are you crying for?” asked Daddy, but I couldn’t answer. They didn’t know that I did it just for myself, that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.

It’s the crying itself that’s the problem, so far as the father’s concerned.

This is ultimately a story of remorse. The narrator doesn’t exactly paint a flattering portrait of himself as a young man. How reliable is he as a storyteller? How reliable is his memory? This story isn’t held up as an example of unreliable narration, but one way of reading this story is as a work of self-flagellation. Perhaps there is a lot of sibling guilt in here, guilt that might come with the knowledge that the brothers’ situations could easily have been flipped. It could have been the narrator with the health issues, not the brother. Anyone could think this at any time about anyone, but when it’s your sibling, it’s easier to imagine the flipped positions.

Flipped. Inverse. Opposite. Again with the complementary red and the green, you see.

There’s also embarrassment.

Doodle was five years old when I turned 13. I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn’t walk, so I set out to teach him.

I put it to you that the narrator has been culturally conditioned to believe that a person can do anything so long as they put their mind to it.

“Oh, yes, you can, Doodle. All you got to do is try.”

I’ve heard it said that this is an idea that exemplifies California. I’ve heard it come out of various actors’ mouths in interviews — they are where they are today because they worked really hard and they had a dream, and because they believed in the dream — like, REALLY believed it — the universe delivered!

#NotAllActors

This 2013 speech by Angelina Jolie garnered attention because she’s saying something too rarely hear from the one per cent: That she is where she is today largely because of… luck. Privilege. Random fortune of circumstance.

If we really believe anyone can do anything if only they set their mind to it, that  can lead us to the following conclusion: If you’re living in poverty, homeless, desperate — well, you must have done something wrong. You deserve to be where you are.

If the narrator in “The Scarlet Ibis” can teach his brother to walk, this confirms such a view. He will also no longer be embarrassed by Doodle. He will also feel  like Jesus.

Since I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to believe in my own infallibility.

There is inside me (and with sadness I have seen it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love. And at times I was mean to Doodle.

The first thing he does wrong:

One time I showed him his casket, telling him how we all believed he would die. When I made him touch the casket, he screamed. And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine he clung to me, crying, “Don’t leave me, Brother! Don’t leave me!”

DESIRE

The main character comes up with a goal toward which all else is sacrificed. 

The narrator wants Doodle to walk, for the reasons listed above.

OPPONENT

This goal leads them into direct conflict with an opponent who has a differing set of values but the same goal.

This story isn’t about differing values. I’m confident Doodle would love to walk and run and do everything most other kids can. He simply cannot.

Or is it? Doodle knows to give up trying to run before the narrator does — probably not just out of pain — he knows, viscerally, that ‘trying hard’ won’t do jack. Sometimes it really is a matter of ‘can’t’, as in ‘permanently cannot’.

PLAN

Drive The main character and the opponent take a series of actions to reach the goal.

The brothers go down to Old Woman Swamp and practise walking.

The immoral action is pushing Doodle way too far, causing him pain and physical damage.

In this particular short story there are only two characters, but also the third as I mention above — the much older narrator looking back. Via the psychological insights offered by this extradiegetic character, the same ends are achieved. In other words, the narrator himself guides the reader in our criticism of his younger self.

BIG STRUGGLE

Justification: The main character tries to justify their own actions. They may see the deeper truth and right of the situation at the end of the story, but not yet.

Throughout the narration, the reader is given all the reasons why the narrator keeps going with his plan.

Attack by Ally: The main character’s closest friend makes a strong case that the hero’s methods are wrong. 

This is Doodle himself, not saying the narrator’s methods are wrong, but simply impossible.

Obsessive Drive: Galvanised by new revelations about how to win, the main character becomes obsessed with reaching the goal and will do almost anything to succeed.

The parents are pleased with the narrator. The narrator feels less embarrassed. The younger brother looks up to big brother — his behaviours are positively reinforced. No wonder he keeps going.

The narrator pushes his brother beyond his limitations, and we know he isn’t going to back down.

Criticism: Attacks by other characters grow as well.

The father criticises the narrator for crying, though the criticism is for the crying, not for the immoral actions against Doodle. As far as the father is concerned, it’s great that Doodle can walk now.

It’s fully up to the reader to extrapolate that the narrator feels the way he does about Doodle because Doodle is failing to live up to society’s idea of a man. And that these ideas come down from their father.

Justification: The main character vehemently defends their own actions.Doodle was both tired and frightened.

He slipped on the mud and fell. I helped him up, and he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it. He would never be like the other boys at school.

Battle: The final conflict that decides the goal. Regardless of who wins, the audience learns which values and ideas are superior.

The big struggle is made more intense via the pathetic fallacy of the lightning storm.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator must choose whether to run home through the rain and lightning, or to go back and help his own brother. He chooses to run without his brother. So he makes an immoral decision, according to common decency.

At that moment, the bird began to flutter. It tumbled down through the bleeding tree and landed at our feet with a thud. Its graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still. It lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and even death could not mar its beauty.

The reader realises before the young narrator does that beauty comes in many different forms. If the scarlet ibis can be beautiful even when it’s dead, why can’t the little brother be beautiful even with his physical disabilities? The older narrator knows that now. He leads the reader to realise this point before he makes his immoral decision to leave his own brother behind in the storm. We therefore judge him negatively, as he has judged himself.

NEW SITUATION

The younger brother is dead; the older brother must live forever with the result of his decision. He immediately knows he chose wrongly.

FURTHER READING

Carson McCullers also wrote a story about two boys from the same family in which the older one abuses the younger. She wrote it when she was still a teenager herself. She called it “Sucker”.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header image by Vincent van Zalinge

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Analysis

many crabs climbing on rock at seashore

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is sometimes subtitled “A tale for children”. This short story reminded me of middle grade novel Skellig by British author David Almond. Sure enough, Almond has said in interview that he was influenced by the 1960 Colombian short story, and others have already looked into the relationship between the two.

  • What does it mean for a short story to be ‘for children’?
  • How is the story structured?
  • What do I get out of this story and how are its themes relevant today?

NARRATION OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

Perhaps this is the thing which seems tailored for children. The narrative voice has a fairytale/folktale vibe.

SETTING OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

The setting is a fairytale world, but not the forests and castles of landlocked fairytale Europe — this is a fishing village beside the sea and the sea is the magical place. Weird things come out of the sea. First crabs, then, well, an old man with wings.

But why else is the sea setting important? Well, the sea and shore is often said to be a ‘liminal’ space — a space that exists on the borders, in the ‘in between’. But the word liminal is useful because it refers to metaphorical borders as well as geographical, actual ones.

liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.

Liminal Space

Apart from the sea itself, the story arena is very small for this one — we never follow the ‘camera’ into the ocean depths. Rather, the entire story takes place around a chicken coop and shack.

The setting is ‘fallen’ — the inverse of utopian. Also known as postlapsarian. A type of hell before actually getting to hell. ‘Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing’, we are told. Hell on Earth, in other words. This is a story about an unfortunate convergence. The angel is both miraculous and ordinary — the world is both worldly and heavenly, with no division between the celestial and earthly.

Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883) 1866 'Satan Falls' illustration for 'Paradise Lost' by John Milton
Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) 1866 ‘Satan Falls’ illustration for ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton

When people come from all around to see the caged angel, broken and pathetic, this is not part of the fantasy world. Garcia Marquez is saying nothing about human relationships that hasn’t actually happened. In this way he is like Margaret Atwood, who wrote a ‘fantasy’ world for The Handmaid’s Tale, but invented nothing — every terrible thing in Atwood’s book had happened somewhere at some point in history.

Until the 20th century, it was socially acceptable to enjoy cruelty as entertainment.

Australia is having this debate, most recently with The Melbourne Cup — a culturally significant annual horse race. Many horses die as a result of this race, and their treatment too often involves torture. Australians are currently bifurcated into those who happily accept the Melbourne Cup and those who are morally appalled by it. Using history as our guide, the Melbourne Cup’s days are numbered.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

SHORTCOMING

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a story about a community rather than an individual, though the story focuses on a husband and wife, which makes sense because the angel arrives at their house.

The symbolism of names is important here. Pelayo is the Spanish form of Pelagius, which if you trace back far enough means “the sea”. This character is inextricably linked to his home by the sea. Elisenda is from Catalan — originally a Visigothic name meaning Temple and Path.

DESIRE

Pelayo and Elisenda do not want a scraggy old guy with wings in their yard. That is about the last thing they need, in the wake of all those crabs. They want their baby to get well. They want to live their simple lives in peace, without calamity, without crowds turning up to their chicken coop all the livelong day.

OPPONENT

The Opposition in this story is an excellent reminder that ‘Opponent‘ does not equal ‘Villain’. The opponent in a story is the character who stands in the way of the main characters’ Desire. In this case the Opponent is very much the victim of the main (viewpoint) characters (the villagers).

The angel is guised as a ragpicker — a person who collects and sells rags. In stories, characters tend to underestimate those dressed in rags. The Pied Piper is a classic example – pied meaning he was wearing clothes stitched together by lots of different rags, meaning that he was too poor to afford proper clothes. Yet the Pied Piper had the last laugh.

Perhaps because of this history, in which a dishevelled appearance so often belies intelligence, conniving and trickery, I expected this story to end differently. I expected the fallen angel to ‘win’, to take revenge upon the people who abused him rather than helped.

The angel is presented as a classic horror genre opponent. In horror, you can’t kill the baddie. It keeps coming back, even if it’s only one arm clawing its way along the floor.

PLAN

Pelayo and Elisenda ask the woman who knows things for advice. This woman is completely full of supernatural crap, but she’s established herself as Someone Wise, and people listen to her.

We can find contemporary analogues in anti-vaxxers, astrologists, conspiracy theorists and similar. There will always be people like this in every society, who position themselves as helpers and mentors as soon as science fails to explain new and disturbing phenomena.

BIG STRUGGLE

Which part of this story is the Battle? The scenes of abuse, with the angel trapped in the cage, are of course a big struggle of sorts. For storytelling purposes, the Battle scene is the part which leads to the Anagnorisis.

This is an interesting technique: The writer spends most of the story with characters engaged in a big struggle, but the death scene is very short. The Battle which kills the angel is presented to us as succinct narrative summary rather than as a dramatised sequence.

In fact, his death is presented to us as if in passing, underscoring how little respect was garnered by this celestial creature:

Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.

Why? Why not dramatise that scene for us? Wouldn’t it be spectacular, to see how a tarantula woman spiritually murders (‘crushes’) an angel? Well no, it would be grotesque.

  • The story is about the relationship between the humans and the angel — the tarantula is mainly brought in as a plot device
  • What I can imagine this scene looked like is probably far more fearsome than how anyone could’ve described a blow-by-blow account on the page
  • Unless writing for the action and thriller genres (and adjacent), an audience probably doesn’t even want a blow-by-blow description of a crushing.

ANAGNORISIS

When even the tarantula can’t get rid of the groteque angel completely, Elisenda realises she’ll just have to live with him.

Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if astro-biologists discovered life on another planet. Unless it was intelligent life who was coming for us all, I suspect we’d all be surprised for a while, but that the wonder would very soon wear off and we’d return to our regular infighting here on Earth, giving extraterrestrial lifeforms very little thought on a day-to-day basis, outside a small group of enthusiasts. We’d just take it for granted that it’s there, much like we take deep sea life for granted. I rarely give a thought to the alien-like creatures living deep in the Mariana Trench. If similar lifeforms were found beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, I’d probably watch a documentary on it, be fascinated for a while, then go back to my day-to-day life.

Because we can’t remain in awe forever, right? Awe is not an enduring emotion. If we felt it every day, it wouldn’t be ‘awe’.

NEW SITUATION

Having made money off him, Elisenda and Pelayo will live a nice life in their nice big mansion, having put the poor creature right out of their mind.

This is an active non-noticing. I believe we in the West are pretty good at active non-noticing. Our sports shoes are made by children living in slave conditions, but we choose not think of that when we walk out of the store wearing comfy new kicks. Almost everything we buy is unethical; but to not buy it is unrealistic. It’s impossible to buy an ethical mobile phone; it’s also impossible to log in to certain Australian government websites without one.

SEE ALSO

MAGICAL REALISM

Magical realism is a phrase that crops up a lot when discussing stories concerned with the manifestation of the supernatural in the context of everyday life. Our standout example of a magical realist writer is this very guy — Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What’s the difference between ‘fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’? A writer at The Millions puts it this way:

in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

Worth knowing: magical realism is a contentious label to apply to work which is not Latin American. You’ll find various opinions about whether we may call non-Latin American fiction magical realism, or whether we should instead stick to, say, ‘fabulism’ to describe other work with the same attributes but set elsewhere. There’s quite a lot to this debate.

An invasion of creatures is used in another ‘magical realist’ story — one by Keri Hulme — “King Bait”. That New Zealand story is also about the base, nasty nature of humankind, in that case greed, in this case selfishness, and our ability to dehumanise what is clearly human, or equivalently sentient.

KIDS CAN SEE THINGS ADULTS CAN’T

The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?

A well-known Australian picture book example of “children who notice things adults don’t” is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. A boy sees all sorts of weird machines everywhere. He even takes one home and his parents still don’t bat an eye. Commuters dressed in suits are wholly oblivious to the wonder all around them. The boy grows up and loses his ability to see these wondrous things, most of the time. But now and then he gets a glimpse of his former childish wonder.

What about in stories with no adults? Often in that case, when the author has dispatched with the adults, there’ll be a dog who can sense things the kids cannot. The kids will take the dog’s lead. The standout example from my own childhood is Timmy the dog from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.

Basically, the closer a character to its animalistic, unadulterated nature, the more useful they are in picking up on vibes more cerebral characters cannot. This is why, traditionally, girls have been used for this role more frequently than boys. Women give birth and menstruate and until very recently were consistently either giving birth or preparing to, across their entire adult lives. So women were more clearly ‘animal’ than men, who traditionally positioned themselves, and only themselves, closer to God. For 1000 odd pages on that idea see Women, Men and Morals by Marilyn French.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header photo by Raphael Bick

Cumulative Plots and The Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector

the fifth story clarice lispector

“The Fifth Story” (1964) is a work of microfiction by Ukraine-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). I tend to analyse short stories by looking at their dramatic arc, but what of a story like this? Surely “The Fifth Story” does not fit traditional ideas of what makes a complete narrative.

I also love when I read a story for adults which helps me to understand how children’s story works. (It more often works the other way, to be fair.)

If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.

Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

In understanding the strange narrative of “The Fifth Story” I’m guided by Jane Alison, who offers this story as an example of what she calls a ‘fractal’ narrative shape in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. (I’ve written a lot more about plot shapes in this post.)

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