The Leader of the People by John Steinbeck

The Leader of the People

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.

STORYWORLD 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.

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.

FAMILY DYNAMICS

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”

WEAKNESS/NEED

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.

DESIRE

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.

OPPONENT

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.

PLAN

Jody will encourage his grandfather to tell stories, then coax him into the mouse hunting game.

BATTLE

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.

SELF-REVELATION

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.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Everyone in this extended family has changed a little, and they’ll probably get along a little better now.

The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)

THE BLUE HOTEL stephen crane

“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica

I recently took a close look at “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield. By coincidence I came across “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, which is a similar case study in some respects:



  • Both stories almost feels like they’re going to turn into ghost stories
  • Because both of them make use of the Inn Of No Return trope
  • Both stories have been criticised — Crane’s for being didactic and Mansfield’s for feeling contrived.

“The Blue Hotel” is interesting from a storytelling point of view:

  • Should Crane have left off the final part? Would readers have been able to piece everything together had he left the ‘Three months later’ epilogue out?
  • What is Crane saying about the nature of fate? Another American short story great, Annie Proulx, is known for her fatalistic worldview. Crane seems the direct inverse — if the characters in this story had chosen to act just a little differently, in a kind of butterfly effect, the horrible events that pan out could have been averted. Perhaps. We all have our part to play in avoiding evil, and should act accordingly. Proulx offers no such life advice.
  • The fight scenes in “The Blue Hotel” read to me as excessively long. In the 1880s, before cinema, a blow-by-blow description of fights might have thrilled its audience. But now, reading detailed accounts of a fight feels to me, at least, like skimming over technical stage notes.
  • Crane chose not to name most of these characters — rather, he deliberately keeps them as archetypes. Even when a character is named e.g. “Johnnie”, he has the generic name of a white American boy. When writers choose not to name their characters, it’s sometimes because they don’t think a certain group is important enough to warrant naming. There are important political implications here. But sometimes it’s not because the writer is oblivious to the politics of no-name characters. As Donika DeShawn Ross explains:

“The Blue Hotel” provides us with an imperfect but useful schema for how not to read white manhood. The Swede repeatedly misreads the men at Scully’s hotel because he cannot see past his own assumptions about the West and the type of men who inhabit its forlorn spaces. He is fluent in myth rather than lived experience, and his expectations persist despite mounds of contradictory evidence.

Crane initially encourages readers to enact the same kind of misreading by refusing to name his characters beyond ethnicity, work, and region, which keeps the tone of the story at the register of a joke until the moment the Swede is murdered.

Reading Against Genre: Contemporary Westerns and the Problem of White Manhood by Donika DeShawn Ross (2013)

  • This Western story was written in the late 1800s, in the heyday of the Western plot. People of this era would have been very familiar with the symbolism. Westerns were all about world building. This all changed after the second world war, and almost every Western made since then has technically been ‘anti-Western‘, meaning it’s no longer about the glory of world building, but highlights the miseries of life as a pioneer, and of displaced peoples. What is this story, though? “The Blue Hotel” is Western genre only about as much as Hud is a Western — not at all. These are domestic stories which happen to include a cowboy. The action takes place mostly indoors. The stove, mentioned again and again, reminds us that these guys are sitting indoors in a cosy environment, safe from the threatening elements outdoors. That’s not very cowboy at all, really. “The Blue Hotel” is therefore its own kind of anti-Western, but not because it highlights the miseries of cowboy life — because it nevertheless punishes (with death) a character who subscribes uncritically to the myth of the dangerous West.
  • “The Blue Hotel” is the story of a character who has been negatively, melodramatically influenced by the media he reads — dime novel Westerns, to the point where he can’t see the reality of the situation. This gives “The Blue Hotel” a metafictive quality.

Here is the full story of “The Blue Hotel“, annotated with my own notes.

Hud Film Study

Hud poster

Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.

 Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later. 

  • Both are films based on novels
  • Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
  • They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
  • Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
  • Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
  • The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
  • While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
  • Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)

Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.

Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.

Vulture

Genre Blend

Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.

At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:

BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?

RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.

Michigan Quarterly Review

The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:

  • It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
  • It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
  • It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.

On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.

  • A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
  • It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
  • There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
  • There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
  • Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.

Setting Of Hud

Place

Hud opens with various pan shots of a small, rural town. This is the fictional Texas town of Thalia, based on the small town where Larry McMurtry grew up, surrounded by uncles like the men in this story. The Last Picture Show was also set in Thalia. 

hud railway crossing
Almost every small town has a railway crossing, but could this be symbolic? Crossroads symbolise changes to come, and suggest an imminent and major moral dilemma.
Time

The grandfather is old enough to have lived through The Great Depression as an adult, and knows exactly how it goes down when cattle have to be slaughtered.

 For the people living in the mid 20th century, war was a big part of their lives and influenced everything. They were never free from the threat of it, even after the second World War had passed. Here’s another similarity to Deliverance: the images of war in what is technically a non-war movie.

Hud war scene
Men line a trench full of cattle, slaughtering them en masse.

The story opens at the height of summer. It’s six in the morning and bright as midday. When the story ends it is still the end of summer, but dog days. The stench of the dead cattle would have been intense. Summer isn’t all about fun in the sun. For characters in stories, summer is a vulnerable time. In the summer, characters exist in:

 

  1. a troubled, vulnerable state or
  2. in a world of freedom susceptible to attack

Summer stands in symbolically for an snail under the leaf setting.

Characters Of Hud

Character Functions

While Hud Bannon (34 years old) is the title character of the film adaptation, I suspect the change in title is to do with the superstar crowd-drawing power of Paul Newman. The title of the novel suggests this is mainly the story of the old man. The ‘horseman’ of Horseman, Pass By would refer to Hud’s father, Homer, who is strongly connected to horses as a symbol of his tie to nature and simple needs.

“Horseman, Pass By, ” on which the film “Hud” is based, tells the story of Homer Bannon, an old-time cattleman who epitomizes the frontier values of honesty and decency, and Hud, his unscrupulous stepson.

— advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

The old man’s tie to his horses contrasts with Hud’s pink Cadillac. Elvis Presley had a 1955 Pink Cadillac, cementing that car as the vehicle of choice for rock and roll wannabes and men-about-town. Because the film is black and white, we are told several times at the very beginning that this is a ‘pink’ Cadillac. A showy colour for a small town farmer.

Hud in his pink cadillac
Symbolically linked to Hud, the Cadillac suffers damage by the final scene, caused by Hud himself, of course, ramming into his nephew’s vehicle.

Most Interesting Character: While Hud is a fascinating character, he is not the viewpoint/focalising character. We know a lot about Hud before we meet him. His nephew is looking for him, and the camera follows Lonny. Despite having lived in Thalia his whole life, Lonny’s function is similar to that of ‘the new guy in town’, because he is embarking on the new-to-him adult world that Thalia might offer. We follow Lonny as he tracks down Hud’s iconic car and then the woman’s shoe on the path, functioning like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs leading Lonny to his uncle.

Characters We Like The Most: We sympathise with Homer, who is a good man in a horrible situation. We also sympathise with the witty, attractive and world-wise Alma, especially when we learn more of her backstory, and see her sexually assaulted.

Viewpoint Character: Lonnie is the viewpoint character, obvious from the camera work in the film, but even more so in the novel, in which Lonny is the first person narrator. This is unusual for Larry McMurtry, who mostly wrote in third person. McMurtry has been accused of ‘head hopping’ but I disagree with that — instead, McMurtry probably switched to third person because he really wanted to move in and out of different characters’ heads. For me, he does it seamlessly, writing more like a novelist of the mid twentieth century than like a novelist of today, admittedly, where close third person point of view is the rule.

Off-stage CharactersOftentimes, the characters who are missing from a story are nonetheless significant. Homer’s wife, Lonny’s mother and Hud’s older brother have all died, leaving these three men to form some semblance of family. For Alma, her missing character is her terrible ex-husband. The dead and missing family function as ‘ghosts‘ to the living (also known as the psychic wound).

Characters As Symbols For Ideas

When Larry McMurtry’s classic novel of the post-World War II era was originally published in 1961, it created a sensation in Texas literary circles. Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways.

— advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

Old West in conflict with the New (mid 20th century) West. It’s not hard to fathom which character in this trio of men represents the Old West and which represents The New.

We sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed—which, of course, fully blossomed in the ‘eighties and the ‘nineties. So we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.

— Screenwriter, Ravetch

Why Writers Can’t Trust Audiences

No matter how obvious you are.

Does this remind anyone else of the popular reaction to King of Assholes, Walter White?

FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the “charming” villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem—even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.

BAER: It actually backfired.

RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man—Hud—who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbors poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, “Which character did you most admire?” and many of them answered, “Hud.” We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.

Michigan Quarterly Review

Stark Good and Evil

While Lonnie is our more nuanced guide throughout this story, there’s nothing at all subtle about the goodness of Homer versus the amorality of Hud. The writing lesson from that: Don’t be afraid to overdo it. We are left in no doubt as to the nature of Hud:

  • He has been in a brawl the night before, breaking a shopkeeper’s window
  • He drives a big flashy car
  • He’s spent the night sleeping with another man’s wife
  • When the woman’s husband turns up he immediately blames his nephew
  • He doesn’t want the government involved in the business of the sick cow, even though it would be unneighbourly and environmentally tragic to ignore the foot and mouth disease.
  • “Sometimes I lean to one side of [the law], sometimes I lean to the other.” Hud tells the audience his philosophy of life. 
  • “How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints you end up with Abraham Lincoln.”

That’s just the first ten minutes. In contrast, Homer is a wonderful human being:

  • He has concern for the health of his livestock as well as concern for the environment
  • He does what is right and legal despite it ruining him
  • He doesn’t blame Hud for the death of his other son, even though it was probably Hud’s fault (we see him driving)
  • He is kind to Alma “It’s no reflection on your cooking Alma, I just don’t seem to have much appetite.”
  • Black birds sitting in a gothically spindly tree are foreboding. Hud is bothered by he buzzards and shoots them away with his gun. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Hud. They keep the country clean.”
  • “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud.”/“Don’t let that fuss you, I mean you got enough for both of us.”

Homer has just learnt his entire livelihood hangs in the balance but he goes to the picture theatre with his grandson. The image of Homer singing loudly to the tragicomic song Oh My Darling Clementine is one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching for me, even worse than the slaughter of the cows, which is memorable but we know that’s coming.

Hud Movie Theater Sing-a-Long

The Romantic Subplot

Though this is a love tragedy rather than a romance or a love story, Alma’s existence shows us how Hud would treat a wife if he had one. For Lonnie, Alma is both a motherly and a sexual figure simultaneously — a hard thing to pull off without it being super creepy. This relationship Lonnie has with Alma shows the age Lonnie is at — still young enough to need a mother figure but old enough to be looking at women with sexual interest.

Larry McMurtry write women very well, considering he’s a man. Women do a lot of crying (though not Alma), and he does love women who go without shoes. He tends to write the same character over and over — Alma is a different outworking of Clara Allen in the Lonesome Dove series and of Molly Taylor in Leaving Cheyenne. (By the way, Leaving Cheyenne is the third novel in what’s known as McMurtry’s Southwest Landmark series — Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show are the other books set in the same place at around the same time, linking together by their shared setting.)

Added to McMurtry’s understanding of women, the screenplay was written by a husband and wife team, which explains why the character of Alma is so well-drawn, so rounded and relatable.  The screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr met while working at MGM and had also collaborated on The Long Hot Summer (1958). After Hud, they wrote Hombre, Norma Rae, The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs and others. As you can probably tell, they were a good fit for Paul Newman.

Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr

My main point is that a woman on the writing team leads to better female characterisation. Every single time. A rounded character is especially important here, given the sexual assault scenes. When women are assaulted by men but are given no stories of their own, the violence feels egregious and exploitative.

What makes Alma ’rounded’?

  • Alma has her own ghost — a former husband, a gambler, abusive. She’s had trouble with unwanted sexual contact in the past. She’s basically had to run away from her old life and thought she’d found a new family with these three men.
  • Alma has her own shortcoming — she’s in a vulnerable position as paid employee, but more than that, she finds Hud attractive despite knowing how terrible he is.
  • She has her own anagnorisis — the only way she can overcome her toxic almost-relationship with Hud is by removing herself entirely.

 

Story Structure Of Hud

Hud is an excellent example of a story driven by a strong moral dilemma. All the best stories have a moral dilemma at some point, but in this particular story the moral dilemma is central. Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘moral dilemma’. You need a moral dilemma for good narrative:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

— Donald Maass

In other words, dilemmas are a day-to-day thing but moral dilemmas are super big, important problems faced only by the unlucky few. Most of us never had to kill our entire livestock. Most of us never have to choose between keeping a son or a daughter (as in Sophie’s Choice).

John Truby in Anatomy of Story recommends setting up a mystery near the beginning of a story. More specifically, the mystery is step seven of his 22-step story structure, alongside setting up your opponent. Truby thinks of ‘mystery’ and ‘opponent’ as inextricably linked because:

1. A mysterious opponent is more difficult to defeat. In average stories, the hero’s only task is to defeat the opponent. In good stories, the hero has a two-part task: uncover the opponent and then defeat him/her. This makes the hero’s job doubly difficult and his/her success a far greater accomplishment. For example, Hamlet doesn’t know that the king really killed his father, because he heard it from a ghost. Othello doesn’t know that Lago wants to bring him down. Lear doesn’t know which daughter really loves him.

2. In certain kinds of stories, like detective and thriller, there must be a mystery to compensate for a missing opponent. Since detective stories purposely hide the opponent until the end, the audience needs something to replace an ongoing conflict between hero and opponent. In this kind of story, you introduce a mystery at about the time you would normally introduce the main opponent.

— Anatomy of Story

As an alternative way of thinking about mystery comes from Karl Iglesias. In his book Writing For Emotional Impact, Iglesias recommends the following breakdown for creating mystery around characters:

1.Create a mysterious past

Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.

2. Create a mysterious present

Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires.

This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.

3. Create a mysterious future

What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?

— Writing For Emotional Impact

Check, check and check.

Hud’s mysterious past: He was responsible for killing his brother in a car wreck. He emerged without a scratch on himself. Turns out Hud is also a war veteran, though he did his darnedest to evade conscription. We never hear what happened to Hud during the war, but it wouldn’t have been great. So there’s his mysterious past (from Lonny’s point of view.)

The mysterious present is the question sustaining the length of the story: Do the cows have foot and mouth disease (we know that they do, because this is a story)

More interesting is Hud’s mysterious future: What is Hud going to do about this tragedy, given as how he’s such an unscrupulous asshole?

Other writers think in terms of ghost/psychic wound, setting up questions, rewarding with reveals.

It’s clear that the character function of Hud is as The Mysterious Character holding our interest. But is it really Hud who is facing the story-worthy moral dilemma? Ostensibly yes, but I’d describe Hud as I’d describe Donald Trump — this is a man whose morality was set long ago, and he’s on his own path. It’s up to everyone else around him to decide which way they roll. It is Lonnie who faces the moral dilemma of the ‘wrapper story’ — the metadiegetic level of story in which he comes to his anagnorisis at the end of the level zero story of the foot and mouth summer, but finishes his processing of it only after retelling. Lonnie must decide whether he’s going to stick by his uncle, becoming more and more like him, or set out on his own, risking everything he has left. The moral decision had by Lonnie is gradual rather than sudden. He doesn’t start the story knowing what’s right and wrong. At first Lonnie sits between Hud and his grandfather — Hud wants to sell bad stock to their neighbours; Homer wants to do the lawful thing, and Lon’s middle-of-the-road suggestion is that they turn the cattle loose. In case the audience is in any doubt about this: “You’re going to have to make up your own mind one day, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” says the grandfather to Lonny after the big struggle of words on the stairs. 

Does Hud have his own anagnorisis? If he does, it’s a surface-level realisation that he’s losing people But this is not enough to make him change. He apologises to Alma only because he’s losing her, not because he’s discovered some truth about himself and life, the universe and everything. The tragedy of Hud is that he does not change. Hud is a precursor to Don Draper, having small, almost imperceptible revelations that don’t add up to much.

Hud says goodbye to Alma

Opposition Web

The big, bad monster looming over this network of characters is the foot and mouth disease, personified by The Government, who are required to come in and kill their livestock.

Then we have a web of opposition between:

  • Hud and Homer
  • Hud and Alma (romantic opponents, morphing into abuser/abused relationship)
  • Hud and Lonnie (annoying young one, cramping the stud’s style)
  • Lonnie and Alma (between motherly interaction and sexual tension)
The Battle Sequence 

Every complete narrative needs a big struggle sequence.

In a story lacking a big big struggle (e.g. a war scene, a natural disaster, a big bad baddie descending on the group) you often get an image of a big struggle, connected to the main plot only symbolically. In Hud we have the pig fight in which Hud manages to adeptly catch a squealing pig. This allows Alma to say, “I’ll stay home. I don’t like pigs,” right after she’s turned Hud down for the second time (and presumably more times than that). It also gives us a good feel for the smalltown rural vibe – this is a very hick kind of entertainment. Hud is very good at catching pigs. This is a guy with skills, such as they are. The sport of pig catching also requires the switching off of empathy because I’m sure the pigs don’t like it, though that may be a personal response, borne of suburbia.

During the contamination experiment with the outside cow Lon is kicked in the head and is knocked out. He throws up. We now know that this can be a sign of brain damage. Hud doesn’t think Lon needs the doctor, though Alma does.

The pig fight foreshadows the brawl Hud enjoys getting into with the man in the bar. The men here are reduced to fighting pigs, fighting over nothing of consequence. Indeed, the men are set up to win. The pigs have no chance.

Lonny exchanges glances with a man’s daughter and enjoys the thrill of the subsequent barroom brawl as much as Hud does. At this point the nephew could swing either way, morally. On the cusp of manhood, he could let go of principles like Hud or he could hold onto them, like his grandfather. Even at this late point, we’re not sure what Lonnie’s going to do.

The main big struggle, the third one of the night, is the one that Hud finally loses. This ghost of Hud’s guilt at killing his own brother is used as a big reveal, though it’s basically been telegraphed earlier when Homer tells the boys to be careful and Hud hands Lonnie the keys. Hud learns that the grandfather was sick of him a long time before the car accident. It’s Hud, as a person, because he ‘doesn’t give a damn’, not because of something he did. This is the rule of threes in storytelling at work. The third big big struggle leads to the real wound. Compared to these words, the fisticuffs was just play fighting. The ironic distance between the level of physicality and the quietness of the conversation on the stairs works well as juxtaposition.

Self-Revelation

Homer has a anagnorisis before he dies — that he can’t win against his stronger, less principled son. Evil wins out.

Hud has superficial revelations, never changing.

Alma realises she has to leave physically if she wants to move on psychologically.

Lonnie realises he can’t stay with Hud:

“We might have whooped it up, you and me. That’s the way you used to want it.”

“I used to.”

New Equilibrium  

The film uses the symbolism of doors and windows — Hud gazes at his nephew driving away, chuffing a smoke and swigging on a beer. These vices will probably play an increasing role in his life. He waves dismissively and slams the door, slamming not just the door but also punctuating the relationship he had with anyone.

The extrapolated ending? We’ve been given enough information to know he’s going to get rich drilling into oil on their land. He will be wealthy but completely alone for the rest of his sorry life, damaged from the car accident, from the war, from toxic smalltown masculinity, from rejection from his father, from the death of his mother (“at least my mother loved me”) and rejection from his nephew protege. 

Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story
Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the setting seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”

[…]

Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far to anything. Someone had to come for her. There was not even the solace of television, for old Red dominated the controls, always choosing Westerns, calling out to the film horses in his broken voice, “Buck him off, kick his brains out!”

We naturally settle on Ottaline as the main character of this story, even though it’s really about an entire family. She’s the last to be introduced for starters, and there’s a certain power which comes with being the ultimate.

There aren’t many women in the Close Range collection — Annie Proulx was mainly writing about men at this time. Ottaline is the third and most hard-working child of this ranch family — in true fairytale style the last of three (usually sons) is rewarded. But first she is put through the mill:

Most of the women depicted by Proulx […] have low self-esteem and very few illusions about life, being used to isolation, abuse, heavy drinking, cheating, domestic violence, taboos, and unwanted pregancies. […] However, Proulx’s stories also bring to the foreground a few strong-willed women getting out of marriages gone sour, suggesting that if you can’t leave Wyoming, you can always leave an ill-suited husband. […] Ottaline’s mother also provides an example of resistance as she warns her father in law: “Keep your dirty old prong from my girls or I’ll pour boilin water on it.”

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline’s problem is that she is heavy set and for both self-driven and culturally-driven reasons this puts her on the sidelines as far as the marriage market is concerned. This body weight acts in a modern story as a disfigurement or magic spell might in a fairytale — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are unconscious; Cinderella and the heroine of Beauty and the Beast are poor (but their beauty eventually redeems them); Rapunzel is hidden away; witches are old and ugly. There’s always some reason in a fairytale why women can’t just go forth and find a man if they want one. Ottaline’s weight is presented as a kind of grotesque, represented in other narratives by gargoyles and chimeras. The grotesque is a feature of gothic literature.

As miserable Ottaline turns for company to her scanner, which allows her to capture disjointed bits of other people’s cell phone conversations, her eavesdropping similarly may point to Annie Proulx’s ventriloquist tales. As the writer explains, she herself is “a good eavesdropper,” who likes to “listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats,” to “catch fragments of conversations and fill in the blanks. Indeed, her highly heteroglossic short stories feed on recuperated sociolects, myths, and discourses in a way that brings her readers to reflect upon the polyphony and intertextuality worked into her texts, and wonder at the artful recycling in her poetic yet violent and crude stories.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

 

DESIRE

Annie Proulx doesn’t even want fairytale happy endings for her female characters and this has been foreshadowed earlier with Ottaline’s treatment of the tractor.

While crafting female characters nearly systematically doomed to a tragic downfall, Proulx deconstructs traditional fairy tales so as to pinpoint the noxious power of the Prince Charming and happy ending archetypes. Indeed, many of her short narratives may read as subversive rewriting of old folktales and fairy tales, showing awareness of the potency of storytelling. […] Like Ottaline conversing with the enamored talking tractor, Proulx’s fiction implies that one should be wary of false expectations inherited from stories passed on to little girls: “‘Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty old toad sleep in her shoe and in the morning the toad’s a good-looking dude making omelettes?'” The ironic, self-referential metalepsis draws attention to the patrimony of fairy tales and folktales which Proulx’s stories often tap into.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Metalepsis = a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. This is an example metalepsis because the reader knows how things go in fairytales — the girl isn’t meant to expect a handsome prince. She’s meant to be disgusted by the frog and be utterly surprised later.

So Ottaline doesn’t want a fairytale romance. What does she want? Satisfying sex (not with the off-again, on-again farmhand), and a stable life.

Her only chance seemed the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man, Hal Bloom, tall legs like chopsticks, T-shirt emblazoned Aggressive by Nature, Cowboy by Choice. He worked for Aladdin in short bursts between rodeo roping, could not often be pried off his horse (for he cherished a vision of himself as an 1870s cowboy just in from an Oregon cattle drive). Ottaline had gone with him down into the willow a dozen times, to the damp soil and nests of stinging nettles, where he pulled a pale condom over his small, hard penis and crawled silently into her. His warm neck smelled of soap and horse.

Being a woman, she’s liable to be turfed out at some point if the handling of the farm turns to her wayward brother.

OPPONENT

The natural order of society stands in Ottaline’s way. Patrimony, societal (and internalised) rejection of her heft. But these things don’t make for interesting opponents in a fleshed out narrative.

Her father keeps her locked up in the rural equivalent of a castle:

It is implied that her father, only too happy that one of his two daughters should fill in for the son who has deserted the ranch, treacherously keeps her from going to town to get a job and fires Hal Bloom, “the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man” whom desperate Ottaline, in spite of her obvious lack of attraction to him, had perceived as her “only chance” to ever get away from the family ranch.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

We have the farmhand who is an example of a man she could easily end up with — someone who coerces her into unsatisfying sex and who has no prospects.

Then we have the ‘monster’ (in the Courage The Cowardly Dog sense) who arrives suddenly from outside this established community — here it comes in the form of a talking tractor, though I read this tractor as Ottaline’s own awakening, perhaps provoked by her hobby of listening in on other people’s conversations on her scanner.

PLAN

Ottaline has an anti-plan in this ironic, subversive story. She will plant herself right where she is, thanks. There is a narrative reason for her heft. She is grounded to this land. Instead, when things happen to go her way, it’s luck. If she had any hand in things at all, it’s because she learned to put her foot down and not accept any crap from ‘the tractor’ (ie. men who treat her badly).

Luck is the thing. Proulx introduces the stochastic nature of things in the very first paragraph, a paragraph which looks at first glance like a simple description of setting:

The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.

Ottaline’s plan thus far has been to shun feminine skills in favour of masculine ones, hoping to stay on the farm I guess:

With a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank,” grotesquely obese Ottaline in “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World” quickly shuns feminine attires and house chores, opting instead for ranch work with her father, “manure-caked roper boots” and “big jeans”. As a result, she is tragically even more cut off from the rest of the world. 

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

BATTLE

Ottaline’s internal big struggle with the patriarchy takes place astride the tractor:

Ottaline turns out to be one of Proulx’s subversive tools, as her rebellion against the wannabe prince turns the tables on gender stereotypes. Indeed, the scene in which Ottaline fixes the tractor contains innuendos pointing to the implicit subtext of sexual empowerment:

She had bought a can of penetrating oil with her and began to squirt it on studs, bolts and screws, to rap on the rested colts with a heavy wrench.

“You make a wrong move I might hurt you.”

“You know what? I was you I’d lay back and enjoy it.” Something Hal Bloom had said.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline is brought to her knees in terms of bad fortune when her father gets her to bring a buyer in for the cattle.

SELF-REVELATION

The ‘twist’ (revelation) for the reader comes when the cattle buyer’s son comes instead. There’s an instant connection (a ‘love at first sight’ fairytale trope?) and Ottaline marries the son, thereby keeping the cattle.

What’s the revelation? Luck can turn on a dime, but in both directions.

It turned the other way for Aladdin, who is killed instantly in his new plane.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

They ‘plant’ (bury) Aladdin on the farm and Ottaline runs the ranch with her new husband.

Like Charles Perrault did with his fairytales, Annie Proulx offers an extra bit to make sure the reader gets the point of the telling. Though unlike in those misogynistic, didactic tales, Proulx has a much less romanticised view on life:

That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Tits Up In A Ditch” is another story by Annie Proulx conveying a deep disregard for fairy-tale romance. It starts a bit like a fairy tale but events for Dakotah turn tragic.

There are also strong parallels with “The Mud Below”:

Ottaline grows up on her parents’ ranch, “adrift on the high plain” where “the wind isolate[s] them from the rest of the world.” As she starts having conversations with an amorous talking John Deere tractor, the story suggests that pathetic Ottaline has gradually  been driven insane, out of line, by the “raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh”: “Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far for anything. Someone had to come for her.” For some of Proulx’s characters, marriage is definitely presented as the least worse off option, the only way to rise from “the mud below” as one of the short story titles has it.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Tractors must be a very real worry to farmers. Here in Australia, some groups are wanting the law to change around four-wheeler use in children. In fiction, too the tractor or farm vehicle is quite regularly used as a means of death. Reese Witherspoon’s debut film featured a death by tractor.

John Cheever wrote a magical realist story about someone listening in on other people’s conversations — “The Enormous Radio” — though this lead to a family’s downfall, not to a woman’s awakening.

Ottaline reminds me a little of Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s best-known short stories (“Prelude”, “At The Bay”), but she really describes any unmarried woman from late 19th, early 20th century literature, enjoying fantasies in her own bedroom but due to failure in finding a marriage partner, can never become a fully-fledged member of society.

“The Bunchgrass End Of The World” reminded me at times of a documentary I watched once about men who fall in love, romantically and sexually, with cars. Because I’d seen that, I wondered if that’s where the story was going.