Symbolism of Birds

VERNEUIL, Maurice Pillard (1869-1942). L'Animal dans la décoration. Paris- Librairie centrale des Beaux-arts, [1897] Birds Snails

Birds are much older than we are — living dinosaurs. Across cultures, birds function as smart collaborators with humans. We now know how smart (some) birds really are, but we have long had a sense of their canniness. The smartest bird in the world is currently thought to be the New Zealand Kea, which isn’t so great if you live in New Zealand and the kea is chewing the bits of rubber off your car.

New Zealand’s kakapo is also a bit of a… character.

BIRDS AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS

Birds are frequently utilised in tales of transmogrification. Wings are frequently stuck onto chimerae. This surely has something to do with humans’ long-held wish-fulfilment fantasy of being able to fly.

Take the Ancient Greek mythological siren.

Bird symbolism in the Greek imagination was common. Reverse-engineering the meaning of all these story-birds isn’t easy. For instance, we’ll never know for sure why Sirens took the form of a hybrid bird-woman, but we do know that in ancient mythology birds represented a number of things:

  • oracles
  • enchantresses
  • messengers of deities
  • mediators (between the human world and the supernatural realm)

Over the centuries, however, the Siren transformed. In the Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the Siren morph from a bird-woman into a fish-bodied being, who personified the dangers of both the sea and female sexuality. The seventh-century medieval bestiary Liber monstruorum diversis generibus, or the “Book of Monsters,” is one of the earliest examples of this transition, describing Sirens as sea-girls who “are like human beings from the head to the navel, with the body of a maiden, but have scaly fish tails, with which they always lurk in the sea.” Illustrations from the period clearly reveal the difference; the Sirens now have voluptuous bodies, perform erotic moves, and exhibit brazen tactics of seduction, such as staring longingly into mirrors and combing their hair. These Sirens no longer symbolized the spirit, but rather, the pleasures of the flesh.

Vice
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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel Analysis

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

In the classroom, Lobel’s picture book would make a good companion to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To The Moon“. Owl At Home would also make a good introduction to discussions about the theme of loneliness, present in a great many works.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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Wheel On The Chimney by Wise Brown and Gergely 1954

Wheel On The Chimney

If you haven’t read Wheel On The Chimney (1954) by Margaret Wise Brown and Tibor Gergely, the Internet Archive has a video of a man reading it, against a backdrop of the most unsettling, grating, unpleasant muzak you’ve heard in your life.

Worse, this retro children’s story evinces a troubling conflation between blackness and villainy which publishers more commonly avoid in contemporary children’s books.

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Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, functioning mainly as a character study.

Chris Lilley’s hipster-ironic comedy techniques have been criticised for enforcing stereotypes rather than critiquing them. That said, Mansfield’s Mr Reginald Peacock reminds me very much of Chris Lilley’s high school drama teacher, and I consider Mr G. the modern Australian equivalent of this very old archetype: The youngish white man who considers himself sensitive, unappreciated, entitled and artistic, solipsistically the star of his own show, and wholly unable to empathise with others.

Mansfield’s Reginald Peacock has a clearly symbolic name, and so do other characters in this short story.

This post will be sprinkled with peacock art, because peacocks were once very fashionable in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Mansfield would have been surrounded by peacocks in fashion and in art. The peacock is still widely understood as a symbol of vanity, which is pretty unfair to peacocks, who are born with their magnificent plumage, and who don’t get to mate unless they strut and rattle their trains.

by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 - 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919 peacock
by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 – 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919
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Wait Till The Moon Is Full by Wise Brown and Williams Analysis

Wait Till the Moon Is Full is a 1948 picture book written by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams. The story has carnivalesque elements, a gentle utopian storyline and a well-drawn mother figure, who is safe and warm but who also joins her son in his imaginative play.

This picture book is a perfect going-to-bed story because of its poetic elements. For this reason it has been produced as an audio play. It works even without illustrations.

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The Crows of Pearblossom by Huxley and Cooney Analysis

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967

The Crows of Pearblossom is a 1967 picture book written by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and first illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000). This story was published after Huxley’s death. He originally wrote it in 1944 for the specific audience of his niece.

The Crows of Pearblossom was much more recently re-illustrated by contemporary children’s illustrator Sophie Blackall, so has obviously found its audience. But I first encountered this story described as ‘ an odd little book for children’. I’m always interested in ‘odd little books’ because aren’t all books for children inherently odd? They’re wacky, they’re carnivalesque, they contain unique, resonant imagery, and the best of them see the world through the eyes of a three-year-old. And three year olds live on a different planet. So what makes some children’s books feel ‘odd’ while others feel…. ‘expected’?

Being ‘an odd little book’, I expected something like Meal One by Ivor Cutler, which is truly wacko in a wonderful way, but in fact Huxley’s story reminds me of little known Australian picture book The Cider Duck by Joan Woodberry because the climax involves animal cruelty of the sort that I wouldn’t expect today. Especially in Australia, perhaps, cruelty to a snake is a big no-no. If we find a snake in our yard we are required to call animal protection, who then remove the snake. Snakes are not killed.

I find The Crows of Pearblossom uncomfortable for another reason entirely, and that’s the display of misogyny. Did Huxley realise it was there? 1944 was an overtly misogynistic era. Perhaps someone more familiar with Huxley can answer that one.

Huxley aside, my personal reaction leads to another interesting question: In order to critique an idea the storyteller must first show it. I’m clear on that. But in stories for children, to what extent must we critique a bad bit of culture? We no longer accept overtly didactic stories for children, and modern efforts which teach lessons are considered old fashioned.

However, this old-fashioned form of didacticism may have been replaced with what is simply an updated version: The expectation that any sexism/racism/ableism and so on is remedied or somehow addressed by the end of the story, partly as a way to signal to the audience that, no, the storyteller is not themselves sexist/racist/ableist. Most gatekeepers of children’s literature seem to accept that children are not tabula rasa in the sense that they will ape the bad behaviour of the Horrible Henrys of children’s literature, but do remain uncomfortable with children’s book which are as sexist, racist and ableist as the real world.

I happen to be in that camp myself, by the way. This is because anything ending in -ism is ‘the water we swim in’. Unless stories point it out somehow, -isms will continue to thrive in the worst possible way invisibly.

SETTING OF THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM

  1. PERIOD — This story could take place anywhere, anytime, but The Crows of Pearblossom could only have been written in an era prior to collective consciousness about animal cruelty and protection.
  2. DURATION — This is unclear, though we can assume the main action takes place over a week or so. The story calls back to a long-running pattern of a snake consistently, routinely, stealing a bird’s eggs.
  3. LOCATION — In a tree, we might guess a pear tree from the title, but it’s actually a cottonwood tree. ‘Pearblossom’ sounds like something out of Foxwood tales, an anthropomorphised animal utopia, but if that’s your expectation going in, prepare to be a little taken aback.
  4. ARENA — Cooney’s illustrations are spot illustrations only, which is unusual for Cooney, whose later full spreads are gorgeous. (See Miss Rumphius, for instance.) Even when the crow and the owl visit a house, we see only the top of a chimney. The effect of this is interesting: There’s no sense of an ‘arena’, but rather a sense of connected spaces which we cannot (and need not) place spatially in our heads.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — Chimneys in children’s stories are starting to really fascinate me for how they are used metonymically to stand for human habitation. We see only a chimney, not a full house.
When Blackall illustrated Huxley’s story she expanded the story arena. She also cartoonified the characters and the nest is comically, adorably, like a little doll house. The mid-20th century equivalent of this was for illustrators to create more naturalistic animals but put them in clothes, which was comical because of the ‘hat on a dog‘ juxtaposition.
  1. NATURAL SETTINGS — Likewise, in Cooney’s version, we see only a branch of the cottonwood tree, not the full tree. This is an interesting choice because after reading a bit about birds, this is very much not how birds see the world. (I also know from my daily walks that birds, well, magpies, see everything. In this country they swoop you.) I can believe that insects see their world in macro, but evidence suggests birds have a far better grasp of an overall landscape than humans do, and better eyesight, too.
  1. WEATHER — The environment of this story is devoid of weather events. This is in line with your typical utopia, in which weather is sometimes exciting but never calamitous.
  2. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
  3. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — We don’t know what’s going on in the wider world of the story. The conflict is entirely between characters, one of whom is more clearly animal (the snake is snakey), the other is more anthropmorphised (the birds is unfortunately human enough for her offspring to require nappies).
The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CROWS OF PEARBLOSSOM

PARATEXT

I doubt this picture book would have found longevity (or publication) without the platform of the author as a writer for adults, so the later version of this story reminds adult buyers on the front cover that this is by the author of Brave New World.

Written in 1944 by Aldous Huxley as a Christmas gift for his niece, The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, who live in a cottonwood tree. The hungry Rattlesnake that lives at the bottom of the tree has a nasty habit of stealing Mrs. Crow’s eggs before they can hatch, so Mr. Crow and his wise friend, Old Man Owl, devise a sneaky plan to trick him. 

This funny story of cleverness triumphing over greed, similar in tone and wit to the work of A. A. Milne, shows a new side of a great writer.

marketing copy

I disagree that this work is similar to that of A.A. Milne, whose 100 Acre Wood is a genuine utopia, where no one is gendered, despite the reflexive male coding of everyone. The similarity is the existence of the sage owl. That’s about it.

SHORTCOMING

Who is the main character in this story? There isn’t one — it’s the story of a small group of animals.

The female crow is initially presented as the clear victim, though the peacock feather stuck in her modest hat suggests she has big ideas above her station. (A Hyacinth Bouquet archetype.) Every day she goes out to do the shopping, and when she returns her precious fertilised egg has been eaten by the snake.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967

But despite being the victim of serial… and I do mean serial… infanticide, the shortcomings of Mrs Crow are substantial. This is reflected in both the text and the illustrations. You’ll be familiar with this bossy housewife trope from other stories. To take another example, Larry McMurtry uses her to comical effect in Lonesome Dove, with the character of Peach.

Here she is, introduced in full comedic form:

Peach at least wrings a rooster’s neck her own self. A more annoying version of the same archetype is Sybil of Fawlty Towers. In the very first scene, Sybil ‘nags’ her husband. She’s asking the impossible: She’s asking him to carry out a maintenance task, and every time he starts, she requires him to do something with the menus. This poor, hapless husband can’t win.

Lonesome Dove and The Crows of Pearblossom are different genres for different audiences, but the trope is identical: A white woman exacts retributive justice via the male characters in her life, and she persuades them to do this with veiled insults about him being insufficiently manly if he does not do her bidding. In contemporary lingo, this MO is an inherent part of the ‘Karen’: powerful tool of the patriarchy. The difference between a man exacting vengeance and a woman persuading a man to exact vengeance is clear: The audience is always, always more sympathetic to the person who at least has ‘the balls’ to go in and do the hard work himself. Audiences rarely sympathise en masse with the Peaches and the Mrs Crows of narrative.

There is also some body size issues going on with this one, with fat women coded as bossy wives, and I can’t even be bothered with that. I’m so tired of it.

Recall, too, the violent reactions directed at Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White in Breaking Bad. It’s all part and parcel.

the reason men are always surprised when their unhappy wives leave them is because they’ve been brought up to EXPECT her to be unhappy. Now I can’t stop seeing the ‘unhappy wife’ trope everywhere.

Sofie Hagen on Twitter 7:32 PM · Jul 29, 2021

DESIRE

Here is Mrs Crow of Pearblossom, mouth open, eyes shut. The visuals are clear: She wants her husband to kill the snake. She is all talk, but blind to the fact that she’s asking a lot of the (smaller) male crow. By this point in the story, any sympathy for her has evaporated, by design.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967

Yet the rules of masculinity are so strong, that these male characters always seem to do her bidding. Audiences, conservative in consumption, are not expected to question this part.

OPPONENT

The snake is typically snakelike. If you’ve ever kept poultry in Australia you’ll know that the snake’s MO is to sniff out a coop and camp out nearby, enjoying eggs daily. The chickens and their eggs belong to the snake now, until you get rid of the snake (or the goanna).

Sympathy transfers away from the female crow to the male crow, who looks appropriately terrified at the prospect of killing the Minotaur of this story — the snake.

PLAN

Audiences also empathise with tricksters rather than with heroes who go straight in to battle without a clever plan.

In traditional mythic fashion, the male crow of Pearblossom finds a fairytale mentor, in the form of an owl. Twentieth century children’s stories frequently utilised owls as the sage archetype. (A.A. Milne spoofed the trope.) Sure enough, the owl has an idea, but this plan will work. The owl and the husband crow will trick the snake by making fake eggs (basically the poisoning trick) and painting them to look exactly like Mrs Crow’s eggs.

William Hunt's Bird's Nest green eggs
William Hunt’s Bird’s Nest from the 1840s. Green eggs can look absolutely exquisite.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

This part of the narrative is disturbing to me. Although the snake is the baddie in this story, it is decidedly uncomfortable to watch any animal writhe in pain after eating something poisonous.

The snake wraps himself in a knot around the branch and dies. I’m confident that ‘wrapping himself in a knot’ was coded 70-80 years ago as ‘just desserts’. Even today, children’s writers prefer to avoid direct retributive justice by implicating the villain in their own demise. One Goodreads reviewer calls this ‘deliciously dark’. Indeed, Edward Gorey pulls off similar. However, I just find it dark.

Secondarily, there is also interpersonal issues between the husband and wife crow. In one spread, the homosocial bond between the crow and owl (both coded male) is emphasised when they confront Mrs Crow by telling her, “You talk too much.” Oof.

The problem, of course, is not that she talks too much. It’s that she’s all talk, and that women who use the patriarchy indirectly for retribution are as bad as men who use it directly. This is the aspect that isn’t fully explored on the page. The sociopolitical implications of that one-sided remark really sting with a 2020 reading.

ANAGNORISIS

The Minotaur (snake) was a flat baddie and was never going to learn anything. He ends up dead. strung between two branches.

What does a reader take away? Rather than bash something on the head quickly and put it out of its misery, poison it? Slowly? So that it appears to die through its own greed? This is the children’s book version of Se7en (1995), utilising one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

An-illustration-from-Giambattista-Galizzis-The-Seven-Deadly-Sins-1930s
This is an illustration from Giambattista Galizzi’s The-Seven Deadly Sins, published in Italy in the 1930s. For multiple reaosns, I also find this scene disturbing. But this was the standard of disturbing fully expected in the First Golden Age of children’s literature. I suspect the animals in clothes humour was thought to provide sufficient fantasy that no reader could possibly consider it ‘real’.

NEW SITUATION

Like Peach of Lonesome Dove, who wrings a rooster’s neck no probs, Mrs Crow is sufficiently callous to use the dead snake carcass as a washing line for her babies’ nappies.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Mr and Mrs Crow have many, many babies and anyone who knows anything about environmental equilibrium will realise that the ecosystem is a delicate thing. There is such a thing as too many crows and not enough snakes.

What has happened to Mr Crow? We don’t see him with Mrs Crow at the end. She must have had her egg babies fertilised somehow, but there may be a homosexual subplot. I’m wary of reading too much into stories of this age, but on the other hand, in an era when homosexuality was illegal, dangerous and therefore taboo, ‘veiled’ stories about gay lives had to be heavily veiled.

An excellent example of that is “The Lumber-Room” by Saki, a story which I didn’t even realise was a queer story until someone else pointed it out to me (and then it was obvious).

An excellent counter example is my contemporary interpretation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes, which I see as clearly, unequivocally gay. But from what we know of Potter’s life and times, there’s absolutely no reason to think she wrote it with queer intent.

RESONANCE

I believe The Crows of Pearblossom is an excellent example of a children’s book in which the author’s celebrity leads directly to its reprinting. I despise this story, and I doubt a newcomer to children’s publishing would have found a place for their similar but contemporary manuscript.

Did Huxley write this ‘for children’ (in general)? Nope, and this is the issue. He wrote it for a specific child. I also suspect he wrote it for her adult co-readers equally, with winks to the adults about martinis, obvious lampshading of why there just happens to be paint lying around, and so on. We’ll never know how many in-jokes and real-life animalification Huxley included in this story for his niece. The wider readership is left only with what’s on the page.

Agata Dudek, The Crows of Pearblossom
Agata Dudek, The Crows of Pearblossom
Sophie Blackall
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Fly Homer Fly by Bill Peet Analysis

fly homer fly cover

Fly Homer Fly is a 1969 picture book written and illustrated by Bill Peet who died in 2002 after a long career at Disney and in children’s books. At 64 pages, Fly Homer Fly is a lengthy picture books by modern standards. Modern picture books tend to be 32 pages, under 400 words, and read in about ten minutes. I really do think there’s still room for longer picture books such as this one in the world. Instead, it seems children old enough to sustain attention through a 64 page picture book are encouraged to read chapter books.

fly homer fly cover
fly homer fly cover
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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.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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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

Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! by Mo Willems Analysis

A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

  1. Directly addressing the young reader
  2. A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
  3. A big struggle scene featuring a tantrum
  4. A circular ending

STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!

SHORTCOMING

Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).

DESIRE

This shortcoming is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.

OPPONENT

The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?

This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.

But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.

PLAN

Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:

  1. They will be careful.
  2. They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
  3. A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
  4. Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
  5. Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.

BIG STRUGGLE

Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).

ANAGNORISIS

We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.

This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.

NEW SITUATION

But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG