The Stone Scale of Evil in Storytelling

Fortuné Méaulle's (1844 - 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 - 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

The Stone Scale of Evil was created by Dr Michael Stone, an American psychiatrist and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry. It was built to be useful when diagnosing murderers, but we can use it to think about fictional characters. We are not obliged to spend a decade earning a doctorate before diagnosing fictional criminals, which is nice.

Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 - 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey
Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895 – 1987) 1939 Illustration from The Garden of the Gods, Part I. Battle of Good and Evil by Aeron Alfrey

Do you agree with my examples?

CategoryCriteriaFictional Killer
01Those who kill in self-defense and do not show psychopathic tendenciesJessie Pinkman (Breaking Bad); Bunchy Donovan (Ray Donovan); Llewellyn Moss (No Country For Old Men); Rae Ingram (Dead Calm); Louise (Thelma & Louise)
02Jealous lovers who, though egocentric or immature, are not psychopathicArchie Noury (“A Country Killing” by Annie Proulx)
03Willing companions of killers: aberrant personality, probably impulse-ridden, with antisocial traitsLewis Whippey (Happy Valley)
04Kill in self-defense, but had been extremely provocative towards the victimSaul Goodman (Breaking Bad)
05Traumatized, desperate people who kill abusive relatives and others (e.g. to support a drug habit) but who lack significant psychopathic traits. Genuinely remorseful.Jimmy Jaspers of The Halfmen of O (not supporting a drug habit, but supporting himself financially)
06Impetuous, hotheaded murderers, yet without marked psychopathic features
07Highly narcissistic, not distinctly psychopathic people with a psychotic core who kill people close to them (jealousy an underlying motive)
08Non psychopathic people with smoldering rage who kill when rage is ignitedKevin Wetherill, John Wadsworth (Happy Valley)
09Jealous lovers with psychopathic featuresVicky Fleming (Happy Valley)
10Killers of people who were “in the way” or who killed, for example, witnesses (egocentric but not distinctly psychopathic)Ashley Cowgill (Happy Valley); Manning (“Bravado” by William Trevor)
11Psychopathic killers of people “in the way”Mike Ehrmantout, Gus Fring, Todd Alquist, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Breaking Bad); Anton Chigurgh (No Country For Old Men)
12Power-hungry psychopaths who killed when they were “cornered”Mickey Donovan, Ed Cochran (Ray Donovan)
13Killers with inadequate, rage-filled personalities who “snapped”Tuco Salamanca (Breaking Bad);
14Ruthlessly self-centered psychopathic schemersWalter White, (Breaking Bad); Tony Soprano (The Sopranos); The Grand High Witch (The Witches by Roald Dahl); The Wicked Step-mother (fairytales such as Snow White)
15Psychopathic “cold-blooded” spree or multiple murdersKrazy-8 (Breaking Bad)
16Psychopaths committing multiple vicious actsDexter Morgan (Dexter), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Ray Donovan, Avi, Lena, Ezra Goldman, Samamtha Winslow (Ray Donovan)
17Sexually perverse serial murderers, torture-murderers (among the males, rape is the primary motive with murder to hide the evidence; Systematic torture is not a primary factor)Tommy Lee Royce (Happy Valley); Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
18Torture-murderers with murder the primary motiveThe community behind “Singing My Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan
19Psychopaths driven to terrorism, subjugation, intimidation and rape (short of murder)
20Torture murderers with torture as the primary motive but in psychotic personalitiesBluebeard (probably)
21Psychopaths preoccupied with torture in the extreme, but not known to have committed murderGargamel (The Smurfs)
22Psychopathic torture-murderers, with torture their primary motiveJigsaw (Saw); Hughie Warriner (Dead Calm)
1928 advertising poster for the BITTER DIABLERETS aperitif

Header illustration: Fortuné Méaulle’s (1844 – 1916) engraving after a drawing by Henri Meyer (1841 – 1899) 1891 for Le Journal illustré depicting the 10th Whitechapel Crime (the murder of Frances Coles on 13 February 1891)

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Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
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The Treatment of Curiosity Across Storytelling

Are we supposed to be curious, or aren’t we? From reading stories, I just can’t make up my mind. If I open the box to find out what’s inside I risk unleashing evils across the entire world. But if I don’t open the box, there might be a bomb inside. If only I’d opened that confounded box, I could’ve saved everyone!

Today I’ll take a closer look at some popular narratives which seem to discourage curiosity as a valuable character trait, some which encourage it, and some which do both.

Without the resources to do an actual count up, punishment for curiosity in fiction does seem gendered. It’s possible that if we took every single story in which a character is punished for their curiosity, more male characters than female characters are punished for it. But then, most stories are historically about men so we’d have to adjust for that first. It’s certainly the case that in the best-known myths and fairytales young (and beautiful) women are punished for poking their noses into affairs that don’t concern them, which would be fully in line with the ancient rules of patriarchy.

From 'Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,' by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924 Inquisitiveness
From ‘Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,’ by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924 Inquisitiveness
“Prying Will” from Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich.

However, narrative doesn’t track along one linear progression from ‘super misogynistic’ to ‘super enlightened’. (We haven’t seen super enlightened yet.) All too often, those ancient tales, when retold for children, are repackaged with extra blame heaped upon curious young women.

Let’s see how that works.

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

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

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

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

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

Kirkus Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirkus Reviews

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

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Goose nusery rhyme

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

PARATEXT

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

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

DESIRE

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

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

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

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

OPPONENT

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

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

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

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

Lions chased through Jennie’s head.

PLAN

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

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

THE BIG STRUGGLE

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

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

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

Jennie has come to terms with dying.

“You escaped from the lion!” […]

They all climbed up on the lion’s back.

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

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

NEW SITUATION

Surface reading: Jennie is a stage actor now.

Metaphorical reading: Jennie has accepted her imminent death.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

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

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

Scene: room in a very terrific place.

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

RESONANCE

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

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

Higglety Pigglety Pop has been made into a short film.

SEE ALSO

Jane Campion’s The Piano Film Study

The Piano Film Landscape

The Piano (1993) is a lyrical, fairytale film written and directed by Jane Campion, set and filmed in New Zealand near the beginning of white colonisation.

SETTING OF THE PIANO

Like many creative New Zealanders, Campion comes from Wellington. I don’t know why so much creativity comes out of the Wellington region, but I suspect it has something to do with the dramatic landscape and its harsh climate. I don’t dismissively mean that the weather is so terrible that people have nothing else to do but stay inside and make their own fun. I mean, when you immerse yourself in New Zealand’s most outdoors settings, you can occasionally be struck by a sense of awe, and that awe carries over into your work.

Continue reading “Jane Campion’s The Piano Film Study”

Castles In Art and Storytelling

Maxfield Parrish - Dream Castle in the Sky

The castle is a feature of Gothic storytelling, and commonly makes appearances in ghost stories of all kinds. Dragons and castles also go together.

As kids my friends and I played King of the Castle. There’s not much to it. We used a pile of dirt, left by some builders. One person climbs to the top and says, “I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal.” That’s about all that happens. The pleasure derives from pretending you’re the boss of your friends.

I wonder if kids still do this? The children in the painting below are using the elevated platform of a cart to play the same game.

Myles Birket Foster - Who's to be King of the Castle
Myles Birket Foster – Who’s to be King of the Castle
Continue reading “Castles In Art and Storytelling”

Poison by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker)- Rachel Peace

Poison” (1920) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the last in the Something Childish and Other Stories collection, published by Middleton Murry four years later, after her death. Commentators have noticed veiled references to “My Last Duchess“, a poem by Robert Browning about a murderous duke. Browning’s poem in turn is based on popular imaginings surrounding historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century.

Literary and Historical Allusions

In Browning’s dramatic monologue of a poem, a duke is showing a visitor around his castle. They stop in front of a painting of his dead young wife and the story becomes ekphrastic. At first the duke describes his dead wife in glowing terms. But as the poem progresses, we are meant to realise it was the duke who killed her. This is the story of a coercively controlling man. He didn’t like how his wife flirted with everyone (according to him). The poem is especially disturbing because the visitor has arrived to negotiate the duke’s marriage to yet another young woman, and we extrapolate that he may kill her, too. It’s basically a Bluebeard story.

Likewise, the real Duke of Ferrara may have been a Bluebeard figure of the Italian Renaissance. He married three times and never had children. Some historians think he may have poisoned his first wife when she was just 17. His next wife died from tuberculosis, but the third outlived him. But who else might the Duke of Ferrara have poisoned? These powerful men lived in an era of unmitigated power.

Browning forces his reader to become involved in his poem in order to understand it, and Mansfield asks the same of us in “Poison”. What’s going on behind the words? Who is wearing the mask?

When it comes to the turbulence of emotional valence, some commentators are reminded of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In Keats’ poem, as in “Poison”, a character is almost tortured by the extent of their own happiness. (Happiness as anguish.) The character is anguished because they know a deliriously happy moment can never last. It’s always punctured by something.

Oh, God! What torture happiness was — what anguish!

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

It’s difficult to separate the author from her work. Some Katherine Mansfield biographers feel that “Poison” is covertly about her relationship with John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s long-term male partner. They were pretty turbulent as a couple.

I’m reluctant to go there myself, because writing “Poison” may have simply been a cathartic act. Perhaps Mansfield read Browning’s poem and imagined that one of his wives killed him off instead. There’s certainly plenty to be angry about when it comes to partner violence. Mansfield may have been doing an Angela Carter, who turned victimhood of “Bluebeard” right around in her re-visioning of the archetypal tale: Carter called hers “The Bloody Chamber“.

Significantly, the fictional newspaper article in this story flips the general feminine connection to death by poison, because this time it is a man who may have poisoned his wife:

Either some man did or didn’t murder his wife, and twenty thousand people have sat in court every day and two million words have been wired all over the world after each proceeding.

SETTING OF “POISON”

France is synonymous with romantic stories, then as it is now. A villa in Southern France is the perfect setting for this guy to carry out his romantic fantasies.

Mansfield paints a setting but in words, and the words she uses put us in mind of Impressionist paintings. A good description of an Impressionist painting: It’s like you only got a glimpse of a scene. You are left with an overall ‘impression’, rather than fleshed out details, as in a dream.

There’s a lot of white, a lot of green in the setting of this story. We’re seeing this image through tulle (net) curtains. We’re shown moonlight, shadows, lamps, twilight in the narrator’s imagination.

Apart from the flowers and birds (commonly used across Mansfield’s short stories), Mansfield chooses two details of the environment which come up more than once and are therefore probably motifs: the blue beetle and the pearl ring Beatrice wears on her third finger.

Pearls are found in oysters — hard to crack open. Pearls suggest containment and also working hard for rich reward. Over the course of “Poison” our narrator prizes Beatrice open a little. Ignoring subconscious misgivings, he continues to see her beauty shining from within.

The motif of the blue beetle is less clear to me. Mansfield may be talking about the Hoplia coerulea, found in humid environments, generally near a stream or a swamp, in Southern France and Northern Spain.

the blue beetle mentioned in Poison
Hoplia coerulea. Males are a more striking blue than females.

The narrator may be focusing on the beetle as a strategy to avoid dwelling on his deep fear that Beatrice is pretty far from perfect. A beetle can also look a bit like a pearl — especially certain iridescent beetles, especially when light hits them, say through net curtains on a sunshiny day. The beetle might almost be the grotesque symbolic equivalent of the pearl. The difference is that beetles crawl/fly away, whereas Beatrice’s pearl is stuck to her finger forever.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “POISON”?

With nothing else to do apart from walking around and eating snacks, two upper-class characters return to their hotel in the South of France after a walk and a poke around the shops. A servant called Annette brings them food. They wait around for the post. This is all from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. His companion is Beatrice, a twice-before married woman who he is over-the-top smitten with.

The entire story is framed around an ironic ticking clock: the pair of them are waiting for something, actually nothing, to arrive (in the post).

“”Who? The silly old postman? But you’re not expecting a letter.”

“No, but it’s maddening all the same…

I believe ‘waiting around for the post’ is a metaphor for the narrator ‘waiting around for something to happen in his life, more generally’. By the end of the story the reader is waiting for the penny to drop with him.

Otherwise, this storytelling decision perplexes me a little. Mansfield introduces what we might deem ‘false suspense’ with all that waiting around for post. Because when the post arrives, it’s not some amazing life-changing letter, but is simply the newspaper, which they surely get everyday and is therefore not a surprise. An article in the newspaper leads to a semi-revelation for our narrator, although in true literary Impressionist form, he doesn’t have any major breakthrough. It simply sets him thinking.

Just before the newspaper arrives, conversation has turned to the couple’s future together. The narrator wants to marry Beatrice. But Beatrice remains unknowable, to both the narrator and to us. The basic worldview of Impressionists went like this: People don’t really change very much. Plus, there’s no such thing as the veridical truth of a situation anyway. We can only ever view the world through our own particular prisms. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Two people in the ‘same’ relationship experience completely different versions of it.

Throughout “Poison”, Mansfield is playing with the various permutations of the word ‘poison’. First the narrator has a cigarette, both deliciously necessary but also a type of poison.

There are times when a cigarette is just the very one thing that will carry you over the moment. It is more than a confederate, even; it is a secret, perfect little friend who knows all about it and understands absolutely. While you smoke you look down at it — smile or frown, as the occasion demands; you inhale deeply and expel the smoke in a slow fan. This was one of those moments.

Mansfield doesn’t touch on the criminal meaning until the newspaper is opened and read literal as in ‘putting something into someone’s food and then watching for them die in agony’.

Instead she encourages us to go there ourselves, by delving into the metaphorical meaning, in which it’s possible to poison someone invisibly. We could apply plenty of modern terms to describe this form of poisoning within a relationship: Passive aggression, emotional withdrawal, coercive control… We never hear any backstory about Beatrice’s former relationships so we don’t know the exact nature of the ‘poisoning’. We don’t even know Beatrice’s degree of culpability. However, Mansfield makes use of symbolism to give Beatrice the appearance of innocence:

She was dressed in white, with pearls round her throat and lilies-of-the-valley tucked into her belt.

Mansfield was very aware of the symbolism around flowers. Unlike lilies, lilies of the valley most often symbolise chastity, purity, happiness and humility.

This 1927 painting of Lilies of the Valley (by Malcolm Milne) isn’t sexual at all. Lilies of the valley don’t look anything like the archetypal lily. Lilies of the valley are not lilies. They belong to the Asparagaceae family (yes, related to garden asparagus). However, unlike asparagus, the lily of the valley can be poisonous when ingested causing abdominal pain, blurred vision, drowsiness, and reduced heart rate. I believe this is a slightly hidden layer of poison Mansfield makes use of in this short story.

The white dress emphasises Beatrice’s innocence, and the reader will think of a wedding dress, and its associations with virginity.

Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) American — three young women wearing white dresses

We are therefore surprised when Mansfield reveals that Beatrice has already been married twice. (This makes her a ‘fast woman’ for the era.) The flowers ‘tucked into her belt’ suggest Beatrice exercises restraint a desirable feminine virtue. Of course, we are told these details because these are what the narrator is looking for: evidence of a good woman. (Significantly, the narrator is also dressed in white.)

But appearances can be deceptive. And people can see only what we want to see, especially when romantic love is involved. The reader is not deluded by love for Beatrice and can see infatuation. In contrast, the narrator is yet to achieve a clear-headed view of Beatrice. But by the end of the story, he seems to have understood more of Beatrice over the course of recounting their conversation ‘out loud’. This often happens in first person narratives with storyteller narrators. The very point of them telling their stories (to no one in particular) is to come to some greater understanding.

Until the newspaper arrives, Mansfield never touches directly upon the literal meaning of poison. But because she so clearly goes there in the metaphorical sense, the reader is primed to suspect that perhaps Beatrice has poisoned both of her earlier husbands. At this point, Mansfield is leaning upon an age-old trope which connects ‘women’ to ‘poisoning’.

Witches, Women and Poisoning

This notion of women as sneaky, murderous poisoners harks back to the era of witchcraft and hasn’t entirely died. During the European witch craze, women were often accused of poisoning their victims. (Men were also tried for witchcraft but in England it was 90 per cent women.) These so-called poisoners didn’t need to be anywhere near their victims in order to do away with them these witches were supposedly making use of necromancers and magic.

Historical Women and Poisoning

I would be interested to know if Mansfield knew about the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman ever hanged in Australia. Louisa Collins was found guilty of poisoning two husbands with Rough on Rats (basically arsenic, available at any local store). Her hanging was carried out in 1889, and happened across the Tasman Sea, not in New Zealand, and when Mansfield was just one year old. However, it’s possible this case was much talked about in New Zealand, because both New Zealand and Australia were grappling with how to treat those found guilty of heinous crimes: to hang or not to hang? It was shocking to the public that a woman was being hanged. Three women in New Zealand had been sentence for execution by this time, but all three women (accused of murdering children) had their sentences commuted to imprisonment. Louisa’s hanging in Australia was certainly reported in the Auckland newspaper in 1889. Media coverage of this Australian case in New Zealand, as well as the mythology around it over the next few decades as Mansfield was growing up, may have furnished the writer with ideas for “Poison”.

Minnie Dean and New Zealand Imaginations

I guess Mansfield would’ve known about the Louisa Collins case because in 1895, when Mansfield was seven years old, New Zealand agreed to hang its first (and only) woman: Williamina (Minnie) Dean.

Scottish born Minnie Dean settled near Invercargill (near the bottom of the South Island.) She took in unwanted young children for money. Minnie Dean was found guilty of murdering some of them, sometimes by suffocation, sometimes by poisoning (with laudanum). Dead little bodies were found buried in her yard. New Zealand never hanged another woman after that. It was that shocking. But it was salaciously shocking. People clearly enjoyed the drama of it. Outside the court house, vendors were selling hat boxes with figurines of babies inside it. (Minnie had apparently killed a baby then tried to hide the body inside a hat box.) While some New Zealanders no doubt found this distasteful, for others this was the late 19th century equivalent of going to the movies for a murder mystery then buying a plush toy.

I was born in New Zealand 90 years after Katherine Mansfield. The case of Minnie Dean was never a formal part of our history curriculum, but the figure of Minnie Dean, this formidable child killer, loomed large in our collective consciousness. There is a highly wooded park we called “Dean’s Bush” near where I lived in Christchurch. This bush and historic house is not named after Minnie Dean at all, and is now more regularly called Riccarton Bush, but in my subconscious I connected this wooded area to ‘child killer’. It’s actually a beautiful Christchurch spot, but the area took on a sinister tone in my mind. I hated walking through there.

In any case, if the trial of Minnie Dean had that much effect on me, born 90 years later than Mansfield, I can imagine the case had a large effect on the childhood games Mansfield played with her sisters, and on her writer’s imagination.

NARRATION OF “POISON”

“Poison” is told through the mind of a male narrator whose point of view is best described as thinking about the events as they occur in the present. Of course, such a narrative perspective cannot really be achieved, but this narrator is certainly not telling the story with any kind of judgmental stance after the fact. Again, the story represents Mansfield’s blend of the immediacy of a stage performance with the internal point of view of one of the actors on the stage. It cannot happen, but it does. The story is like a soliloquy without the rest of the stage performances around it.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Beatrice and her narrator-lover are presented to us without backstory in statu nascendi though it is eventually revealed that Beatrice has been married twice before. He is 24 years old at the time of the story, and because he mentions his age in hindsight, we deduce he’s had a little time to reflect on this conversation. This story is atemporal. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between this particular conversation and the retelling of it. Has he now married Beatrice or has he made a clean break? Or perhaps this only happened yesterday?

I do see evidence of reflection on the part of the narrator, suggesting some time has passed since the events of the story:

Not because I cared for such horrible shows, but because I felt it might possibly perhaps lessen this ghastly feeling of absolute freedom, her absolute freedom, of course.

That passage shows the reader that our narrator has realised his love is a controlling kind of love.

Despite these insights, the voice is quite ‘immediate’, as in, he is narrating this story not long after events happened.

This immediacy of voice doesn’t stand out as unusual today, especially if you read a lot of young adult literature. A large proportion of young adult novels are written in first person and from the perspective of a young adult who is still young. In fact, if a significant amount of time has elapsed between the happenings in a story and the supposed retelling of it, and if the first person narrator has changed so much that they are now a heterodiegetic narrator, the work is no longer classed as young adult literature. (Many works for adults cover the young adult years.)

“Poison” almost counts as young adult literature by today’s conventions of narration, except Beatrice must be in her late twenties (at least) if she’s already been married twice. The voice of the narrator suggests to me he is younger than Beatrice. In fact he tells us he ‘was twenty-four at the time’. His dramatic monologue feels like the headiness of unmoderated first love.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “POISON”

SHORTCOMING

Our narrator is not only naive Mansfield has gone one step further and painted him as a bit of a ridiculous figure. Mansfield the author is winking at the reader when she writes, via the voice of her narrator:

And when she lay on her back, with the pearls slipped under her chin, and sighed “I’m thirsty, dearest. Donne-moi un orange,” I would gladly, willingly, have dived for an orange into the jaws of a crocodile— [wink] if crocodiles ate oranges.

(Crocodiles eat almost anything, including oranges.) What’s humorous here is not that the narrator is saying something factually inaccurate about crocodiles, but the fact that he’s made a ridiculous analogy then immediately second guessed himself. He could be laughing at himself, though I see no real evidence of that. Later, at the most serious part of the story (when he has his anagnorisis) he tells us ‘I made a little joke’. This positioning highlights that he is not joking at all.

In Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler notes that Mansfield made much use of ‘nervous’ characters, meaning ‘characters whose nerves are of primary concern’. Several of these stories are filtered through the viewpoints of women: “Revelations” and “The Escape“. One portrays a man: “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“.

Tense and terribly “modern” relationships between a man and a woman occur in three other stories: “Psychology“, “A Dill Pickle” and “Poison“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

Kobler is not alone in then saying that the best Mansfield short story about modern heterosexual relationships is “Bliss“.

It’s always interesting when an author avoids naming a character. There could be many reasons for doing so. One common reason: To keep a character as an archetype in the reader’s mind. The fewer details we have about someone, the more likely we are to avoid seeing them as human. This in my own experience is also the exact reason why some readers get really annoyed when authors avoid naming characters, especially when an unnamed character has a marginalised identity or is a woman. (Not the case here.) This is to do with a long history of symbolic annihilation. To name someone, it is thought, is to individualise them, and to give them power.

Below, Kobler noties a pattern in Mansfield’s decisions to avoid naming certain characters, and also questions Mansfield’s decision not to name this particular narrator:

Like the majority of the males in Mansfield’s stories about these modern liaisons, the narrator of “Poison” has no name, a fact that lends credence to the belief that Mansfield really did believe that the men of her generation were all alike unless, of course, they were so different as to be named Reginald, as in Peacock, and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove.” This narrator, however, perhaps ought to have a name, because he seems to embody more of the loving and caring sensitivity of Henry in “Something Childish but Very Natural” than he does the hurtful men of “A Dill Pickle” and “Psychology“.

Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler

(Male commentators really don’t like it when male characters go unnamed. I wonder if they apply the same outrage to the fact that many, many more female characters historically go unnamed.)

But I would like to draw attention to the following sentence:

“Who are you?” Who was she? She was — Woman.

Our narrator himself has realised that he regards Beatrice as an archetypal perfect Woman, as indicated by the capital W. Sure, the author does not name him, but he hasn’t noticed that Beatrice is an individualised character. Not at all. (Not until the retelling of his story.) This is Mansfield doing to him as he is doing to Beatrice.

DESIRE

There’s a very strong, clear desire line holding this story together. Our narrator clearly wants to marry Beatrice.

OPPONENT

His romantic opponent is Beatrice herself.

PLAN

He seems to think that by spending time with her and attending to her every need, he will win love and affection in return.

BIG STRUGGLE

The part where Beatrice opens up a little and lets the narrator in a little, regarding her philosophy of love and relationships, which is nothing at all like the narrator’s idealistic view of them.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator seems to have realised how different they are, and how it will be impossible to please her in the way he hoped to.

There is no plot revelation of the kind that would tie up a genre short story, say a mystery. In that kind of story the reader might understand that Beatrice is a poisoner, and that the narrator is in danger of being poisoned himself. But this is instead a lyrical short story and Mansfield gives us only a symbol web as a lens through which to interpret events. This is in line with the Impressionist’s view that we are all viewing events through our own blurry lenses.

The true revelation comes for the reader. Guided by Beatrice’s insights into how relationships work, we now understand that the idealised relationship between this couple has now been ‘poisoned’.

“Guilt!” she cried. “Guilt! Didn’t you realise that? They’re fascinated like sick people are fascinated by anything — any scrap of news about their own case. The man in the dock may be innocent enough, but the people in court are nearly all of them poisoners. Haven’t you ever thought”— she was pale with excitement —”of the amount of poisoning that goes on? It’s the exception to find married people who don’t poison each other — married people and lovers. Oh,” she cried, “the number of cups of tea, glasses of wine, cups of coffee that are just tainted. The number I’ve had myself, and drunk, either knowing or not knowing — and risked it. The only reason why so many couples”— she laughed —”survive, is because the one is frightened of giving the other the fatal dose. That dose takes nerve! But it’s bound to come sooner or later. There’s no going back once the first little dose has been given. It’s the beginning of the end, really — don’t you agree? Don’t you see what I mean?”

Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900
Poster by Vincenzo Ceccanti, about 1900

At this point, Beatrice unpins her lilies of the valley. She is taking off her ‘mask’ of purity and innocence. Mansfield chooses a slightly unusual ‘body language beat‘ to garnish this line of dialogue:

She unpinned the lilies-of-the-valley and lay back, drawing them across her eyes.

But this is not just a ‘beat’ — by drawing these symbols of innocence across her eyes she is drawing attention to the fact that our narrator has been blind.

NEW SITUATION

We had very little backstory about these characters. Completely in line with that, they depart from the stage/page as abruptly as they came onto it. Mansfield offers no hint about what happens next. We can extrapolate that this narrator will never be so heavily enamoured about anyone again, and certainly not when it comes to Beatrice.

Header painting: F.X. Leyendecker (brother of J.C. Leyendecker) – Rachel Peace

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Symbolism of Containers

Kitchen Utensils c.1914-8 Leslie Hunter 1877-1931

Vessels or containers are as important for the space they contain as well as for any material they hold. Containers tend to be associated with women. As motifs running throughout a story they can also symbolise physical or emotional containment, either self-driven or imposed upon a character from outside.

The Promise and Intrigue of Containers

Treasure, 1925 (Norman Lindsay, 1879-1969) mermaid treasure
Treasure, 1925 (Norman Lindsay, 1879-1969)
Thomas Edwin Mostyn - The Jeweled Box 1900
Thomas Edwin Mostyn – The Jeweled Box 1900

The box containing treasure was once used to market cereal. This imagery wouldn’t be utilised by marketers today, and I deduce that the box of treasure was a stronger symbol for early 20th century audiences than it is for us.

Guarding The Treasure Box Kellogg’s Toasted Cornflakes

How to create optimal mystery? Promise something but don’t show it. This is why we wrap presents. It’s why artists show characters looking at something mysterious out of the frame. It’s why writers drip feed something gradually, slowly bringing a mysterious person or item into view, building up to the big reveal.

Containers are the symbolic embodiment of all that. An enclosed container holds something but we don’t know what. Not until we open it.

What To Store In A Jar cover illustration by Deborah Marcero
What To Store In A Jar cover illustration by Deborah Marcero

PANDORA’S BOX, OR JAR, AND ALSO EVE

Across the history of storytelling, many narratives exist to teach less powerful people (including women) that if you find something locked away in a chest, you should just leave it there. The story of Adam and Eve is the stand-out example of this story, but we also have Pandora’s box.

Pandora's Box Arthur Rackham
Pandora’s Box by Arthur Rackham. The naked adolescent or young teenage girl feels jarringly sexualised and predatory by today’s standards.

Many male painters since have painted Pandora naked (forgetting about the silvery robe Hesiod gave her in the eighth century BCE (while at the same time seeing to become aroused by his own creation):

  • Jean Cousin
  • Jules Lefebvre
  • Paul Cesaire Gariot
  • William Etty
  • John William Waterhouse
  • et al

The story of Pandora is a permutation of the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In art, the two women are sometimes conflated. For instance, Jean Cousin’s Eva Prima Pandora (c. 1550), Henry Howard’s The Opening of Pandora’s Vase (1834), Rossetti’s portrait of Pandora (1871). Rossetti’s remains the most famous of these.

The Opening of Pandora’s Vase by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In both the Eve and Pandora stories, a woman gets the blame for unleashing evils into the world. This has always struck me as vastly unfair.

Let’s talk about Eve for a moment, and why it was never her fault.

  1. God created the tree
  2. God put the tree right where the humans he created could take it, with the apple in easy picking-reach
  3. God made the fruit look delicious, with an eye-catching colour
  4. God created the persuasive talking snake
  5. God only warned Adam not to eat the apple. No one actually told Eve not to touch it, though some may assume Adam passed on the message, since the word of God in many churches passes from God to male church leader to husbands and only afterwards to wives.

Meanwhile, Adam had heard the prohibition directly from God and shared the apple with Eve. If anyone’s more culpable in this narrative, surely it’s Adam.

If you agree that Eve was unfairly blamed, just wait until you hear about Pandora.

  1. In early versions of this story, there was no box and Pandora did not open it. The box first appeared in the story in Works and Days by Hesiod (Greek), later translated into Latin by Erasmus, more than 2000 years later. Erasmus had trouble translating ‘pathos’, which referred in Greek to a big ceramic storage jar about a metre high and not very stable. It’s possible Erasmus was confusing Pandora with Psyche (who does carry a box). In any case, jar became box.
  2. Those big storage jars were about a metre tall, narrow at the base, and not exactly stable. They did not have screw top lids. They were easy to knock over. Without a tight lid, it’s not as if anyone could keep evils inside a big ceramic jar let alone be responsible for letting them out.
  3. Artists have since depicted Pandora opening a box, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of malice. In either case, the evils of the world become Pandora’s fault. 

Bluebeard fairytales (and all their descendents) have the same message: If you know something is locked away LEAVE IT LOCKED AWAY. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see why these cautionary tales existed: To leave power in the hands of those who already had it.

CHARLES FOLKARD (1878 – 1963) The Chest Had Been Washed Up on the Shores of Ephesus, The Children’s Shakespeare book art (1911)

18th century children’s story Rosamund and the Purple Jar is anti-climactic precisely because the vessel holds something pretty, then disturbing, and ultimately contains nothing Rosamund wants. Her hopes are dashed. Victorian children were supposed to learn from this didactic story not to place too much hope on the unseen and the unknown. More generally, pretty appearances can disappoint by their lack of true substance.

In her short story “Prelude“, Katherine Mansfield makes use of containers as a motif throughout, liking young Kezia to her grandmother via a shared proximal placement of small containers.

For another short story with a box as significant motif see “U.F.O. In Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami.

The Third Casket

A ‘third casket’ is similar in concept to Pandora’s box, and is found in many fairytales. The first and second caskets contain riches but the third unleashes bad stuf like storms, death, general devastation.

These days, in many cultures, we divide the year into four distinct parts (by season). Stories about three caskets indicate a different division — a division into thirds. Two good seasons, one bad.

Arks

If you think of ‘ark’, you’re probably thinking of Noah’s Ark, or possibly the Ark of the Covenant. An ark is a big container that holds very valuable objects. In this way, an ark symbolises a treasure chest. It might be massive (as in Noah’s) or it might be small (as in the ‘ark’ that Moses was found in, floating in the reeds). The commonality is that an ark’s contents are precious.

The bottle is one of the symbols of salvation, probably because of the analogy (of function rather than of shape) with the ark and the boat.

A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot

Witch Bottles

In the 17th century, people started burying bottles around their yards to ward off evil. Inside the bottles: hair/pins/urine/chicken feathers/bits of plants and various bits and bobs. These were known as witch bottles. They are to break the power of a witch over their victim.

Science in this period was pretty different from ‘science’ as we know it today. These witch bottles were basically in accordance with scientific thought of the era.

Witch bottles were also thrown into lakes, the sea and other places thought to be affected by witches. Everyone used them differently, according to private symbolic ideas. But we can access these ideas using folkloric research and sort of make sense of how people thought they worked. A witch bottle contained some sort of ‘spirit essence’ which had been coerced into that bottle. Location is vitally important in determining the function of that bottle.

Some bottles were thought to have been laid down by witches themselves. These bottles were not apotropaic, but were designed to cast a curse upon somebody.

If you came across a bottle, it may have been put there by a witch. So there was a proper way to dispose of it, rather like a bomb disposal unit. One does not simply break a witch bottle. In line with the message of the Pandora’s Box category of tales, it was thought that if you break a witch bottle horrible things would happen — vegetation would die and so on. NEVER EVER THROW IT INTO A CESSPOOL OR RUBBISH PIT. Break it over a fresh south flowing river or stream, where the pernicious fluid can mingle with pure currents and be imperceptibly but irrecovably wasted.

Some bottles are thought to have an anthropomorphic element to them, containing its own heart (animus).

Perhaps some bottles, for example the one containing the chicken feather, may have been thought to take pestilence away. (Maybe their chicken flock had been infected/infested and they didn’t know what else to do.)

(Listen to a podcast about witch bottles here, from Dr Peter Hewitt.)

Container as Private, Secret Space

In the 17th and 18th centuries, domestic corridors and closets, multiplying bedrooms and staircases, secluded chambers and servant’s bells manifested new architectures of secrecy, as well as new relations between masters and house staff. These new spatial orders might have afforded greater privacy (or secrecy?) to the elite, yet “the average London servant,” Amanda Vickery reminds us, “had no settled space to call their own.”  Instead, many carried a portable lock box. While householders tended to maintain an assemblage of distributed hiding places around the house, assistants and lodgers often stored their secret (or private?) matters in locked trunks, chests, and closets (Meanwhile, in the U.S., some enslaved people buried valuable property under their floorboards, and embedded secret messages and escape routes in hand-crafted quilts).

Encrypted Repositories, Shannon Mattern

The Bag of Holding

The name of this trope comes from Dungeons and Dragons:

The Bag of Holding is a specific portable item which is Bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside. Much bigger. It may not look it, but that’s because it contains Hammer Space. Because the holding capacity of the bag comes from internal Hammer Space, a thoroughly-packed Bag of Holding will weigh no more than a full normal bag. Odds are, it will weigh no more than an empty normal bag.

Because of the sheer amount of goods you can store in one, trying to find something specific usually results in a Rummage Fail. Except, of course, in videogames where time itself will stop to let you go through your inventory in peace.

TV Tropes

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Domenico Remps (1620-1699), Cabinet of Curiosities, 17th century, painting, Italy, Florence, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure

The word ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a cabinet (and is still used to mean ‘room’ when we’re talking about Parliament buildings). Originally, a cabinet of curiosities was a big room in a rich person’s house containing all kinds of treasures — sort of like a private museum. The first cabinets of curiosities appeared in the 16th century. In fact, these rooms were precursors to museums. People who travelled were in the best position to set them up, e.g. merchants.

When cabinets became collections held in pieces of furniture (today’s usual meaning of ‘cabinet’), they were designed to be as interesting to look at as possible. They were highly ornamental, decorative and housed many disparate things. The idea was to represent the entire world in miniature. Interest came from the juxtaposition of many different objects.

Cabinets of curiosities were also show-off items, showing how rich you were, how cultured, how well-travelled.

Over the centuries, artifacts from these collections have proven invaluable to historians, naturalists and archeologists.

Charles Edward Wilson - The Miniature 1912
Charles Edward Wilson – The Miniature 1912

Step into a world of secrets, folklore and illusions, where nothing is as it seems and magic is at play…
 
Madame Augustina Pinchbeck, travels the country conjuring the spirits of dearly departed loved ones… for a price. Whilst her ability to contact ghosts is a game of smoke and mirrors, there is real magic behind her tricks too – if you know where to look.
 
Through a magical trade, she persuades children to part with precious objects, promising to use her powers to help them. But Pinchbeck is a deceiver, instead turning their items into enchanted Cabinets that bind the children to her and into which she can vanish and summon them at will.
 
When Pinchbeck captures orphan Leander, events are set into motion that see him and his new friends Charlotte and Felix, in a race against time to break Pinchbeck’s spell, before one of them vanishes forever…

Cauldrons

Jean-Leon Huens, Belgian, Cover illustration of the book The Black Cauldron from the series The Chronicles of Prydain written by Lloyd Alexander
Jean-Leon Huens, Belgian, Cover illustration of the book The Black Cauldron from the series The Chronicles of Prydain written by Lloyd Alexander
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Halloween A Holiday Book by Lillie Patterson, illustrated by Gil Miret (1963) fillet of a fenny snake
Halloween A Holiday Book by Lillie Patterson, illustrated by Gil Miret (1963) fillet of a fenny snake

In fiction, cauldrons have a special association with magic. Some such cauldrons are inherently magical, having some special power or another (an obvious one being the power to produce an endless supply of something you’d make in a more normal pot). Others are just used for magic (especially when Alchemy Is Magic), but apart from that, are just ordinary pots. They’re often black, and the contents are often inexplicably green, but both those things are optional.

TV Tropes

Sometimes the cauldron is called a kettle. Cauldrons and kettles come in various shapes and sizes. Cauldrons can be terrible or wonderful, oftentimes both.

Illustration by Norman Mills Price (1877-1951) witch circle
Illustration by Norman Mills Price (1877-1951). I guess cauldrons weren’t as big as I was expecting.

According to witch mythology, an iron cauldron or kettle was used to prepare Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches in fact use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course.

In public imagination, the cauldron (your own cooking pot) was equally a tool you could use to kill a witch. By performing folk magic you could force a witch down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.

Haynes King – An Old Friend Failing 1880

The shape of the cauldron resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration.

Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation.

Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. Any cauldron with three legs has strong associations with divination.

Cauldrons are strongly associated with cannibals, e.g. ogres. A cauldron of burning oil means punishment is coming, e.g. in earlier, more disturbing versions of Sleeping Beauty.

But in Celtic tradition, the cauldron symbolises abundance, cornucopia, resuscitation and inexhaustible sustenance. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. For this meaning, we can look to a fairytale such as The Magic Porridge Pot (generally illustrated as a mini cauldron in picture books). The pot saves a community from famine but also wreaks havoc, in line with the good and evil duplicity of mythological cauldrons. Likewise in China, the cauldron is a receptacle for offerings. but also a container for torture and capital punishment.

Norse legend is a bit different. According to Nordic tradition, the roaring cauldron is the source of all rivers.

Parable of the Burning Pot, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1881
Ezekiel and the Boiling Pot Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,

The Chalice

A chalice is a cup or grail generally used in rituals. The Catholic church makes use of a highly decorated chalice in ceremony. Pagans used a much simpler one.

The chalice itself symbolises water. Like the cauldron, the chalice is associated with femininity because of its shape, and because of its use as a vessel (women were and still are considered vessels for carrying other humans). Women are also linked to water because women are linked to the moon — menstrually — and the moon influences tides. We all begin life in the womb in water. Like most associations, it’s a double-edged sword for women. Water, like women, is essential to life. (Women, eh? Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.)

The Holy Grail

As mentioned above, in mystical, pre-Christian times there was a magical cauldron of the Celtic Gods that never emptied and kept everyone satisfied, as mentioned above. This legend is the O.G. of mythology leading to the Holy Grail — the cup that Christ was meant to have drank from at the Last Supper, or maybe it was the container that caught his blood during his crucifixion… who knows?

This sacred vessel went missing (or never existed in the first place), so today ‘the Holy Grail’ means something unfindable but highly treasured. There’s a subcategory of King Arthur tales called Holy Grail Legends, which have kept the rumours alive.

According to Jung, the psychoanalyst, the grail is an emblem of the spirit and symbolises “the inner wholeness for which men have always been searching”. The Philosopher’s Stone, from alchemy, fulfils the same symbolic function — the search for something elusive within oneself.

Header painting is by Leslie Hunter: Kitchen Utensils, c.1914–18.

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The Ideology Of Wealth In Stories

Arthur Dixon - The King's Daughter

Wealth brings out the worst in people. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches. This is thought to be Cinderella’s rightful place — after all, Cinderella is not a rags to riches story. It’s a riches to rags to riches again story. The high born are thought to be worthy due to their superior bloodline.

In an attempt at subversion, characters in some stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich.

The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal

Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.

Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.

Victor Coleman Anderson, Out of Luck, Life Magazine, July 14, 1921 rich poor divide
Victor Coleman Anderson, Out of Luck, Life Magazine, July 14, 1921
Le Petit diary illustrated, October 30, 1921, unknown illustrator tuberculosis pandemic
Le Petit diary illustrated, October 30, 1921, unknown illustrator tuberculosis pandemic

Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together

One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same closed arena and force them to interact with each other. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.

However, there are a few political pitfalls to avoid when doing this.

William Balfour-Ker - From the Depths , 1906 rich poor
William Balfour-Ker – From the Depths , 1906

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Adults

  • Annie Proulx makes use of the rich-poor divide a lot. She takes a rural community comprising simple, rural folk with anti-materialistic values and contrasts them with a rich blow-in. For more on that, see below.
  • In Freaks and Geeks, episode four, Lindsay gets her first class culture shock when she visits Kim’s house for dinner. It turns out Kim has invited her only to prove to her parents that she’s responsible and deserves her confiscated car back. Lindsey is shocked by the chaos and by the state of Kim’s house.
  • Katherine Mansfield herself was a daughter of the upper middle class but she tackled the rich-poor divide in several stories, most notably “The Doll’s House” and “The Garden Party“.
  • Angie Thomas writes about race and class in The Hate U Give. Issues of wealth and privilege come to the fore because the main character is at a private school on academic scholarship.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies — The farming Clampett family become suddenly rich when they discover oil in their backyard. This discovery turns a poor family to rich millionaires. They move to Beverly Hills, California. This is a good example of a fish-out-of-water story. These rustic characters clash with the people of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Rich-poor conflict is useful in Comedies of Manners.
  • Pride and Prejudice is an early example of the Comedy of Manners. No one is poor, exactly — it’s all relative. The Bennett sisters are in danger of becoming poor in future. Their mother’s behaviour is crass in comparison to those of the mega-wealthy.
  • Titanic — both the real story and the various fictionalisations which have emerged since, work well as stories because, when a boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Everyone goes down with it. This makes for an evergreen metaphor about looking after our planet.
  • Stories with dragons (specifically Northern dragons) are metaphors for how hoarded wealth brings one no joy. Dragons have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. (Eastern dragons are different beasts altogether — they are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal.)
  • Tomato Red — the love interest with the red hair feels a grave sense of injustice that they live in a mobile shack whereas other people in their town live in mansions. This fuels her desire to get out of that town, and justifies what she does in order to achieve it.
  • Schitts Creek — The Rose family have already lost all their fortune by the time they hit Schitt’s Creek — a hole of a town the father bought the son for a birthday joke. They are now forced to live there among the regular folk. They may have no money but they have brought their rich tastes and attitudes with them. This makes for plenty of conflict.
  • Animal Kingdom — J’s druggie mother dies of an overdose. At seventeen years of age he has only ever known poverty. But now he is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are running a criminal empire. These are the sorts of people who leave wads of cash lying around.
  • Nashville — Juliette Barnes is now rich, having earned oodles of money as a country pop singer, but she has come from nothing. She grew up in a trailer park. The writers make sure the audience is taken back there, to explain some of Juliette’s back story. Juliette still has her mother in her life, which allows the audience to see rich and poor rubbing up against each other. Other characters undergo a rags to riches Cinderella story as part of the show.
  • Upstairs Downstairs — Is the ultimate in rich and not rich rubbing up against each other. Downton Abbey is very similar. These shows are about class differences. For some of the characters real destitution is one wrong-doing away. Even the mighty can fall.
  • Coronation Street — Even in a working class Northern town where everyone lives from month to month, we still have characters like Mike Baldwin who owns the factory, or Dev Alahan who owns the corner shop. Though these men are far from fabulously wealthy, there is still enough of a discrepancy in wealth to provide interest.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore — our modest main characters make a visit to an ostentatious house with massive lawn ornaments under the guise of cops. When the lawn ornaments get broken this provides some catharsis for the audience because these rich people are not good and the main character is very sympathetic.
  • Fargo — our main dude has a rich father-in-law, which causes all sorts of existential male angst, and therefore the impetus to make real money of his own.
  • Lonesome Dove — Clara’s husband has been a successful horse wrangler. Not only this, he married the love of Gus’s life. Larry McMurtry takes us to Clara’s ranch to make sure we get a taste of The Path Not Taken. Could Gus have had all this, if only he weren’t such a wanderer, basically married to Call?
  • Gilmore Girls — This community offers us the full spectrum of wealth (well, right down to middle-class, anyhow). We have Emily and Richard at the top, with all their cronies. Next we have successful small business owners such as the owner of Doose’s market, and eventually Lorelai and Sooki themselves. Then there are the people who work for others.
  • My Summer Of Love — Tamsin is the privately educated daughter home for the holidays in her family mansion while Mona is the working class girl from the pub. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for these girls to meet — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. Rich girl and poor girl legitimately share the same country road, though one rides a white horse and the other scoots along on a motorbike with no motor.
  • American Honey — Star joins a ‘mag crew’ — a bus load of young people who have been recruited to sell magazine subscriptions across mid-west America. The bus takes them to wealthy suburbs and then to poor suburbs, juxtaposing them. The matriarch of the group is herself from a poor suburb but through psychopathic means has garnered enough money for herself to wear some of the trappings of wealth. She offers commentary on the people who live in these places as she drops her crew off.

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Children

It’s interesting to see how wealth discrepancy is handled in stories for children. In picture books there is very rarely any social commentary on money. Olivia (by Ian Falconer) lives in a big New York City apartment and must therefore have mega wealthy pig parents, but because she goes through similar dramas as many (white) kids, the reader is not encouraged to mull that one over.

The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett — The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is commonly used to describe an arc in which the main character lives in poverty at the beginning of the story and in wealth by the end. But more commonly in the Victorian era the plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and positin which are thought to be his/her natural birthright. Even Cinderella isn’t a genuine rags to riches tale — Cinderella must have been at least middle class to begin with or she would not have had those middle class relatives.

Ivy + Bean — Ivy seems to come from a richer family. She has a big bedroom with a craft table set up. Money is not mentioned. It may just be that Ivy’s mother is super organised and particular, and likes to dress her little girl in fancy frocks. But an adult reader assumes some discrepancy in income between the households. Ivy is originally depicted as a prissy, unsympathetic character, but after the first book the two girls realise they have a lot in common and become firm best friends. Not only that, Ivy is revealed to be every bit as devious as Bean. The message: Some kids are rich, others not so much, but they’re all just kids in the end.

Wimpy Kid, Dog Days — Holly Elizabeth Hills is one of Greg’s classmates and also an unrequited love interest. Greg tries to impress her but can’t. Her family is shown to be wealthy, playing on the old folk tales in which lovers are kept apart due to differences in class and status. The sister is portrayed as tyrannical, spoiled and selfish. The message: While being rich doesn’t necessarily make a girl undesirable, the existence of the sister conveys the idea that the riches themselves have contributed to her personality. 

“I have dreams about those shoes. Black high-tops. Two white stripes.”

All Jeremy wants is a pair of those shoes, the ones everyone at school seems to be wearing. But Jeremy’s grandma tells him they don’t have room for “want,” just “need,” and what Jeremy needs are new boots for winter. When Jeremy’s shoes fall apart at school, and the guidance counselor gives him a hand-me-down pair, the boy is more determined than ever to have those shoes, even a thrift-shop pair that are much too small. But sore feet aren’t much fun, and Jeremy comes to realize that the things he has — warm boots, a loving grandma, and the chance to help a friend — are worth more than the things he wants.

Harry Potter — It’s impossible to consider the ideology of wealth in the Harry Potter series without thinking of the rags to riches tale undergone by the author herself. In the Harry Potter universe the Black family is one of the mega wealthy. But Sirius Black was not born wealthy — he inherited 12 Grimmauld Place and this made him rich. He is fairly generous with his wealth. Gilderoy Lockhart is worth quite a bit. Harry Potter himself is also rich, especially for a twelve year old. He has inherited. It is extrapolated that after the series ends Harry goes on to become very rich. The Malfoy family and Bellatrix Lestrange are also wealthy. A lot of these rich characters are intermarried and related, keeping wealth in the family, in aristocratic tradition. The message: You don’t have to be all that great of a person to be born rich, but if you’re good like Harry you may well become rich through hard work, humility and dedication to a cause.

The Hundred Dresses — This book is about a modest, middle-class town whose children are strangers to poverty. Until one day, that is. These days it’s hard to tell the poorest children (in real life) by looking at them — clothing has come down in price and decent chainstore clothing is available cheaply from second hand stores. But in earlier eras clothing was prohibitively expensive and it was easy to tell the poor children at a glance. The message: Don’t judge people on their appearance. There is always more going on than you realise. Show compassion for those less fortunate.

Strays Like Us — Molly Moberly has been poor all her life and is even now living in poverty with a great aunt, but it turns out she has a rich grandmother who will now be her benefactor, of sorts. The grandmother is a lonely hypochondriac who won’t leave her bed. The message: If you have a destitute personality, money can’t buy happiness. You’re better off being modestly poor but mentally well.

Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty.

POLITICAL ISSUES

  • Disenfranchised people with little power make easy targets.
  • The main character of classic children’s book Heidi is rewarded by material wealth for moral virtue, with the following implicit message: If you are good, wealth will come your way. Ergo, if you’re not wealthy, you obviously are not good enough.

THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY

Institutional classism cannot be confronted without dealing with its accompanying myth of meritocracy, which suggests that if a person has a lower social class than they would like, they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because “anybody can get ahead if they try.” This mentality leads to faulty assumptions that people who have a lot earned it and people who don’t have a lot haven’t tried enough. Debunking this myth presents a challenging dialogue in that it intersects with class privilege, and os those who do have wealth may get defensive that they deserve what they have and have “earned it”.

Reframing Difference in Organisational Communication Studies by Dennis K. Mumby

 My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.

Peggy McIntosh

Q&A With Lani Guinier: Redefining The ‘Merit’ In Meritocracy at NPR    

THE MYTH OF GENTILITY

  A Bluebeard retelling like Rebecca feels outdated now because the entire revelation rests on the ‘surprise’ that a genteel, upper-class member of the aristocracy could possibly be a murderer.   The ship has sailed if you were hoping to tell that kind of story.

WRITE PRIVILEGE AS AN INVISIBLE KNAPSACK

Privilege is typically invisible for those who have it. This phenomenon has been pointed out by many since, but in 1993 Peggy McIntosh came up with the phrase ‘invisible knapsack’ to describe privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.

MUST WRITERS ALWAYS ‘PUNCH UP’?

Writers—especially comedy writers—are often told: when mining character for comedy, always punch up.

This bit of advice means, in effect, that the underdog must win. The underdog has the last laugh. Ideally, the poor underdog is also likeable. That papers over a lot.

But in real life, the underdog often loses. What if you don’t want to create comedy? What if you want to create a realist setting in which rich folk often win, precisely because of their resources? What if you need to say something a bit more… true?

Annie Proulx’s short stories make for an excellent case study in how to create a rounded cast of downtrodden characters who neither win nor lose, but who plod along in their lane, no more or less enlightened than the rich bastards who blow in to their natural worlds. Proulx’s fatalistic world view definitely helps her convey the idea that we are all products of our environment, and that wealth or lack thereof is part of what shapes us. Her rugged, harsh landscapes also lead the reader toward an egalitarian view of humankind, in which everyone is the size of the ant in comparison to the mountains and plains, and everyone is therefore equal.

The Beverly Hillbillies gets a pass precisely because the rich milieu is satirised: The culture and society of Beverly Hills is depicted as obsessive and superficial. The locals have an unhealthy obsession with money, social-climbing, and the latest fashions. The Beverly Hillbillies are, in contrast, straight talking honest folks, who never wear a mask. They know exactly who they are, and are therefore happy in themselves, free from pecking-order pressures.

I’ve never given poor people credit for having noble souls, on the pretext that they are poor and only too well acquainted with life’s injustices. But I have always assumed that they would be united in their hatred of the propertied classes. Gegene has set the record straight on that score and taught me this: if there is one thing that poor people despise, it is other poor people.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

The psychological effect of poverty is what lasts. You can send in rice to heal them and for energy but beware of giving energy to desperate people. They’re going to use it…. The hunger is bad but then you’d need about nine million therapists, who’d never be equipped anyway.

Frank McCourt on Writing About Poverty

CAPITALISM

Money Lender and Wife
Money Lender and Wife
  • Capitalism – anybody can be rich.
  • Communism – nobody can be rich.
  • Socialism – anybody can be rich but nobody should be poor.
Illustrator John Vassos depicts the sinister life of rich people with beautiful tones.
Illustrator John Vassos depicts the sinister life of rich people with beautiful tones.

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Header painting: Arthur Dixon – The King’s Daughter

The bestselling, comprehensive, and carefully researched guide to the ins-and-outs of the American class system with a detailed look at the defining factors of each group, from customs to fashion to housing. Based on careful research and told with grace and wit, Paul Fessell shows how everything people within American society do, say, and own reflects their social status. Detailing the lifestyles of each class, from the way they dress and where they live to their education and hobbies, Class is sure to entertain, enlighten, and occasionally enrage readers as they identify their own place in society and see how the other half lives.

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Features of a Psychological Suspense Story

hands clawing up a cliff

What makes a horror or thriller story ‘psychological’? Aren’t the entire suspense genre psychological, to some degree? I set out to investigate.

A label to say: This Is More Than Just Gore!

With a few notable exceptions, the label “psychological horror” is most often used to describe what something doesn’t have rather than what it does. A lack of exploding eyeballs or sloshing eviscerations must mean that the scare is psychological, right? Saying that a story is “psychological horror” seems like it should mean it gives the reader a true creeping sense of fear, but all too often it just means the [story] doesn’t feature violent organ failure.

Electric Literature

So, story makers will slap that label on if they want to signal hidden depths to their story. With that established, let’s get a bit deeper. How deep can we get?

Raison d’être of a Psychological Thriller

Psychological suspense stories encourage us to ask questions about our own lives.

  • Can you really trust your husband? (Gone Girl)
  • Can your partner’s good points outweigh their terrible points? (Big Little Lies)
  • Can you really trust your nanny? (Girl On The Train)
  • How far would you go to achieve your dream? (You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)
  • We think we know people, but how much do we really know? (Most of them)
  • What is a perfect life? Does a life that looks perfect from the inside feel perfect from the inside? (The Couple Next Door, Big Little Lies)

A Brief History Of A Psychological Suspense Story

The origins of the modern psychological thriller stretch all the way back to 1938, when Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was published and became popular. But the genre goes back further than that and can be found in fairytale — Rebecca happens to be based on the Bluebeard story. 

A common early trope of popular psychological suspense involved what is now called ‘the woman in peril’.

I write psychological thrillers. In this genre, the female experience has so often been portrayed as damaged—obsessive, delusional—that I fear readers have come to expect emotionally unstable women. In the psychological thriller genre, men are often antagonists, but rarely are they shown to be emotionally vulnerable. Given that I know as many men who can be ruled by their emotions as women, it’s curious that we don’t see more of them on the page. Surely it’s not doing either gender any favours to ignore the emotions of one and exaggerate the emotions of another?

The Silenced Woman and the Psychological Thriller by Araminta Hall

The ‘woman in peril’ has been replaced by something just as insidious: Film, book and tv shows rotate around darker and darker crimes committed against women. Sexy mad women fill our consciousness and stalk our air waves. The idea of the ‘crazy woman’ who either did it or deserved it has taken hold.’

We have yet to enter the age of suspense stories in which men are allowed the full range of emotions, and in which the emotional expression of women becomes part of their strength.

Common Features Of A Psychological Suspense Story

CHARACTER

  • The threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family. The hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child.
  • Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected.

PLOT

  • The pacing is a bit more deliberate than in non-suspense genres, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly.
  • Twists are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another.
  • Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational.
  • The psychological subgenre of thriller demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases. The psychological subgenre of horror demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without gore.
  • In fact, see my post on Thrillers. The psychological thriller is of course a subset of Thriller, so everything in that post applies. See also my post on Horror.

NARRATION

Alternating points of view are popular. Gone Girl and Girl On The Train both employ this technique.

In young adult fiction, Robert Cormier used alternating points of view a number of times, for example In The Middle Of The Night, After The First Death.

Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia is another example.

Hattie Hoffman has spent her entire life up to this point playing different parts — the straight-A student, the dutiful daughter, the civically-minded teenager. So when she’s found stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, her small town is torn apart by the tragedy, as well as the idea that Hattie’s killer might be hidden in their midst. But things aren’t always as they seem, and as the local sheriff seeks out the murderer, he finds out that Hattie had some dark secrets, unseeable from the surface. Told from alternating perspectives — Hattie’s, the sheriff’s, and a high school english teacher who has secrets of his own — Everything You Want To Be is a chilling and mesmerizing look at the final year of a young woman’s life.

An unreliable narrator — or a potential unreliable narrator — is almost compulsory. Part of the reader’s fun work is picking out bullshit when we hear it. This is of course the same reason why multiple points of view are so popular. Of the storytellers presented to us, whose do we trust?

More Common Tropes In Psychological Suspense

MEMORY PROBLEMS 

  • Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson — After a car crash, Chrissie develops a form of amnesia in which her short-term memory is wiped every morning upon waking. She’s unable to form new memories. And so, every morning, she must relearn who the man sleeping next to her is — her husband, Ben. One day, she finds a notebook that she’d been hiding. Within, she finds a foreboding message: “Do not trust Ben.” And it’s written in her own handwriting.
  • The Girl On The Train — the protagonist has memory black outs because of her heavy drinking.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch — “Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before being knocked unconscious by his unknown abductor — and wakes up to a new life as someone else. His wife has been swapped out for another woman, and he doesn’t have a son anymore. In this new version of existence, he’s not just a college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved a truly remarkable, game-changing feat. But which version of Jason Dessen’s life is real, and which one is the dream? That question is at the heart of this suspenseful thriller, which also asks how far we’ll go to get what we want — and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
  • The Girl Before by Rena Olsen — Claire Lawson’s life with her husband and daughters is running along smoothly — until one day, a squad of armed men break into her house and tear her away from her family. The last thing she hears is her husband commanding her to say nothing. From there, the book spirals back to Claire’s past: a tumultuous youth, escaping her family, falling in love with the son of her adoptive parents. But Claire’s history is full of dark secrets, some of which she doesn’t even remember herself. The more she finds out about herself, the more it becomes possible that the past could ruin her life as she knows it.

Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.

Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.

A ten-year-old girl is determined to find her missing neighbor, but the answers lead her to places and people she never expected—and maybe even one she’s been running away from—in this gorgeous debut novel that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.

Guinevere St. Clair is going to be a lawyer. She was the fastest girl in New York City. She knows everything there is to know about the brain. And now that she’s living in Crow, Iowa, she wants to ride into her first day of school on a cow named Willowdale Princess Deon Dawn.

But Gwyn isn’t in Crow, Iowa, just for royal cows. Her family has moved there, where her parents grew up, in the hopes of jogging her mother Vienna’s memory. Vienna has been suffering from memory loss since Gwyn was four. She can no longer remember anything past the age of thirteen, not even that she has two young daughters. Gwyn’s father is obsessed with finding out everything he can to help his wife, but Gwyn’s focused on problems that seem a little more within her reach. Like proving that the very strange Gaysie Cutter who lives next door is behind the disappearance of her only friend, Wilbur Truesdale.

Gwyn is sure she can crack the case, but when she does she finds that not all of her investigations lead her to the places she would have expected. In fact they might just lead her to learn about the mother she’s been doing her best to forget.

CONVALESCING

Related to periods of memory loss are periods spent away, convalescing, while the rest of the world moves on without you. I have heard former inmates say in interviews that coming out of prison feels like this. Technology in particular moves far more quickly than anyone can anticipate.

  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier
  • Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer — Bella’s vampiric pregnancy

PARANOIA

  • The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer — As Alex, or Casey, or Juliana, or whatever her name is at the moment, can tell you, it’s not easy to be on the lam. A while ago, this secret agent learned a bit too much about her employers, and now they’re hell-bent on killing her. She lives in a state of paranoia, running from location to location and name to name. Soon, she gets a call from her boss, calling her in for one last mission. She’s not sure who to believe, but still, she goes along with the kidnapping of a schoolteacher, Daniel Beach, who’s supposedly involved with the design of a virus intended to wipe out the human race. Only problem with Mr. Beach? He’s irresistibly attractive, and doesn’t seem to be much of a villain at all.

MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST

Complicated and terrible (but passionate) marriages have made a big comeback since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is similar to the hired-nanny stories — the person we should be most afraid of in the whole world is also the person we’ve let into our homes (and hearts).

  • The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison — A picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife. Similar to Gone Girl.
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — As with Gone Girl, the marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you.

Neighbours can also be dangerous.

  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena — Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all: the gorgeous home, the loving relationship, the beautiful baby girl. But one night, while they’re at a dinner party next door, a horrifying crime is committed. Investigators pounce on the case, but the more they delve into the details of the Conti’s lives, the clearer it becomes that the couple has a trove of skeletons in the closet, and secrets that they’ve been keeping — from the world, and from one another.
  • Rosemary’s Baby is the classic film version of this trope — neighbours take a young pregnant woman under their wing with the aim of turning her unborn baby into the devil.
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