How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

George Vicat Cole - Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1912. At its heart, “Pearl Button” is a story about a clash of two cultures seen through a child’s eyes.

This story plays out as a duality of restriction and freedom. The European settlers are restricted while the Māori people enjoy freedom. “Pearl Button” is the only story in which Mansfield wrote about Māori. Her treatment of Māori from a white perspective was typical for the era — a romanticized opposition between Western and non-Western cultures. Mansfield came back to the idea of colonial constriction in later stories but focused on white New Zealanders.

SETTING OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

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The Māori of New Zealand lived in a more communal way than New Zealand’s Pākehā immigrants. Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa and immediately started sectioning up the space — from land down to living quarters. While European settlers lived in little houses, Māori people did not live like this. The pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, and is the centre of a Māori community, extending the concept of family out beyond the traditional nuclear family by European concept. Mansfield grew up alongside Māori pā culture and would have noted the differences.

The story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” juxtaposes two ways of living — the European way of living in segmented ‘little boxes’ versus the freer, more sensual Māori way of life, closer to nature. Pearl Button herself prefers the Māori way of life. Since Pearl is the focalising character, the reader is encouraged to share in her view.

There’s another kind of juxtaposition in this story as well, a really interesting one, and it was the first time Mansfield had used it. “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” was the first time Mansfield used narrative parallax.

Mansfield’s ironic use of parallax to suggest that the man’s experience of the world is multifaceted also marks the particular modulation into a selective, restricted perspective, which is Impressionistic in concept. She employs this technique haphazardly, beginning with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1910) and ending with “Miss Brill” (1920).

There is no consistent development. The method depends on a single device: the restricting of the perspective and knowledge of a focaliser-character into a broadening, more objective narrator’s one. He is not emotionally detached from the scene, but capable of perceiving it from a great distance. It often involves an initiation, a sudden awareness or enlightenment (epiphany) of some profound significance.

The imposition of narrative distance on a scene of intense emotional concern on the part of the participant(s) creates an irony of perspective which often suggests the isolation of individual human beings, their lack of consequence in the universal flux of life, their diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point and their defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround them.

One of the best examples of this method can be found in “The Little Governess“, where the nameless, inexperienced young governess is made aware of her fellow-travellers, of herself, and reality outside her. At the end of the story she is isolated from everyone because of her own inconsistent behaviour. She feels hopelessly insignificant and deflated by events.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is basically a carnivalesque story. If this were a children’s picture book, the kidnappers might be an animal — let’s say a cat in a hat — and there would be no police officers bringing the child back — the parents wouldn’t notice she’d gone. In a carnivalesque story the child escapes into fun.

Of course, Mansfield’s story has that very dark layer because Pearl Button really is kidnapped within the world of the story. Pearl has an Unexpected Emotional Reaction. We expect children to be distraught when taken away from their natal homes. But what if a child is so young and so detached from their family that one family could easily be switched out for another? Isn’t this the horror that gave rise to an entire category of changeling stories around the world?

Throughout her ‘kidnapping’, Pearl experiences positive emotions that burgeon out of bodily experience. The women first see her in the joyful, childlike act of swinging on a front gate. They reciprocate her motions by ‘waving their arms and clapping their hands together’. Pearl’s responsive laughter reveals that her primary means of experiencing the world is through reactive and embodied emotion. Later, she will cry when tired and confused, laugh when entertained by funny faces, and scream when she sees the ocean. She learns to enjoy the sea by entering it with the trusted woman, whom she is hugging and kissing at the moment she sees the ‘little blue men’ coming to carry her back home.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She's ready for adventure. She doesn't know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She’s ready for adventure. She doesn’t know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Carlton Alfred Smith - "At the Garden Gate". In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.
Carlton Alfred Smith – “At the Garden Gate”. In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.

SHORTCOMING

Pearl’s problem is that she’s a little girl severely constricted by her European life. The story opens with her symbolic swinging on the gate.

Pearl clearly goes willingly with the women and never complains. We assume she wants to be there the whole time, though we might read the story a slightly different way — Pearl would have been taught not to complain. This is part of the restriction of being a girl in white society in that era. When she sat in the dust while eating a peach she might have complained when she spilled the juice on her petticoat. But she doesn’t complain — she instead just tells the women what has happened, and only because she is frightened of what comes next. Ruining pretty clothes is clearly a terrible misdemeanour where Pearl Button comes from.

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the main character (usually a child or child stand-in) only desires to have fun.

Pearl is itching to get out of that gate, out into the world where she can be closer to nature and run around with fewer clothes hampering her movements. Pearl doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know what she’s missing until she’s taken out of her European life, full of boundaries and restrictions.

Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster,  c. 1935
Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster, c. 1935

OPPONENT

For plotting purposes, the opposition is the cadre of policemen who come to ‘save’ Pearl from her fun. The reader will likely feel the opponents are the abductors because popular ideology would have it that children should stay with their natal families at all costs. This feeling is even more true today than it was in 1912 when first peoples’ children around the colonised world were regularly abducted from their families by white people (especially in Australia).

The story works with long-established tropes about the colonised racial other who experiences the world as a body rather than as a mind. The two women who encounter Pearl and bring her away with them are ‘big’ and walk slowly ‘because they [are] so fat’. These large feminine bodies are, like that of the grandmother in “The Little Girl”, extremely comforting for the young protagonist. Pearl ‘nestles’ into one woman’s lap, where her physical sensations bleed into a contented emotional state: ‘The woman was warm as a cat and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring […] Pearl had never been happy like this before.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

The intrigue of this story rests upon the reader feeling worried for Pearl. A long history of storytelling has taught us this much: A taken child is in danger. Think of the Greek myths, with those terrible women who eat other people’s babies because they can’t have children of their own. They wreak havoc by eating other people’s babies instead. Lamia is a standout example.

So the reader expects Pearl to come to harm, but Katherine Mansfield’s kidnapper is more of a nymph than an ogre; rather than devour the child, these proxy nymphs taker her away to look after her. Mythological nymphs are especially drawn to looking after children who have been abandoned by their mothers. Pearl Button hasn’t been abandoned, but when the Māori women find her, she is on her own, with no whanau in sight. An unusual situation for a child, according to a Māori worldview at the time.

To further the analogy of the Greek nymphs, the Māori end up by the sea. The seaside could be coded as a New Zealand equivalent of the river Ilissos, where nymphs like to frolic in the water and enjoy the shade. Importantly, Greek nymphs are not evil. They don’t even have any backstories of their own — they are about potential (young women waiting to be married).

PLAN

Pearl is too young to be a ‘planner’ as such. The adults have the plan — they let Pearl move about freely by stripping her of most of her constricting Edwardian clothing. They let her frolic on the beach and have the new experience of playing in waves. Through the focalised viewpoint of Pearl, it seems these abductors exist only to have fun themselves. We never learn why they’ve taken Pearl or if they ever intended to return her. I doubt the Māori characters who took Pearl didn’t see it as abduction, but rather a casual sharing of the parenting load, fully intending to return her at the end of the day.

BIG STRUGGLE

When the Māori mother undresses Pearl she is preparing Pearl for a metaphorical Battle. In a carnivalesque story there’s no Battle as such — instead the fun gets funner and funner, culminating in peak fun before something or someone intervenes to bring everything to an end. The child returns to their normal life in a home-away-home structure.

But there’s a structural difference between “Pearl Button” (a lyrical short story) and, say, The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea — carnivalesque picture books for preschoolers. “Pearl Button” stars a preschooler, but is clearly not for a preschool audience.

The difference is that Pearl has some sort of revelation. She doesn’t understand it, but she feels it at a sensory level. Mansfield makes use of the sea…

ANAGNORISIS

She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands.

Throughout the story, Mansfield has mentioned colour over and over — Pearl notices the different colours of things. When witnessed as a whole, the ocean looks blue but not when she tries to hold a tiny portion of it in her hands. This detail stands in for a Anagnorisis — no doubt unformed and preverbal — after all Pearl is still a young child. What is the nascent revelation? That things look lovely from this distance (as a temporary visitor) but as soon as she gets right into it the illusion disintegrates. Her day of fun with the Māori families is about to come to an end.

It is in fact the sensory experience of the ocean that provokes the most feeling from Pearl. Its warmth, wetness and unique visual properties — ‘it stopped being blue in her hands’ — get her to shriek, exclaim and throw ‘her thin little arms round the woman’s neck’. During this time away from the restrictive civilisation of the ‘House of Boxes’, Pearl, unlike young Kass, does not have to fight a natural order in which feeling comes first.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the police will charge the abductors and Pearl will be returned to her family. I doubt she’ll suffer trauma because her big day out has been a lovely experience. But her freedom will probably be curtailed from now on. I doubt her mother will let her swing on the front gate without close supervision. She’ll be cautioned against talking to strangers. Pearl will be more fearful from now on. Her days of childlike bliss and innocence are over.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • Another story in which Mansfield explores how affectionate physical contact plays into the emotional relationships between children and adults is “The Little Girl“.
  • “The Representation Of The Maori By European Artists In New Zealand, Ca 1890-1914″ by Leonard Bell elaborates on how native New Zealanders were fictionalised by colonial settlers.
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Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

The Lumber-Room by Saki Short Story Analysis

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“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.

There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.

SETTING OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”

  • Saki’s stories are set in upper-class Edwardian England.
  • A lumber-room is a room in an upper-class English house where items are stored when not in use.
  • Jagborough is a fictional seaside resort but has a likely-sounding English name.
  • Nicholas wants to go into the deepest, most secret part of the house (rather than outside in the garden) to see what’s there. This is his inner-world, his imagination, his subconscious.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”

“The Lumber-Room” is a carnivalesque story, or certainly would be if it were written for children. A child goes on an adventure, has fun without adult supervision, then returns to the safe but restrictive adult world by the end of the story. Except in this one, there’s no return to safety. The child main character of Saki’s short story understands that adults can’t be trusted. This is not a message you typically (or ever) see in picture books for children, unless it refers specifically to ‘adults can’t see the same magic’.

Notice that the aunt manufactures a ‘carnivalesque’ adventure (‘something of a festival nature’) for the other children, but this is unlikely to be fun in the slightest. We can deduce this because the girl-cousin hurts herself getting into the car and cries loudly. When supervised and arranged by adults, especially in the spirit of punishment for the ostracised, carnivalesque adventures are nothing of the sort. Sure enough, we learn the other children had a terrible time. The boy’s boots were too tight (his conservative, mainstream life too constrictive), and the tide had been up, leaving no space for play.

Saki opens “The Lumber-Room” in an interesting way, by telling us a self-contained story in the first paragraph. This mini story describes why Nicholas is in disgrace. Hitchcock might have called the frog in the bread-and-milk a McGuffin — we never hear about the frog again, but it kicks the real story off. This initial micro-story lets Nicholas have his Anagnorisis upfront. The story now progresses with a wiser, more knowing, less trusting child, because Nicholas has learned that adults can turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them, insisting things are one way when they decidedly are not.

SHORTCOMING

The Haunted Room by S.E. Post 1952
“The Haunted Room” by S.E. Post 1952 (an illustration for a completely different story, which somehow reminds me of this one.

Nicholas is your classic trickster — very intelligent but believably so. Readers love tricksters. We identify with tricksters immediately.

Nicholas’s Shortcoming is that he is a child. This is true for almost all children in stories, because their freedom is severely limited.

Not only that, Nicholas is a misunderstood child. We know from this particular episode of his life story that he wants to look at a narrative tapestry while the adult assumes he wants to get into the gooseberries, but this must only scratch the surface of all the ways in which he is misunderstood.

Nicholas is an aesthete rather than an athlete — the two main types of man as decided in the 19th century. He likes to walk around and look at nice things, inhaling their scent, considering the stories behind them.

Nicholas might therefore be considered a proxy for a gay adult man living in the Edwardian era. This man is expected to like ‘gooseberries’ but is in fact drawn into the hidden, secret pleasures of the locked room, which contains many beautiful treasures.

DESIRE

Nicholas wants to get into the forbidden lumber-room and explore all the wonderful things hidden to him.

The off-the-page gay man can’t necessarily explain why he loves the forbidden treasures so much, but he does love it and takes every opportunity to go there. When he does go there, he hurts no one. And the things that are in there are off-limits for no good reason.

The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them.

This is not a story of someone who is acting in the world, where there is danger, but someone who is content to watch on, which is bearable so long as he understands his own inner self.

OPPONENT

The ‘aunt’ is his main opponent, though she is simply standing in for ‘correct and upright society’ more generally.

Saki himself ‘was brought up by two unmarried aunts with a fondness for the birch, and developed a lifelong aversion to spinsters’ (The Guardian).

PLAN

Nicholas understands the concepts of reverse psychology and diversion.

  1. He will reinforce the aunts beliefs about him by making a show of crawling into the gooseberry garden.
  2. While the aunt is busy hunting him down in the overgrown garden he will use the key to get into the lumber-room.

BIG STRUGGLE

There’s something very fairytale about the Battle scene, in which Nicholas knows full well the ‘aunt’ stuck in the tank is exactly who she says she is, but he makes us of superstition and folklore to pretend naïveté, cracking on that he really believes she’s a changeling of some sort.

ANAGNORISIS

As mentioned above, this story structure is a bit unusual because the mini-story upfront gives Nicholas his revelation.

The big reveal for the reader is that Nicholas is not interested in gooseberries, but in the more adult, less understandable pleasures of the treasures in the lumber-room.

Nicholas didn’t know what he’d find inside this forbidden room, but once he entered it, the pleasures were more than he could have imagined, especially when he found the book of beautiful birds.

Before that he observes a tapestry meant as a fire screen. Saki describes it for the reader. When writers describe a painting or photo within a story this is known as ekphrasis, which was a popular Greek pastime. Short story writers make use of it even now, and the tapestry in “The Lumber-Room” seems to function as an indirect way of arriving at a character’s Anagnorisis.

What does Nicholas understand by looking at the hunters and the stag?

A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly-growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.

There are plenty of interpretations, but here’s mine:

  • ‘It would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag’ and it would not be difficult for heteronormative society to work out what’s going on right under their noses if only they were to look.
  • But when they do look, it is very dangerous for the stag.
  • It is pleasurable in this forbidden room but it is also dangerous. Perhaps danger is part of the pleasure itself.
  • There’s no easy way to win the big struggle when you are the stag.

Nicholas’s secret is now a safe thing. He comes up with a way the story on the tapestry could end that could be all right. Will Eaves, on the Neuromantics podcast says this crops up a lot in Greek myth: How can these sexually irresponsible labile figures have an effect in the world that ends up restoring balance? (Myth is very important to Saki’s literary world. A lot of the macabre stories have roots in green man figures and whatnot.)

 NEW SITUATION

The aunt who is — significantly — not Nicholas’s own aunt doesn’t really know him. So she is obliged to believe that perhaps he was naive enough to think that she had been swapped out by some evil witch. We don’t get to know of any further consequences for Nicholas but we can extrapolate that the aunt has either got the measure of him now (that he is much smarter than he cracks on) or else much dumber. I bet she’s keeping a close eye on him, to work out which of those it is.

The gay man sort of gets away with entering the metaphorical lumber-room because people simply assume he wants something else entirely. While they are assuming that, they aren’t looking for him in there. But he doesn’t get away with it entirely. Others know something is up. They know that he is tricking them in some way, though can’t quite get the measure of him, in a society where sexuality and orientation isn’t discussed. People don’t even have the language to discuss it. In that way, the adult gay man is similar to a child — children know things, but are often ill-equipped with language to describe these things.

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Credit goes to Episode 3 of the Neuromantics podcast for alerting me to the gay subtext of this story. I’d otherwise have missed it. (At 29 minutes) The Neuromantics talk about “The Lumber-Room” in a discussion about people’s inner-world. Nicholas’s inner world is so much more important and satisfying to him than anything else.

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Header painting: John Dawson Watson — The Collector’s Home

Ernestine and Kit by Kevin Barry Analysis

“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry, included in Dark Lies The Island (2013). It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.

This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.

CHARACTERS OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

The fat lady/thin lady duo is pretty common across storytelling, which is useful for Kevin Barry because the reader will quickly form expectations from that.

For instance, we expect something light-hearted:

a fat and a skinny character make up a two-character ensemble. This is usually a comedy trope, usually with the skinny character being the Straight Man, although inversions of this are seen as well.

TV Tropes

Ernestine and Kit remind me of the women in Kate diCamillo’s Mercy series. Eugenia is phonetically similar to Ernestine. Her sister is Baby Lincoln. The cover below summarises their relationship — Baby is (very obviously) the childlike character while the other is a parental disciplinarian.

Typically, one woman of the pair will be motherly; the other needing to be mothered. A two-older-woman due may be religious, or may be quasi-lesbian tropes. Kevin Barry covers this possibility in this story, too, when Eugenia and Kit wonder how they are perceived by others.

How else does Kevin Barry persuade us that these are two law-abiding ladies?

  • Others are waving at them. As readers we take our cue from other others within the world react to them. This way, even non-sympathetic characters can see sympathetic. Here people wave because everyone else is in a good mood and perhaps because they’ve been caught up in a vintage car rally.
  • It seems these old ladies are also going to the vintage car rally at Kilmore, or to other innocuous places (like the castle).

In light of two older women on a day trip, the following sounds innocuous but only on second reading we realise the opposite meaning is intended:

‘children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.’

STORYWORLD OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

SEASON

A fine Saturday in June.

‘The world as fat on the blood of summer.’ This not only sets the scene but sets the vibe. (At this point we may assume it’s comedic hyperbole.)

Like “Beer Trip to Llandudno” this is a road trip between friends. Road trip stories are based on the classic mythic structure.

GEOGRAPHY

I can’t quite work out their route, because I can’t work out which places are real and which are made up for the story. (An Irish local may enlighten me.)

Notice how the women drive sedately at first, next it ‘lightly sped’, finally they’re breaking the speed limits terribly.

  • A bungalow in the Midlands
  • Through North County Sligo (Ireland)
  • Lough Gill (a lake to the west)
  • The lakeside to ride the ferry to Innisfree (an island in Lough Gill). I looked at the Google street view and wondered if there is such a thing as the ferry to Innisfree (spelt Innishfree in the story). The answer is no — ‘This pint-sized island lies tantalisingly close to the lough’s southeastern shore, but, alas, can’t be accessed. Still, it’s visible from the shore’. (Lonely Planet)
  • Tully (means a small hill in Irish, but is it a real place? Many Irish place names include the word Tully…)
  • Leckaun, Country Leitrim (where the young mother in stonewash denim is headed. The detail on the denim makes me wonder if this is the 1980s, but these old women are probably noticing what’s now called acid wash denim, themselves stuck in the 80s.)
  • An unspecified castle
  • Cavan
  • Northern Ireland, a separate jurisdiction
  • The outskirts of Enniskillen, where there is another festival
  • The Asda in Enniskillen
  • Belcoo
  • Blacklion
  • Dromahair
  • The midland plain
  • A clump of hawthorn bushes near the side of the road. This is where the women leave the kidnapped child.
HAWTHORN

When I read Hawthorn I wondered why I got a fairytale ping. That’s right — in Sleeping Beauty it’s a Hawthorn hedge that springs up around the castle.

The symbolism in this tale is not opaque. The hedge represents [Beauty’s] hymen, the white blossoms her virginity. The odor of sex emitted by blossoming hawthorns signals that her purity will soon be a thing of the past.

Bill Vaughn

There’s plenty of symbolism around the hawthorn, especially in Ireland:

Besides sex and death, Sleeping Beauty is also informed by contemporary realities and ancient beliefs about the powers of the hawthorn tree. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, dense thorny hedges were increasingly cultivated throughout Europe to keep the peasantry off land that had traditionally been used in common by serfs and nobles alike. In Ireland, at the time the story was published in 1812, these enclosures were particularly reviled, although lone hawthorns on the island were considered the home of faeries, and thus enchanted.

The hawthorn was a potent symbol in pre-Christian Europe—appealed to for good fortune, feared if harmed, and burned on funeral pyres to help waft the soul toward heaven—and later, the Church appropriated boughs of the Mayflower’s delicate white petals as devotional icons displayed during that month’s observances of the Cult of the Virgin. Many of the supernatural appearances of Mary reported by the faithful over the centuries—the so-called Marian Apparitions—place her under a hawthorn tree or perched on one of its branches.

Bill Vaughn

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”

THE RULE OF THREE IN STORYTELLING

This story makes an interesting case study into when (and how) to make use of The Rule of Three. It’s often said that when telling a story three incidents feels right to the audience — set it up, show it’s a pattern, change up the pattern. In this case we have a thwarted kidnapping followed by a successful one, so Kevin Barry has not made use of this Rule of Three at all. That’s two, is it not?

So what has Barry done instead? He’s using more of a step stool.

  1. The women drive past a child in a stroller
  2. They attempt a kidnapping
  3. They succeed at Asda.

If we count like this, it’s a slightly different take on the same basic rule. But it’s children who are counted rather than kidnapping attempts.

PARATEXT

“Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.

The Paris Review

SHORTCOMING

Here’s the log line of the film, which gives a clue to the underlying psychology of the characters:

Two ladies in their seventies drive through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. As they pass by village pubs and beaches, they imagine the terrible, immoral lives people are living today. Their one consolation is the innocence of children. This is an absurd and macabre tale about how the petty-minded destroy themselves.

The details about these ladies are marvellous.

  • They’re into phrenology (‘She has a liar’s chin.’)
  • They leave their tea to brew until it’s as strong as ale.
  • They nibble at their scones like hungry mice
  • Ernestine keeps wine gums in her bag to lure children
  • Ernestine likes to leaf through power-tool catalogues, which gives her a genderless air —  much like Kerry of This Country (Kerry likes steam engines.)
  • They drink a lot of New Zealand wine
  • Listen to classical music on the radio
  • Go through copious amounts of paper towels (the reason is not given, or at least I haven’t picked it up.)

DESIRE

We are at first persuaded that these two are on a nice day out. Their wants are minimal. “A Cornetto would go down a treat.”

They are revealed to be judgemental, unpleasant types. Perhaps they simply enjoy judging people as a way to strengthen the bond between them?

The first question I have is, why do these two ladies want to stop in at the pub they just dissed, the one with beer kegs and drugs and a pool table?

The big reveal is their desire to abduct a child.

Ernestine and Kit want to abduct a child to fulfil their deeper desire to take an uncorrupted slice of humanity home for themselves, to keep it pristine forever and make themselves feel good about a corrupt and evil world.

OPPONENT

Their Opponents are the children themselves as well as their parents, who obviously don’t want their children abducted.

PLAN

The story is presented as habitual. Ernestine and Kit are very good at what they do. They drive around until they spot an opportunity for abduction. Then they pounce.

If caught out, they use their cover as older women to crack on they were only rescuing a lost child.

BIG STRUGGLE

In a story like this one, where two women go on a crime spree, there will be a succession of Battles. “The” Battle is the bit that comes right before the Self-Revelation. So, the Battle where these women successfully steal a child is ostensibly the Battle they win.

ANAGNORISIS

But they realise on the way home that this is not the angelic child they thought it was. In fact, it stinks.

A child is not what they really want at all — a child is only what they think they want. The want to steal the children of drug addicts and prostitutes, but when they do get a child, they assume this of it, and for this very reason they don’t want it. They are stuck in a ludicrous, evil loop.

“Ernestine and Kit” is a take on a classic changeling story. Communities have believed in changelings until very recently. In the 1890s a man in Cork set his wife on fire believing she had been switched by fairies. Even now, ideas about changelings can accompany mental illness. When Ernestine and Kit realise the baby is not what they thought, it is — to them — as if the ideal baby has been switched out for an evil one.

NEW SITUATION

What have people done across history when they don’t want a baby anymore? They left it in the woods, or in other out-of-the-way places: privies, roadside, dung-hills. This practice was ignored by society even though it wasn’t okay according to the church, reflecting the difference between church ideals and the realities of looking after another child.

EXTRAPOLATION

They will never get what they want because they don’t want what they think they want, but they will keep on hunting because this is their Saturday pastime.

They do still believe there is such a thing as the angelic child, so we can  be confident they’ll continue on their kidnapping exploits, forever thwarted by lack of perfection.

RESONANCE

Unfortunately, when I see two older ladies out on a drive I sometimes think of Ernestine and Kit. More deeply, this is a story about how the realities of parenthood don’t match the idealised version of it. If we didn’t have these idealised visions of children the species would probably die out.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Transmogrification In Storytelling

transmogrification Spirited Away

Transmogrification in storytelling has a long history. Today it can be seen across different types of story in many permutations.

WHAT IS TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND WHAT IS ITS USE IN STORYTELLING?

Transmogrification is the act of transforming into something else. The technique may be used by storytellers for the following reasons:

  • Humorous effect
  • Grotesque effect
  • Humorous and grotesque at once
  • In myth, transmogrification provides an explanation for natural things. It restores order by rationalising phenomena, inventing origin stories. We see it used in modern stories to explain a system of magic within a fantasy setting.
  • Christianity includes commitment to an embodied self. Even after we die, we keep the integrity of the self, and this self will be perfected in Heaven. A lot of stories are built on Judeo-Christian thought. The transmogrification story can help a character have a revelation about who they really are who is the integral self? I was a bear for a while, now I can embrace my wilder self. In other words, transmogrification is often a part of the anagnorisis phase. In fairy tales, this redemption arc commonly changes foul to fair, ugly to lovely.
  • The idea of shapeshifting is alluring as a wish-fulfilment fantasy: What if I was somebody else? When shapeshifting into an animal, it allows us an escape from humanity.
  • Storytellers are able to explore what it might be like to be a dog, a cat, a bird.
  • Metamorphosis is perhaps the most rewarding way of evading fear. It can symbolise the evasion of threat.
  • Inventing faces for terrors or redrawing their features in a changed shape represents a way of coping with them — making them familiar. What if you were to transmogrify into a monster for a while? Would you still be scared of monsters?

Because transmogrification is not a thing that happens in the real world, there obviously needs to be a system of magic within the world of the story. But there are also realist stories which borrow from the ancient tropes and put a realist spin on it, for example:

  • Makeover stories, in which a character wears make-up and new clothes and takes off her glasses to discover she’s beautiful both inside and out.
  • Fish out of water stories
  • Mistaken identity stories
  • Crime/Mystery stories in which a character must put on a disguise in order to solve a problem
  • Coming-of-age stories in which a young character is thrown into a grown-up world just before they are ready, hastening maturity.

All of these plots are about the fantasy of becoming somebody else for a while of seeing what you’re really capable of, testing your mettle. This is the fundamental reason for any story, so it’s no surprise to find the transmogrification trope used far and wide, across cultures, across time, across different types of story.

IDEOLOGY OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

I have written before about some ideological problems associated with posing as somebody else the literary equivalent of black face. Because transformation is so strongly associated with not only humour but also the grotesque, it can be highly problematic to dress male characters up as female characters. Yet this is a standard gag in contemporary children’s films.

Perhaps for these reasons, many writers cross species to achieve the humorous/grotesque effect.

Animals inherently contain a sense of mystery, and so I think it makes sense that we would use literal transformations into animals in stories to talk about parts of ourselves and our relationships that are difficult—or impossible—to explain.

Masters Review

OTHER TERMINOLOGY RELATED TO THE CHANGING OF FORM AND TYPE

  • Shapeshifting —  a person or being with the ability to change their physical form at will.
  • Metamorphosis — a general term for any kind of change in physical form, structure or substance. In literature there may be a system of magic or supernatural intervention, but this word is also used in the natural sciences to describe something like a caterpillar’s change into a butterfly.
  • Anthropomorphism — Imagery in which a non-human creature is afforded human features. The creature is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Personification — Imagery in which something inanimate is afforded human features. The object is not thought to be literally a person within the world of the story.
  • Polytropos — literally “many forms”. In literary use, “many personalities”.
  • Body Swap a different take on shapeshifting, in stories which usually achieve a double reversal.
  • Changeling in this case it feels like a child’s body has been swapped for something evil.
  • Dybbuk in Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is a demon who takes the guise of a loved one.is a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. It supposedly leaves the host body once it has accomplished its goal, sometimes after being helped.
  • Metempsychosis  the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species. You find this in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to pagan magic, natural phenomena was constantly changing from one thing into another. This is the belief system that governs the realm of fairytale. ‘Fairy tale logic’ is Pagan logic. You probably know Pythagoras from your high school maths textbook, but Pythagoras more widely was known back then for his wide dissemination of a set of principles to do with mysticism, not just mathematics. He was just as interested in both. He wrote far more about mysticism than about maths, but still added a lot to our understanding of the world.
  • Transmigration unless you’re talking about the Ancient Greek belief system, transmigration is the word to use. it’s basically another word for the process of reincarnation, which means ‘entering the flesh again’. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are pretty well-known for their belief in reincarnation. But the Norse, many Native American nations, lots of Catholics and Muslims also belief in some form of reincarnation, not to mention Scientology, Wicca and a bunch of other religions/cults I’ve never heard of. People seem to love this idea. I see it as one way of coping with knowledge of impending death.

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND CHRISTIANITY

When my daughter was about five or six she was already a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki animations are full of transmogrification, in line with Japanese folklore. I remember a brief developmental period where she really did believe that people and animals could transmogrify into other things. To her, this wasn’t against the law of physics. But belief in transmogrification isn’t limited to young kids who’ve watched a lot of anime.

In 1381, there was a massive revolt in England, lead by an academic by the name of John Wyclif. What was his problem with the church? Corruption and hypocrisy, mostly. Plenty agreed with him and this led to an uprising. The church lay at the heart of the economy and of politics and to them him this wasn’t right. It even lead to the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So what did the Church of England do? They didn’t want to give up their power, their property and political influence.

Wyclif had criticised the Eucharist — the part of Mass where bread and wine are blessed. They are believed to become the body and blood of Christ. Since 1215, the idea had been that a miracle takes place and after the blessing there is no bread and wine left — they become flesh and blood.

But the Church of England had never made much of this point and their people were left to interpret the miracle as they liked, regarding it as ritual if they preferred. Wyclif proposed that the bread and wine become the body of Christ in a spiritual or symbolic sense. Normally this wouldn’t have been a massively out-there thing to say, except after all that had happened, the church doubled down on it. After the incidents of 1381, the bishops — headed by William Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury — decided this is where they’d draw the line, sort the believers from the enemies. From 1401, archbishops were able to hand over anyone who dared suggest that the bread and wine were not literally the body and blood of Christ. The doubting Thomas would be burnt at the stake. This was a very effective way of retaining the status quo.

The feast of Corpus Christi has not declined today, as have other great medieval feasts, such as Pentecost, but still provides the occasion for remarkable processions, imagery and performances that have become acts of communion beyond the ecclesiastic authorities’ reach. It continues to celebrate the miracle of transubstantiation which lies at the centre of the Catholic belief system. This central doctrine has enhanced, far beyond the write of the Catholic faithful, a contemporary sacramental relationship among bodies, images and their meanings. It informs the theme of ogres and bogeymen more vividly than might at first appear, because its religious meaning attempts to purify cannibalism, to turn the pollution of anthropophagy into a means of salvation. The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the central sacrificial meal of Christianity, the holy mystery of the true presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass.

[…]

Catholics who were brought up after World War 2 remember the many hours spent anxiously pondering the mystery of the consecrated host: we should not bite into it, we were instructed by the nuns but let it melt on the tongue and swallow it whole. I was frightened to experiment and nibble at I—in case it might turn bloody in my mouth. Any crumbs were caught in the paten that the serving boy held under our chins and open mouths, and gathered together later; then the priest mixed them up in the wine and drank them down, because Jesus was present in every fragment, infinitely divisible and ubiquitous.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

TRANSMOGRIFICATION AND EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES

Transmogrification can be seen across various folklores across the world, and sometimes it takes a slightly different form. For the European fairy tales as collected by Grimm, or written by Hans Christian Andersen, the hope of shapeshifting underpins many of the stories.

  • The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen a wish fulfilment fantasy those of us who are ugly won’t always be so. (If not on this earth, then we’ll meet our perfect selves up in Heaven.) This tale is the ur-story of any makeover scene written today.
  • Beauty and the Beast the wish that however ugly our betrothed, by loving him he will become attractive to us eventually.
  • The Frog Princess another take on the Beauty and the Beast category.
  • The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley   Tom transforms into a water baby after falling in the river.
  • Rapunzel, in one interpretation

‘Dwarfing’ is also a form of transmogrification, common in fairytales:

Dwarfing characters, ading bumps and lumps that deviate from ordinary human anatomy, has become, in the late twentieth century, a highly common form of magic charm. Crook-backs are considered lucky in some parts of the world: in Italy, until recently, rubbing thehump was commonplace. Bes, the Egyptian god of portals, who makes rude grimaces to give protection to his votaries, was depicted as a dwarf. Some of this ancient superstition still permeates the totem world of toys. The proportions of the medieval gryllus haunt characters like Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Smurfs (highly popular in the 1980s) and, the greatest charmer of them all, the benevolent E.T. of Steven Spielberg’s huge success.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION IN STORYTELLING

There are many. I’ve analysed a few of them on this blog.

FAMILY FILMS

  • Brave
  • The Cat Returns
  • Spirited Away Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs. Chihiro herself has her name shortened to ‘Sen’ (the Chinese reading of one of the characters in her name). By changing her name she becomes a different person for a while.
  • Wolf Children, and any other werewolf story.

ADULT SHORT STORIES

PICTURE BOOKS

  • Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd basically a werewolf story but starring a mischievous pet cat

CHILDREN’S NOVELS

  • Northern Lights the animals keep changing until the child’s personality settles into their permanent one.
  • Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter swap bodies to learn about each other
  • The Animorphs series
  • All the transforming spells in Harry Potter
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland when Alice nibbles on a bit of mushroom; when Alice is a huge walking head on the ground. Both of the Alice books play with identity via distortions of the body. According to Marina Warner, ‘ Carroll’s creations are the most eloquent modern exponent of Circean sporting with nature and the pleasures that beasts and monsters can inspire’.

CARTOONS

  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, whenever Courage turns into a monster to try and get his message across without words. This is a gag that happens in every episode.

The Child by Ali Smith Short Story Analysis

the child ali smith

Short stories are as powerful as novels. In long hindsight we remember a novel about as well as we remember a short story, yet the short story took far less time to read in the first place. “The Child” by Ali Smith is one of those shorts which has stayed in my mind more vividly than many novels. Smith provided me with images which recur frequently — when I see a child in a supermarket trolley, or when my child comes out with something new and foul-mouthed, or when kids are being assholes at the shops. If you would like to be similarly disturbed, the full text of  Ali Smith’s “The Child” can be found here.

THE TROPE OF THE ABANDONED CHILD

John Everett Millais - A Flood
John Everett Millais – A Flood

Now for a bit of history. The story of the unpleasant toddler passed from home to home is very old. “The Bird Phoenix” is a lesser known tale from the original Folk and Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm:

One day a rich man went for a walk along the river. All at once he saw a small casket swimming by. He grabbed hold of the casket, and when he opened the cover, he saw a small child lying inside. So he took the child home and had him raised in his house. However, the rich man disliked the boy, and one time he took the boy with him in boat on the river. Once the boat was in the middle of the river, he swam to shore, and left the child alone in the boat. The boat continued floating down the river until it passed the mill, and the miller saw the child. The miller took pity on the child, fetched him from the boat, and raised him in his house.

One day the rich man happened to come by, recognized the child, and carried him away. Soon thereafter he gave the young man a letter to bring to his wife, and the letter read: “As soon as you read this letter, you are to kill the person who delivered it.” However, as the young man was traveling through the forest, he met an old man who said to him: “Show me the letter that you’re carrying in your hand.” The old man took the letter, turned it around once, and gave it back to the young man.

Now the letter read: “You are immediately to offer our daughter as wife to the young man delivering this letter.” And this is what happened, and when the rich man heard about this, he became furious and said: “Well, this wedding’s not going to happen so quickly. Before I give you my daughter, you must bring me three feathers from the bird Phoenix.”

So, the young man set out on his way to the bird Phoenix and met the old man again on the same spot in the forest. “Keep walking for the entire day,” he said. “In the evening you’ll come to a tree. Two doves will be sitting on it, and they’ll tell you how to proceed.” That evening, when the young man came to the tree, two doves were sitting on it. One of the doves said: “Whoever searches for the bird Phoenix must walk the entire day. In the evening he’ll come to a gate that’s locked.” 242 Volume I, chapter 76 Then the second dove said: “There is a gold key that lies underneath this tree, and it will open the gate.”

The young man found the key and later used it to open the gate. Two men were sitting there, and one of them said: “Whoever searches for the bird Phoenix must travel a great distance over the high mountain, and then he’ll finally come to a castle.” On the evening of the third day he finally reached the castle, where a wise little lady sat and said: “What do you want here?” “Oh, I’d like to get three feathers from the bird Phoenix.” “Your life is in danger,” she said. “If the bird Phoenix becomes aware of your presence, he’ll eat you up skin and hair. Nevertheless, I’ll see if I can help you get the three feathers. He comes here every day, and I must comb him with a narrow comb. So now quick, get under the table.”

After he did this, young man was then covered completely by a cloth. Meanwhile the bird Phoenix came home, sat down at the table, and said: “I smell, I smell human flesh!” “Oh, what! You see, don’t you, that nobody’s here!” “Comb me now!” the bird Phoenix responded. The wise little lady combed the bird Phoenix, and as she was doing this, he fell asleep. When he was sound asleep, she grabbed a feather, pulled it out, and threw it beneath the table. All at once he woke up: “Why are you tearing my hair like that? I dreamed that a human came and pulled out one of my feathers.” She calmed him down, and so it went, two more times. When the young man had the three feathers, he set out for home and was now able to obtain his bride.

“The Bird Phoenix”, from the first Grimm collection, translated by Jack Zipes

Ali Smith has borrowed the first part of that tale but there’s a reason “The Bird Phoenix” hasn’t lived on in anthologies — it’s not an engaging example of storytelling.

Changeling by JB Monge
Changeling by JB Monge

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHILD BY ALI SMITH

This is such a bizarre, dreamlike story, it’s not easy to fill out the fields.

SHORTCOMING

The unnamed narrator displays what I’d call a shortcoming — she’s a bit of snob. But is this a shortcoming for this particular story, or is it just something extra about her? Perhaps it’s her snobbishness which makes her return ‘goods’ which she isn’t satisfied with — but who could argue that she should keep him?

In Ali’s first story of this collection, she quotes Alice Munro, who has said that every short story is at least two short stories — an inward-looking story and an outward-looking one. Does this hold true for the stories which follow in the very same collection, such as this one? If it does, it’ll be found in the character’s need versus their shortcoming — which is itself broken into two — psychological and moral shortcoming. It seems that her moral shortcoming is to like nice things. She can afford three bags of oranges because she works — she’s made mention of that twice. She wouldn’t be able to work as much — if at all — if she had a one year old child. The child reminds the reader of that. “Mothers shouldn’t work. It’s against nature.”

Interestingly, the word ‘need’ is used in the story, near the end:

I know what you need all right, the child whispered after me, but quietly

What is it the narrator needs? We can imagine the end of the joke — violently sexual in nature. The sort of act which would result in a baby such as this. Is this the dominant culture telling the woman that she needs a baby, and that this message feels almost violent to her? Like an invasion into the most private part of herself?

DESIRE

Surface desire: To do her grocery shopping in peace.

Deeper desire: To look after the child and therefore be accepted in society. But then she realises she can’t cope with what’s required, so she desires to be free of her responsibility as mother. Unlike in real life, this ‘mother’ does have the option of giving the child back.

OPPONENT

Surface opponent: The child, or whoever placed the child in her trolley. Also the people in the supermarket, representing different groups of society, encouraging her to be a mother when she’s wanted no such thing.

But what does the child represent? To me, the child represents the immense cultural pressure for women to reproduce.

PLAN

Her plan is to take the child and raise him.

She changes her plan when the child proves intolerable.

Her changed plan is straight out of a fairytale — she’ll leave him in the woods. But she can’t bear this, so in a Save The Cat moment she goes back for him, and leaves him in someone else’s trolley, but at a cheaper supermarket than the one where she found him. I suppose this might constitute a minor punishment for being a little asshole.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is with herself, wrestling with guilt. The baby is only a verbal sparring partner — a dangerous near death moment is represented by the swerve out of traffic.

ANAGNORISIS

It’s not the narrator who has some kind of deep revelation, but — as in many short stories — it’s up to the reader to bring it.

Here’s what I brought to the page: The message that women need to become mothers can feel like a violent invasion. Others have had a similar reaction:

Smith’s most ambitious work to date, The First Person and Other Stories, is further evidence of her stretching of the form of the short story, as the fragmented, playful stories, which resist linearity and realism, remind us of both the freedoms and the boundaries of the form. In ‘The Child’, a surreal commentary on the ticking of the biological clock, a childless woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley which then miraculously begins to ask questions, swear and tell sexist jokes as she drives him home, before she feels compelled to return him.

The British Short Story by Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

At first, the narrator is charmed against her will, and the story ends in a way that leaves open the question of whether the baby is an emanation of conservative notions about motherhood, of a parent’s increased receptiveness to right-wing appeals, or of the tabloid newspapers highlighted in the closing paragraph.

review in The Guardian, 2008

But I’m sure other readers will have a different response again. Stories full of fairy tale symbolism are open to many interpretations, which is why fairytales endure.

NEW SITUATION

The baby is left to infect a different woman (probably) with its venom; the narrator herself moves on. But there is always another childless woman coming up through the age ranks, waiting to be harassed.

The fairytale, dream logic of this story leaves the whys and wherefores hanging, but this shouldn’t bother anyone but the most literal of readers:

The narrator tries to leave him in a wood, but she feels guilty and goes back to find him later that night. He’s still there, still being awful. How will she get rid of him? And why has he attached himself to her? These questions don’t really need to be answered for me, I just enjoy the mystery in this story. Ali Smith is definitely up there as one of my favourite short story writers.

Katherine Lunn, blogger
Sack Full of Trouble Saturday Evening Post, April 14, 1956 Cover by Dick Sargent. The idea that evil children and supermarkets go together probably isn’t an accident. Anyone with kids will tell you.

FURTHER READING

If you enjoy this story, check out “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.

Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.

Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.

Continue reading “Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak”

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline with cat

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). Every word counts.

“When I’m writing for kids,” he says, “I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults, just in terms of word choices. I once said that while I could not justify every word in American Gods, I can justify every single word in Coraline.”

Neil Gaiman, Children’s Books Are Never Just For Children, The Guardian

This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the battle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)

INFLUENCES ON CORALINE

Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.

Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.

The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story

In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)

In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.

Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales

When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Betsy Bird

In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird  happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.

Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:

If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.

Thomas Byrne
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford

Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.

Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:

In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”

The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”

Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”

Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”

But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.

The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.

The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.

Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.

SETTING OF CORALINE

https://twitter.com/factsonfiIm/status/1286039738990788608

House

This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.

See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House

Weather

This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.

STORY STRUCTURE OF CORALINE

PARATEXT

Coraline book cover

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Coraline marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response.

I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.

Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.

DESIRE

At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.

Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.

OPPONENT

Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.

The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:

  1. The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
  2. This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character

In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.

The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.

PLAN

Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.

When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.

Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.

BIG STRUGGLE

Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.

ANAGNORISIS

When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:

I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?

But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.

NEW SITUATION

Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe (a popular horror symbol).

Snow globe close up from the film Aquaman. Notice which books it's sitting on top of.
Snow globe close up from the film Aquaman. Notice which books it’s sitting on top of.

But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.

The Film Adaptation Of Coraline

Coraline movie poster

As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.

Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:

  • One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
  • With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
  • The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
  • The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.

cheers to Violet Rebelo for listing them

In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:

  • The main character is a girl.
  • Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)

I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.

What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.

Verbal Diorama discuss the movie adaptation of Coraline.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Doppelgangers, Twins and Changelings In Fiction

Philip Wilson Steer Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls 1891

A doppelganger is an apparition or double of a living person. It comes from German, and translates literally from ‘double walker’. In fiction there are four main types of doppelangers:

  1. A ghostly double of a living person, especially one that haunts such a person.
  2. An evil twin.
  3. A remarkably similar double; a lookalike. This kind of doppelganger is also known as a ‘twin stranger’.
  4. (fantasy) A monster that takes the forms of people, usually after killing them. The changeling is one such monster. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is of the changeling tradition, as is Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. Tales about changelings were collected by the Grimm brothers, for instance in ‘About A Woman Whose Child They Had Exchanged’. (Spoilers in the title, much?) This collection of links gives an excellent overview of the changeling mythology from Germany, and offers handy hints on what to do to prevent your newborn being swapped out for an ugly, crying one. (Get yourself a pair of men’s trousers. Masculinity fixes all kinds of woes, y’all.)

Told in alternating points of view from Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone, Greystone Secrets #1: The Strangers is the beginning of a new page-turning adventure that examines assumptions about identity, family, and home, from the master of middle grade suspense.

What makes you you?

The Greystone kids thought they knew. Chess has always been the protector over his younger siblings, Emma loves math, and Finn does what Finn does best—acting silly and being adored. They’ve been a happy family, just the three of them and their mom.

But everything changes when reports of three kidnapped children—who share the same first and middle names, ages, and exact birth dates as the Greystone kids—reach the Greystone family. This bizarre coincidence makes them wonder: Who exactly are these strangers? Before Chess, Emma, and Finn can question their mom about it, she takes off on a mysterious work trip. But puzzling clues left behind lead to complex codes, hidden rooms, and a dangerous secret that will turn their world upside down.

CHANGELINGS

Pre-industrial societies used changeling stories as a way of talking about childhood death. These stories were focalised via the viewpoint of the parents of the kidnapped child.

Victorian English changeling stories were romantic fairy stories. The focalising character changed to the kidnapped child themselves or its fairy substitute. These stories weren’t so much about the terror of childhood death but allowed people to explore ideas around the pleasures of childhood and its general strangeness. 

In many of these stories the changelings took children who were unloved by their parents, so criticism was lobbed firmly at the parents e.g. “Cold Iron” by Rudyard Kipling and “The Changeling”, a poem by Charlotte Mew.

Victorians were upset that some people believed in the concept of changelings and were enacting violence hoping to kill the changeling and get their ‘real’ children back.

e.g. The real life murder of Bridget Cleary

“Children’s literature is full of representations of children who aren’t ‘real’ children, children who are fakes, counterfeits, frauds of some sort. In our contemporary culture, where the child has such an angelic status in many ways, we invest so much in our children…The counterfeit child he deals with in film and literature is a stand-in, a changeling child, a fake, a fraud, an adopted child or orphan in books and movies – any child a parent did not expect to raise, Bruhm explained. The ‘counterfeit child’ is the notion children are not as innocent as they seem, and they, in fact, know more about the world than adults perceive them to.”

Steven Bruhm
Rosemary’s Baby

I’m sure I’m not the first to float the theory that mythology around changelings is an outworking of post-natal anxiety, nowadays known as post-natal depression/anxiety. There’s a fairly common (and completely unexpected) disconnect between the expectation and reality of new motherhood. Separately, babies are hard work. Throughout history, mothers must have asked, “Did I really give birth to that?”

Magic is fading from the Wild Wood. To renew it, goblins must perform an ancient ritual involving the rarest of their kind—a newborn changeling. But when the fateful night arrives to trade a human baby for a goblin one, something goes terribly wrong. After laying the changeling in a human infant’s crib, the goblin Kull is briefly distracted from his task. By the time he turns back, the changeling has already perfectly mimicked the human child. Too perfectly: Kull cannot tell them apart. Not knowing which to bring back, he leaves both babies behind.

Tinn and Cole are raised as human twins, neither knowing what secrets may be buried deep inside one of them. Then when they are twelve years old, a mysterious message arrives, calling the brothers to be heroes and protectors of magic. The boys must leave behind their sleepy town of Endsborough and risk their lives in the Wild Wood, crossing the perilous Oddmire swamp and journeying through the Deep Dark to reach the goblin horde and discover who they truly are.

a book of charms and changelings

DOPPELGANGERS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou
Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou

Our picture book app Hilda Bewildered makes use of a doppelgänger, who may or may not exist in the real life of the story. The purpose? To demonstrate the theme: That there is really not that much difference between rich kids and poor kids other than circumstance of birth. Or as I heard Julian Fellowes say in an RNZ interview, in his experience there are genteel, good-looking and smart people to be found at every level of society.

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered
Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

DOPPELGANGERS IN SERIES MIDDLE GRADE

The ghost writer of this Alfred Hitchcock novel from 1978 used the concept of the doppelgänger in a very camp way. Read accordingly.

But we all have doppelgangers, if you expand the concept a little.

WHAT IS A DATA DOPPELGANGER?

If you’ve ever taken more than a brief glance at the ‘personalised’ advertising directed at you by companies such as Facebook, you may identify with the following:

Google thinks I’m interested in parenting, superhero movies, and shooter games. The data broker Acxiom thinks I like driving trucks. My data doppelgänger is made up of my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS locations, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card transactions, and my public records. Still, it constantly gets me wrong, often to hilarious effect. I take some comfort that the system doesn’t know me too well, yet it is unnerving when something is misdirected at me. Why do I take it so personally when personalization gets it wrong? 

The Atlantic

DOPPELGANGERS IN FILM

The Double Film Poster
The Double Film Poster. A clerk in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical double and his opposite – confident, charismatic and seductive with women.

MORE

20 Films About Doubles And Doppelgangers. Can you guess the most famous one?

The double/doppelganger is a subcategory of the trickster archetype. (Click through for a mindmap of tricksters in storytelling.)

The clip below is from the pilot of detective murder mystery series, The Fall. Notice how the bevelled edge of the glass is used to create a parallax effect, rendering the police car and police officer double. The entire thread of The Fall is double — the audience in this particular mystery series is given both stories: That of the detective and that of the murderer, not only that, we are given the murderer’s family life as well as his twisted dark life. Doubles at every turn.

DIFFERENT SPINS ON THE DOPPELGANGER

Freaky Friday is a story which has been adapted numerous times for film. The Freaky Friday body swap is a different take on the doppelganger.

FURTHER READING

Remember daughter, the world is a lot bigger than anyone knows. There are things that science may never explain. Maybe some things that shouldn’t be explained.

Stacey and Laney are twins – mirror images of each other – and yet they’re as different as the sun and the moon. Stacey works hard at school, determined to get out of their small town. Laney skips school and sneaks out of the house to meet her boyfriend. But when Laney disappears one night, Stacey can’t believe she’s just run off without telling her.

As the days pass and Laney doesn’t return, Stacey starts dreaming of her twin. The dreams are dark and terrifying, difficult to understand and hard to shake, but at least they tell Stacey one key thing – Laney is alive. It’s hard for Stacey to know what’s real and what’s imagined and even harder to know who to trust. All she knows for sure is that Laney needs her help.

Stacey is the only one who can find her sister. Will she find her in time?

 Goodreads List of Changelings and Doppelgangers

Goodreads List of Doppelgangers in general fiction

Goodreads List of Trading Places: YA

A political decoy is a person employed to impersonate a politician, to draw attention away from the real person or to take risks on that person’s behalf. The political decoy is an individual who has been selected because of strong physical resemblance to the person being impersonated.

Kagemusha is the ancient Japanese version of a political decoy, and also the name of a 1980 film.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header painting: Philip Wilson Steer Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls 1891

Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever Analysis

“Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956

“Goodbye My Brother” is one of John Cheever’s best known short stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. Cheever returned time and again to the dynamic of an uneasy relationship between two brothers. The relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.

Clear Island Goodbye My Brother
Modern Day Clear Island, Massachussetts

I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.

After reading “Goodbye, My Brother”, I suspected there was far more below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”

The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The four grown children and their families join their widowed mother for this summer ritual. This is a special gathering as they haven’t seen Lawrence in four years. Unfortunately, Lawrence has a reputation for putting a downer on proceedings, and sure enough, he starts to piss off the rest of the family by pointing out the negatives and refusing to be a ‘joiner’.

One night, the family all dress up for an ‘As You Were’ party, except for Lawrence and Ruth, who don’t want to go. All the wives turn up in their wedding dresses; the men are surprised to find more than one has turned up in his high school football uniform. Then Ruth turns up, wearing a red dress which feels to the narrator ‘all wrong’. Lawrence is outside and refuses to come in. The narrator assumes it’s because he thinks the whole idea of dressing up as someone from the past is pathetic. Note that we never really know what Lawrence thinks.

While the rest of the family is at a flower show, Lawrence and the narrator have their own little showdown on the beach after the narrator has a go at Lawrence for spoiling everyone’s holiday. Then he whacks him across the back of the head with a wet root, wishing him dead. He ends up going off to have a swim and not worrying too much about whether he is okay. Lawrence, nihilist that he is, doesn’t seem all that surprised by this, but is angry enough to pack up and leave after announcing the incident to the family.  Only the mother got up to say goodbye before Lawrence’s family took the six o’clock boat to the mainland.

SETTING OF “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”

New England Coast Map

Laud’s Head appears to be a fictional headland of the sort that you find dotted along the New England coast of America. Cheever wrote “Goodbye, My Brother,” after a gloomy summer in Martha’s Vineyard, so I suppose we might imagine that setting. That said, the name ‘Laud’ apparently has significance to readers who know their English history:

[T]he summer house, or Eden, of the Pommeroy family is called Laud’s Head, a name which, if one knows some English religious history, undoubtedly refers to one of the most famous Anglican Archbishops, William Laud, who was beheaded by the Puritans in 1645 for attempting to bring back into the Episcopal Church music, ritual, the Communion table, and the sacramental system the Puritans had banned. […] Chaddy Pommeroy […] and Chucky Ewing […] both have names that are cognates of […] Charles I, who also lost his head to the Puritans under the chief Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell.

Patrick Meanor
The Weather As Emotion In “Goodbye My Brother”

The blustery Atlantic air plays an important part in the story. The cold ocean air has blown away the gloom that Lawrence has brought with him from Albany. At the end of the story, the narrator wakes up on the morning of Lawrence’s abrupt departure with a feeling that a black cloud has blown away and left a perfectly gorgeous day.

Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam.

In stories, when the weather reflects character emotions, this is called ‘pathetic fallacy’. See: Pathetic Fallacy not actually an insult. (There are other examples of this poetic device, though weather/emotions is a commonly utilised one.) On the other hand, the veridical weather may not have changed; rather, the narrator’s perception of it changed along with his improved mental state.

CHARACTERS IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Cheever’s characters have been described as ‘Sisyphean’, meaning they can never quite achieve completeness. (Sisypheus was a Greek king who, punished for deceit, was forced to roll a huge boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the task for eternity.)

The Pommeroy Clan

A Puritan American family who have a holiday house with a tennis court.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan critic. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country […] The branch of the Pommeroys to which we belong was founded by a minister who was eulogized by Cotton Mather for his untiring abjuration of the Devil. The Pommeroys were ministers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the harshness of their thought — man is full of misery, and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt — has been preserved in books and sermons. The temper of our family changed somewhat and became more lighthearted, but […] it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence had succumbed.

The French roots of the name Pommeroy signifies “king of the apples,” a reference to the story’s Edenic setting.

The Unnamed Narrator: 38 years old, a married schoolteacher. Apart from time spent with the family, he lives in a school dormitory. Since this is a story told in the first person, this narrator will be unreliable to some extent. And to some extent, our narrator acknowledges this:

I think I saw what was going on his mind.

On the other hand, we see the narrator calling the kettle black:

It is like Lawrence to try to read significance and finality into every gesture that we make…

Usually, the reader identifies with the first person narrator, or the main character. In this case, the reader may or may not side with Lawrence we are prompted in no particular direction by Cheever, who presents the story without asking us to take a moral stand. This narrator isn’t a particularly nice person.  He express no guilt over the fact that he had tried to kill his brother on the beach the day before by hitting him over the head with a waterlogged tree-root. It’s not even an isolated incident he recalls a time in childhood, hitting Lawrence on the head with a rock.

This unrepentent narrator may have his youngest brother all wrong, for all the reader knows:

“The ‘I’ of the story seems at first a patient, long-suffering and trustworthy narrator, but as the tale progresses we realize that a great deal of Lawrence’s gloominess is not demonstrated but ascribed to him, proceeding less from his act than his thoughts, to which we have no access but the narrator’s speculation.

David Raney

The narrator is married to a woman called Helen, who dyes her hair to hide the years. Helen and the narrator live on Long Island with four children.

The Narrator’s Widowed Mother: husband was killed in a sailing accident. She has formed strong opinions on how to lead a life well-lived, and is fond of dishing out life advice to her children, even though the children are old enough now to see contractions between what she says and how she behaves.

The Dead Father: Just as important to a story are the characters who are not there:

The absence of the Pommeroy father constitutes more than just a fictional device: Cheever places him at the fringes of the story in order to create a deliberate echo of the other legal discourses evoked by the narrator. Through this repeated association, the Pommeroy father becomes the symbol of the law. His legal correlates are mapped in Figure 1: God the Father, the Logos from the Gospel of John and the author of the Ten Commandments; Uranus, the grandfather of the Greek gods and the father of the Titans; and Cotton Mather, the patriarch and lawgiver of colonial, Puritan America.

Peter Mathews

We are told the children are ‘out of their twenties’. It turns out they are in their early forties/late thirties.

One Recently Divorced Sister: Diana. Diana has been living in France while her two children are at school in Switzerland. The names of the two women, Helen and Diana, have mythic associations.  Mythic associations add a dimension of tradition to a story, and reinforce Cheever’s need to explore the past, ‘even into antiquity’.

Two Other Brothers:

1. Chaddy, lives in Manhattan. Chaddy and the narrator have a competitive relationship with each other, but not a soured one. Chaddy is their mother’s favourite and successful in his work, whatever that is. Chaddy is married to Odette, who flirts to restore her youth. Odette has black hair and black eyes and is careful to keep out of the sun. She flirts (not seriously) as modus operandi.

Lawrence is described as a 'changeling'.
Lawrence is described as a ‘changeling‘.

2. Lawrence is the youngest son and a lawyer. He got a job with a Cleveland firm after the war.  The family didn’t see him during that time. He now works for a firm in Albany, so agreed to spend time with the family at Laud’s Head. Lawrence’s name, of course, contains the word “law,” but his nicknames also possess deeper meanings: “Little Jesus” during the latter part of his youth. But it is his childhood nickname that has a particular resonance throughout the story. He was called Tifty as a child because of the sound his slippers made on the floor as he walked. Also called Croaker (a person who grumbles or habitually predicts evil) and Little Jesus (fitting the Puritan motif). Lawrence is the only member of the family who has never enjoyed drinking.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan cleric. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country, and his disapproval of Diana and her lover reminded me of this.

Lawrence is both repulsed by and attracted to the past.

I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

Lawrence is a nihilist. He can ‘make a grievance out of anything’, according to the narrator.

But in Lawrence’s favour, he doesn’t seem all that bothered by a blow to his head by his older brother, because the nihilist in him must have been expecting it.

Note that Lawrence barely speaks more than a few lines in the entire narrative. Though the title is named for the narrator’s relationship with this particular brother, Lawrence is not all that important to the story, because the story is about the narrator’s inner-world alone. Interestingly, the character of Lawrence did not even exist in an early draft of this story.

The brother story, in its bare outline, was the story of one man. There was no brother; there was no Lawrence. (In the finished story he speaks only a few lines and the bulk of his opinions are given to him by the narrator.) I tried to bury this outline then under several others so that the story would unfold like an uncooked onion.

Letters 160

Lawrence is married to Ruth. The character of Ruth also highlights the importance of names to unlocking the themes of Cheever’s story; Ruth is a Biblical character who sacrifices a lot for others. In this story, Ruth is ‘a thin girl, tired from the journey.’

I…passed Ruth in the laundry. She was washing clothes. I don’t know why she should seem to have so much more work to do than anyone else, but she is always washing or mending clothes.

Their two children, too, are thin and wear ‘ornate cowboy costumes’. They cry/take offence easily. Even their own grandmother can’t stand to be around them as they look so dejected.

But does Lawrence really exist? Cheever apparently told a mentor: “There was no brother; there was no Lawrence.” I’m not sure of the context surrounding this perhaps he meant in an early draft, but I like the idea that Lawrence is a figment of the narrator’s imagination the squirrel in his attic, the pessimistic side of himself, putting a dampener on his very own holiday.

I have recently started asking of stories: What if X character doesn’t really exist in the world of the story? Simply by asking this question you can come up with some fascinating insights. There are of course stories built on the imaginary character as a big reveal: Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Tully. But what about Ollie from “Powers” by Alice Munro? He might not be real, though his lack of realness is not on the page. Take your favourite TV show. If any of the characters were figments of another character’s imagination, which would it be? What if Kramer of Seinfeld weren’t real? Or Newton? What if Phoebe’s twin off Friends wasn’t real?

Minor Characters In “Goodbye My Brother”

The man who Diana is sleeping with while here for the summer, mentioned only in passing.

The summer cook, Anna Ostrovick, a recognisable trope of a woman jolly and fat and industrious. She ends up banning Lawrence from her kitchen because she can’t put up with his negativity.

THEME IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Revelling in nostalgia is futile.

Critics have said that Cheever’s ‘brother motif’ tends to come back to this.

“This house is about twenty-two years old,” he said. “These shingles are about two hundred years old. Dad must have bought shingles from all the farms around here when he built the place, to make it look venerable. […] Imagine spending thousands of dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck,” Lawrence said. “Imagine the frame of mind this implies. Imagine wanting to live so much in the past that you’ll pay men carpenters’ wages to disfigure your front door.” Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

The story’s basic thematic structure: the clash between the father, the mythological founder of the law, and the legacy he leaves to his children.

“Goodbye My Brother,” is wrought with his recurrent themes of light and nostalgia.

Powell’s, Review A Day

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

The Motif Of The Sea In “Goodbye My Brother”

Cheever uses the sea as a motif in a number of his works. In this story, too, the sea forms the crucial backdrop to the narrative.

“The sea salt that I think is in our blood”, says our unnamed narrator. Note also that the father died in the sea. The sea therefore is an important part of the narrator, bonding him with his family and to his history. Both he and his brother Chaddy miss the sea when they venture out West. The sea binds together various threads of the story.

Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn’t think well of the sea. He rejects the sea and hates everything about it, seeing the havoc it wreaks on the coastline and on the family holiday home. He and Ruth refuse to go swimming with the rest of the family, partly rejected by the matriarch, of course, who takes Chaddy’s arm and proclaims that she is determined to have fun.

Writes Mathews:

The sea relieves the narrator from the nihilism that permeates Lawrence’s thought. There is a paradoxical tranquility in the sea’s restlessness that is typified by the family’s daily swimming ritual, a practice that takes on quasi-religious overtones in its “illusion of purification”. The antidote to society’s Puritan past is thus to be found in the sea. Reflecting on his encounter with Ruth in the laundry, the narrator thinks about the alternative spirituality he feels in the sea’s presence….Lawrence fears that the sea, destroyer of his father and the law, will also destroy the family structure itself, as symbolized by the house. Cheever’s allusion is to the Bible, to Matthew 7:26-7, in which Jesus says: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened to a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (AKJV). For Lawrence, the family has built its foundations on sinking sand, a view that Cheever thematically transfers from the house to the values that underpin the lives of his mother and siblings.

From the story:

Now I could hear the waves, whose heaviness sounded like a reverberation, like a tumult, and it pleased me as it had pleased me when I was young, and it seemed to have a purgative force, as if it had cleared my memory of, among other things, the penitential image of Ruth in the laundry.

“‘This house will be in the sea […] The sea wall is badly cracked,’ Lawrence said. “I looked at it this afternoon. You had it repaired four years ago, and it cost eight thousand dollars. You can’t do that every four years’”

The narrator ends the story with a life-sustaining image that depicts the sea not as a destructor but as life-giving.

Mythological Allusions In “Goodbye My Brother”

Using the sea’s mythical symbolism, Cheever reaches back to a time before the invention of Christianity, before the God of the Puritans to a different and more ancient creation myth. Through a series of allusions, he instead evokes the pagan myths and deities of the ancient Greeks: Odette looks up at the night sky, trying to find the constellation of Cassiopeia; the narrator imagines Lawrence saying “Thalassa, Thalassa” (the Greek word for “sea”) when he leaves Laud’s Head; their sister, Diana, is an allusion to the virgin goddess of the hunt; the narrator’s wife, Helen, is the namesake of the most famous beauty of the classical world. But these allusions are swallowed up in a greater story that is alluded to yet never explained, namely, the creation myth of the ancient Greeks.

Peter Mathews

JUXTAPOSITION

Beginning versus Ending In “Goodbye My Brother”

There is a copious amount of juxtaposition in this story. It begins with the second sentence, in which

our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.

This is juxtaposed with the ending, in which it is perhaps true that familial relationships have a kind of permanence, but whether they should be revered or not? The reader is left knowing that the two brothers will never be friends.

Juxtaposition of Voice In “Goodbye My Brother”

The story is divided between the rather flat, dour pronouncements delivered by Lawrence and the rich, sensuous counterpassages of the narrator. As Lawrence, for example, calls Odette a promiscuous woman, the narrator describes her in sensual detail, noting the roundness of her shoulders and the whiteness of her skin. Similarly, at the conclusion of the costume party, the guests rescue the floating white balloons from the sea while Lawrence laments the partygoers’ foolishness. The lushness of the prose that Cheever employs when describing the smells, the sounds, and the contentment of the narrator’s life among his family strikingly contrasts not only with Lawrence’s gloom but also with his matter-of-fact language. The sense of possibility of the former overshadows the finality of the latter.

Peter Mathews
Juxtaposition Of Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

Again from Mathews:

Lawrence’s life is characterized by a string of goodbyes, but this pattern is not accompanied by a process of healing and moving on. On the contrary, his history is scarred by these failures, and these recurring moments of disillusionment are remembered with the force of resentment. For the narrator, by contrast, the sea allows him to forget, it allows him to be washed free of his pain and thus avoid the canker of resentment that eats away at Lawrence’s being.

The narrator experiences the visit as tender and warm, which contrasts with Lawrence’s perennial exasperation with his family. For example, at the age of sixteen, he labeled his mother as “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.” But, the narrator believes this projection to be the result of Lawrence’s basic refusal to embrace life, which leads to the realization that the lifelong rift between the brothers may always remain. The sadness that accompanies this conclusion is palpable.

The philosophical difference between the brothers is acknowledged early in the story:

“Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.”

Subtle Repetitions In “Goodbye My Brother”

“Goodbye, My Brother” has aspects of the cumulative plot shape. Mathews quotes Morace:

“Essentially, Cheever plays the same scene or situation over and over with slight but cumulatively significant changes, gradually transforming the real into the fantastic, time into dream. […] [His fiction] depends considerably less on linear plot, narrative focus, and character development than it does on various forms of narrative parallelism: echoing, juxtaposition, counterpoint, incremental repetition, thematic variations, and the coming together of disparate characters, situations, and narrative lines”

Robert Morace

Narrator As Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

Written in first person point of view, the unnamed narrator is wry, compassionate and detached. At first we may think of him as a sympathetic observer. This kind of narrator is commonly utilised by Cheever in his short stories.

The effect, according to Mathews:

to initiate a move beyond the surface story, thus showing how these forces penetrate every level of discourse, from the level of everyday life (in the family’s clashes with Lawrence) to its deeper, more metaphysical levels (in the story’s religious, historical, and mythical references).

The function of the narrator is to evaluate his family’s ideas, and the story is the scale on which he weighs the different worldviews he encounters in that milieu. His effectiveness is guaranteed by the double consciousness with which Cheever imbues him. Indeed, the narrator shifts continually back and forth between lyrical celebrations of life and gloomy ruminations about Lawrence’s character.

STORY SPECS OF “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

This story first appeared in The New Yorker, August 25, 1951 on P. 22, and is available online behind a paywall.

“Goodbye, My Brother” is the first short story in this vintage collection.

COMPARE “GOODBYE MY BROTHER” WITH

The mood and atmosphere in other words, the setting of “Goodbye My Brother” remind me very much of the first few episodes of Bloodline, in which brothers and a sister return to the family home for a gathering. In this series, too, there is one brother who is the black sheep (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). The setting is reminiscent of that portrayed in “Goodbye, My Brother” the smell of brine, the coastal holiday vibe. The feeling that not all is well beneath the surface. That said, Bloodline is set and filmed many miles south, in Florida Keys.

List of films set in New England, separated by decade.

Bloodline Poster compare with Goodbye My Brother

“In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is also a short story which juxtaposes the nihilist against the optimist. The optimist is only an optimist on the surface, and put sin effort to maintain the charade. I believe if John Cheever were born later he’d be writing about climate change in this way.

WRITE YOUR OWN BASED ON “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Not all of us have a family holiday house. But if you did have a family holiday house, where might it be? Who would join you there? And what sorts of dynamics would prove uncomfortable?

Have you ever been on holiday with people who you know and don’t know, in just the wrong combination?

Is there anybody in your life who you suspect misreads you consistently? If they were to write a story about you, and all the things that supposedly go on inside your head, what would that story look like?

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Header illustration: “Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956