The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.
A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.
Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.) Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love. Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.
American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:
Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.
“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.
Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present (1993) is a picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller John Burningham. The pacing in this story is a little different to most picture books seen in bookstores today. The word count is higher than 300-400 words. There’s a reason for this. The cumulative nature of this narrative feels designed to lull excited children to sleep on Christmas Eve.
I know it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that some reading material is designed to lull children to sleep. After all, shouldn’t reading be fun and exciting at all times, to hook kids on reading? I don’t think this is the case in reality. Some books are writtten to soothe and calm. Also, I feel there is a time and a place for lulling children to sleep. I suspect this story can do the trick nicely. Also, kids seem to have a much higher tolerance for repeating scenes than I do; it is in fact myself who starts yawning uncontrollably while reading some stories structured like this one. (Also, I suspect some kids will be riled up by the excitement of what’s in Harvey’s present.)
The chimney is a multivalent symbol in storytelling. Chimneys can be cosy and welcoming.
A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but gray. The boy Jody watched it, speculating. The fire on the kitchen hearth was dying down. His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner. The day was Friday. She would sweep the floor with a broom of ti-ti and after that, if he were lucky, she would scrub it with the corn shucks scrub. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he had reached the Glen. He stood a minute, balancing the hoe on his shoulder.
Chimneys can also be scary. A few years ago I turned up at our local country bookclub and assumed the host had been slow cooking meat for dinner. Others entered one by one and assumed the same. The grim truth was revealed; a possum had fallen down the chimney. I won’t go into further details because they are gruesome and tortuous. But I’ve heard the story more than once. Owning a chimney, at least in Australia and New Zealand, puts wildlife at risk.
Certain wildlife is attracted to chimneys, sometimes because they’re trying to find a hidey-hole to escape a predator, and sometimes, I wonder, if they are attracted to the heat in wintertime.
Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.
Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a ‘girl’ thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.
Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.
In fairytales, shoes come in a variety of types: ballet shoes, slippers (all Medieval shoes were like slippers), moccasins, clogs, sandals and other marvellous footwear. One example of marvellous footwear were seven league boots.
Seven League Boots
A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.
Keahi Seymour needed to get to the airport, but Manhattan traffic was gridlocked. So he ran the two-and-change miles across the island — in 12 minutes. “A taxi driver was like, ‘You beat me across the whole of Manhattan!’” Seymour isn’t a sprinter or a distance runner, but his five-minute miles were made possible with help from the Bionic Boots he’s invented, which allow him to run up to 25 miles an hour. Looking like a seven-foot-tall superhero when he wears them, he towers over the average person. “Nice robot legs!” shouted a child he passed on the street.
More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.
In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:
Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
Boots which take you to faraway places very quickly go back further than fairytales, back to Greek and Roman legend. Hermes and Perseus have winged sandals, basically the mythological equivalent of flying shoes found in fairytales.
Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.
Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.
There’s another similar tale from ancient Greece.
“Rhodopis” is an ancient tale about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. The story was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the late first century BC or early first century AD and is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story.
In that tale, Psammetichos catches sight of Rhodopis’s sandal and basically becomes sexually aroused.
The Iron Heel
The Shoe As Sexual Symbol
Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.
Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.
The Shoe As Status Symbol
Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.
This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.
But going barefoot for free children equals more freedom.
The gold shoes in this story function as seven league boots from classic fairytales.
In the fairytale “Puss In Boots“, the high boots worn by the cat are a caricature of pretended high social status. This is a classic example of ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.’
Shoes As Ownership Of Territory
In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?
Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.
Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.
Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.
There’s also a footprints sequence in The Wind In The Willows when Ratty goes searching for Mole, who has been attracted to the home of the mysterious Badger.
Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.
In the winter of 1855, after a heavy fall of snow, residents across a large area of the county of Devon, in the South West of the UK, awoke to find a mysterious trail of prints in the snow. Looking like an hoof, the single-file line of prints allegedly covered a distance of some 100 miles, ignoring obstructions in their path and continuing over high walls hayricks and even the roofs of houses. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for the event, which became known as the Great Devon Mystery.
Although the case has been widely reported, interestingly it is not the only time that this has happened. Very similar lines of marks have been found in different parts of the world over the last 175 years or so. It’s just that the other cases are much more obscure.
As a child I was never allowed to put a new box of shoes on the table. If I ever did this, it elicited a cry of alarm from my superstitious parent. Depending on what you do with them, shoes can bring both bad luck and good luck.
Concealed shoes hidden in the fabric of a building have been discovered in many European countries, as well as in other parts of the world, since at least the early modern period. Independent researcher Brian Hoggard has observed that the locations in which these shoes are typically found – in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – suggest that some may have been concealed as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building against evil influences such as demons, ghosts and witches. Others may have been intended to bestow fertility on a female member of the household, or been an offering to a household deity.
Cats … shoes … bottles … coins. At first glance these objects don’t seem to have much in common. But these, and many other objects, are all items which have been found concealed within the fabric of old buildings during renovations or other works. Why were they placed there?
In many ways, shoes function the same as a coat. A pair of abandoned shoes, like a coat, suggests the presence of a person, even when the person is not there.
First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:
Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.
This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.
Home by Witold Rybczynski
Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes partly from its shape.
The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.
Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.
Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)
Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.
No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).
Also, iron was thought to repel fairies. That exaplains why horseshoes, nails and shears have all been used to keep travellers and newborns safe. Smiths and smithys, who worked with iron, were seen as magical places in former times, probably because their work was highly skilled and so important to humanity. On top of that, objects made of iron are clearly human constructions, and represent humans’ ability to dominate nature, with nature including evil fairies. In Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evan-Wentz says that the fairies of Britian and Ireland were unable to make iron and that’s why they feared it. They may also be afraid of its magnetic properties (which is more a comment on human fear of magnetic properties: “What on earth are these two pieces of metal doing? They feel alive in my hands!.”)
WEIRD FEET IN FOLK AND FAIRYTALE
Read a lot of fairytales and you’ll soon notice how many weird feet there are. Feet which are actually hooves, chicken feet, deformed feet…
The shoe in Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is especially interesting.
The Elves and the Shoemaker isn’t really about shoe symbolism despite the story being full of shoes. But it is a very interesting example of a fairytale whose meaning changed pretty much permanently after the Grimm Brothers wrote a certain version down. If shoes are important in this story, it’s because they are highly desirable. Until just two or three generations ago, footwear was very expensive.
SCIENCE FICTION SHOES
SPRING HEELED JACK
SHOE RELATED WORDS
BUSKINS: (kothorni in Greek) Buskins is a Renaissance term for the laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character.
COTHURNI:The Greek word for the elevator shoes worn by important actors on stage
SHOD ALL ROUND: A parson who attends a funeral is said to be shod all round, when he receives a hat-band, gloves, and scarf: many shoeings being only partial. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)
SHOEMAKER’S STOCKS: New or strait shows. I was in the shoemaker’s stocks; i.e. had on a new pair of shoes that were too small for me. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)
Credit where credit is due, though: Roald Dahl’s two most famous short stories — “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one — was actually plotted by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. I learned that listening to the interview between Neil Gaiman and Tim Ferris. (The other Dahl story plotted by Fleming is “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the evil antique dealer.)
Why is that list of Collier-influenced authors entirely male? That’s not to say women haven’t also been influenced by Collier, but this does feel like a very masculine story.
I have a working theory on that. This sort of story, in which a criminal trickster type gets his comeuppance after a twist at the end, is closely related to the tall tale, and the tall tale tradition is very masculine. That begs the question, though.
This story is admirable partly because of the swift pacing. Notice how Collier takes us across continents with nothing in the way of boring logistical detail. And once the outcome is revealed, story over. Get in, get out, short story writers are told. Collier omits the entire New Situation phase. He can, because he’s given us all the information we need.
I considered saving this story until the Christmas season, but it’s not a Christmasy story at all. It is set three months before Christmas — the gift-giving of Christmas is useful to the plot and that is its function.
If you’re after a heartwarming Christmas story try “The Gift of the Magi“. O. Henry’s story also involves a twist in the tail, but rarely, that twist says something positive about humankind. These two stories fit at each end of a single continuum — optimistic at one end, pessimistic at the other. “The Gift of the Magi” is sort of like a biter-bit inversion story.
Mr Carpenter is clearly high on the psychopathic spectrum. At least, that’s how we might fictionally diagnose him today. This isn’t his shortcoming, though. I’m reminded of Kevin Dutton’s proposition in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, in which Dutton argues that psychopathy confers certain advantages (for the psychopathic themselves). Top doctors (especially surgeons) can benefit in their work. They don’t tend to have the same fear response as the neurotypical population. The amygdala tends to be under-aroused. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NSCWW_xRrI
So I’m not going to say that his sociopathy is Mr Carpenter’s shortcoming. His shortcoming is that he doesn’t appreciate his wife. I mean that in several senses of the word: He doesn’t like how organised she is, and he doesn’t realise the extent of her organisation. Her organisational skills annoy him. In one short paragraph we learn that his main beef with her is that he feels she over-schedules his life. (That is her entire job as housewife to a doctor, back in 1939.)
Mr Carpenter, it is suddenly revealed, is moving from England to America. He is taking this opportunity to kill his wife. He wants to start a new life with a new woman. He wants to stay on in America, where he justifiably believes (in 1939) he will never be caught.
After the murder itself, Mr Carpenter’s plans make up the bulk of the story. The narrator offers a look inside his head. It is a point of pride that I don’t understand how a sociopath thinks, and you probably don’t, either. That’s why this phase of the story is so important.
What makes him think he can get away with this? Why would a man kill his own wife? The interest of the story lies in answering these questions.
As in a story like “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, the murder happens swiftly and quickly — the story is about what happens after. There is a symbolic Near Death Moment:
He threw himself down in the coal dust on the floor and said, “I’m through. I’m through.”
But no meaningful Anagnorisis follows. This is just him panicking. To find the structural Battle scene, look for the part that comes before the Anagnorisis. Except there is no Anagnorisis in this one. The point of this character is that he is so full of confidence that he never once doubts that he’ll get away with murder.
Mr Carpenter has no meaningful Anagnorisis, but the twist at the end leads directly to a satisfying Plot-revelation for the reader. (And also for him as a character, though his response is left off the page.)
Comic characters don’t often have anagnorises. That’s part of what makes them funny — their enduring stupidity. This lack of self-awareness is part of what makes “Back For Christmas” a darkly comic tale.
“Back For Christmas” is a good example of a story which lets the reader extrapolate the New Situation.
The title is meaningful, but only at the end. Mr Carpenter will indeed be back for Christmas, but he will have been summoned by police detectives, alerted to the presence of a dead body after the excavators visit the house for a renovation and dig up Mrs Carpenter’s corpse.
FORESHADOWING TECHNIQUES IN “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”
I’ve written about literary shadowing elsewhere. In stories with surprise endings, the writer must be expert at foreshadowing. There’s a fine line between giving too much versus not enough.
How did Collier do it so masterfully in this story?
First of all, there’s the meaningful, clue-y title, mentioned above.
“He shall be back,” says Mrs Carpenter when we first meet her. She says this before the reader is told how very resourceful and organised she is. If we fully remembered what she had said, we’d know, after getting to know her later, that what she says goes. But we sort of half-forget detail like this. Instead, it all seems to somehow make sense after we learn the ending. (It is significant that every one of their acquaintances believes Mrs Carpenter. They know her much better than we do.) The takeaway writing tip: You can invert parts of the story in this way. Collier could have made the outcome more obvious by FIRST setting Mrs Carpenter up as a reliable type for whom plans always work THEN have her tell everyone (and us) that they definitely WOULD be back for Christmas, but showing us the other way round is the perfect degree of subtle.
“Anything may happen,” says Dr Carpenter in retort. This snippet of dialogue does double duty: The reader fully expects something to happen (as it always does in good stories) and it therefore functions as a suspenseful hook. But it’s also ironic in hindsight, because the ‘anything’ does not line up with Dr Carpenter’s expected outcome. There’s a meaningful gap between what he thinks and what actually happens.
This story would not have worked as well if Collier had left out the backstory of how Mr Carpenter has been ‘trying to scrape out a bin for wine’ and it would not have worked had he left out its addendum: ‘he had told Hermione’. In hindsight, we understand that Hermione saw him scraping out a barrel meaning to put her in it, but her interpretation was different: She thought he was developing an interest in wine, so arranged a renovation of the cellar as his Christmas present. It is important when writing a tale like this to attach a connecting thread of backstory to the simplicity of your poetic justice by explaining exactly how the pieces have come together in this way. It doesn’t take much, as shown here by Collier. It’s done in a single paragraph, embedded into action and forward motion.
There’s also a ticking clock, which Collier uses to divert our attention from this obvious clue about the barrel. The ticking clock is ‘the ringing’ from the friends, who will come back in half an hour.
Imagery works as foreshadowing here, too:
The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain.
This should tell us that the doctor will come to a sorry end, but it doesn’t, directly. And that’s why it still works.
Importantly, Mr Carpenter’s plot comes full circle, which gives a sense of ending. Seems simple in post hoc analysis, but it’s important that Collier chose to write such a direct and simple plot: A man buries dead wife in cellar; wife has planned a cellar renovation. The key is in the simplicity of that. This is poetic justice. Readers find poetic justice very satisfying.
Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed.
This has more to do with the supernatural belief of karma and heavily retribution than with legal justice. Poetic justice is the highly satisfying emotional response we feel when the innocent is vindicated and the guilty punished when the law doesn’t accomplish it.
In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap.
Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact
In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the big struggle in Archenland. When he jumps down while shouting “The bolt of Tash falls from above,” his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging, humiliated and trapped.
In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a concentration camp commander’s son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing.
In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Sweetest Fig, a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is a picture book in which a wolf builds a contraption to catch his guests and eat them, but he ends up getting trapped in it himself. His friends end up eating him without knowing.
I’ve written more about punishment in children’s literature here. A segment of modern book buyers avoid stories in which characters get punished at the end. You can see that by reading consumer reviews — bad behaviour followed by severe punishment is not always seen as suitable for kids. Others take delight in the very same endings.
See, “The Gift Of The Magi” (1905) is why we don’t buy secret gifts. Aren’t we always told in relationships that communication is key? Yes, yes it is. Either buy your own presents, or drop strong hints in the lead up to gift giving season.
Wait, that’s not what I’m meant to take away from this story, is it. For the likes of me, reading the story a century later, O. Henry does a Charles Perrault and tells us exactly what we’re supposed to takeaway in a dedicated paragraph at the end — that sacrificially giving gifts is excellent for human relationships.
Magi were priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians. These guys were into astronomy, astrology, alchemy and other forms of ‘magic’. The words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ in English come from ‘magi’.
In the Bible, magi get a mention in the Gospel of Matthew. They brought gifts for baby Jesus. These days they’re more often called Kings or Wise Men. This is how we come to associate Magi with gifts.
There are two main types of short stories — plotted and lyrical. O. Henry wrote the widely-beloved plotted kind, which amasses its entire weight at the end. “The Gift of the Magi” is also one of those rare short stories with a happy ending, so appeals to a wide audience.
I’m pretty sure I don’t believe [this], but which I’ll simulate here anyway: contemporary short story writers have gotten too specialized/dark/mopey. They don’t have enough “real life” in their stories—that is, they’re not taking up the real concerns of real readers. They aren’t storytellers, really (in that around-the-campfire sense) but margin-dwellers, writing stories in response (not to life itself), but to other hothouse stories, and all these stories do, really, is uphold a certain knee-jerk, lazy, default humanist ethic, etc., etc. Where’s the joy? Isn’t there lots to celebrate in life? This model (as you can tell) is dangerously close to reactionary (“Just write something I can read and I’ll read it! Why so negative! You sure seem well-fed enough, mister!”), and I don’t buy it for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that sometimes joy can express itself in strange ways, and also because stories have always been dark (i.e., Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Crucifixion).
Typically [vignette or slice of life stories] describe one situation or a relatively short period of time. The terms vignette and slice of life are often used interchangeably. Vignettes normally describe one or two brief scenes such as “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. They are often light or ironic in tone. The slice of lifecan include multiple scenes over a limited period of time, like a vignette, but in tone they often depict a realistic, unpleasant or grim side of life. […]
Because the writer’s purpose may be to explore a character, idea, or relationship, these two forms often lack a plot—no rising slope of a dramatic arc. They may be devoid of plot like conflict or even inner observations. Therefore, success is heavily dependent upon strength of voice and style and originality of story. […]
Without a plot you will have to overcome the inertia with stage action (small character actions and gestures) and through emotional movement (shifts of emotions).
Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
I disagree with those who say that some narratives have plots and others don’t — every complete narrative has a structure, and I’m not sure what structure is if not a breakdown of plot.
This is a story with two main characters, but the focus is on the young woman, named Della.
Della doesn’t have enough money to buy her husband a Christmas gift. This is a fairly childlike shortcoming to have, common to middle grade characters as well — a general lack of autonomy is her biggest shortcoming.
She is also psychologically needy when it comes to worry about how her husband will approve or disapprove of her beauty after she cuts off her hair, but this is a 21st century feminist reading. In a culture where a woman’s beauty is the main thing about her, the prospect of transforming from sexually attractive to unattractive is a shortcoming indeed.
This story is structured like a romance in that each lover is the other’s opponent. But we don’t know this, or in what respect, until the end. O. Henry sets up a different kind of potential opposition (for suspense reasons) — will Della’s husband chastise her for cutting off her hair? Stay tuned to find out…
The plot revelation is that they have each bought each other an expensive present which the other can’t use, precisely because they’ve each made a sacrifice for the other.
A NOTE ON TWIST ENDINGS
There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.
Here’s what’s not overtly critiqued, though readers may offer our own spin:
consumerism as expression of love
expensive items as markers of social status
men, women, control and beauty
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
O. Henry is the pen name of a guy (William Sydney Porter) imprisoned for embezzling money (after he tried to evade capture by fleeing from Texas to Honduras). He spent his time in prison writing cosy short stories, and he’s remembered mostly for this one, a lovely story about loving people who do nice things for each other.
Funny how that works.
Header painting: Henry John Yeend King – Twas the Night Before Christmas
“Share Your Gifts” is an Apple commercial, of interest because it is a complete story in three minutes.
Classic story structure can be found in anything, from songs to narrative poems to advertising campaigns. Compared to when I grew up with free-to-air television only, and a commercial radio station that was always on, I’m rarely exposed to advertising these days. I use an adblocker and we pay to stream ad-free TV. My husband convinced me to move to Canberra, sight unseen, after telling me that Canberra has a by-law which bans billboards. I was sold.
We’re all avoiding commercials these days, right? But when I do see one, it seems corporations have lifted their advertising game.
Apple’s 2018 Christmas advertising campaign is something I might even watch for fun, despite the ostentatious use of Apple products. I may not have even picked it as a commercial, since filmmakers get free Apple products by showing unrealistic numbers of Apple computers in their stories (which I deduce is how we get TV accountants using Macs, even though accountants would more realistically be using PCs.)
Last week, Apple revealed one of its biggest marketing secrets in federal court: The company relies heavily on free product placement in television shows and movies.And Apple has a fascinating history of product placement, which it doesn’t like to talk about.
The main character (a woman in an oversized red jersey) is too afraid to show her creative work. Her psychological shortcoming is underscored by the lyrics of the soundtrack, “Come Out And Play” by Billy Eilish:
Hmm, hmm Wake up and smell the coffee Is your cup half full or empty? When we talk, you say it softly But I love it when you’re awfully quiet Hmm, hmm quiet Hmm, hmmYou see a piece of paper Could be a little greater Show me what you could make her You’ll never know until you try it Hmm, hmm And you don’t have to keep it quietAnd I know it makes you nervous But I promise you, it’s worth it To show ’em everything you kept inside Don’t hide, don’t hide Too shy to say, but I hope you stay Don’t hide away Come out and playLook up, out of your window See snow, won’t let it in though Leave home, feel the wind blow ‘Cause it’s colder here inside in silence You don’t have to keep it quietYeah, I know it makes you nervous But I promise you, it’s worth it To show ’em everything you kept inside Don’t hide, don’t hide Too shy to say but I hope you stay Don’t hide away Come out and play
Sophia wants human connection, and to be seen and recognised for her work, but her fear is holding her back from really connecting with others via her art.
How do we know this?
Mostly because fear of showing your creative work is a fairly universal feeling among creatives. But also because of her disappointment in herself. If she didn’t want to share her work with others, she would be able to take joy in the act of creating it, without the subsequent burden of self-criticism.
In something this short, there’s no time for a lengthy New Situation phase, so we extrapolate that from now on this woman will not be afraid to show her work to others, and that she will be happier as a result.
As part of this campaign, Apple shared a ‘behind the scenes’ video, in which we learn — of course — that Apple computers were used in the making of it. Billie Eilish also made a video showing how she uses a Mac to make music.
It seems to me the main message Apple wants to push is that ‘making use of computers as part of your creative process does not remove the hand of the creator’. I’m guessing that’s why they paid a team of fabricators to create an actual set, rather than create the world itself on a computer.
Writers cannot simply flip a few gender tropes and hope for pats on the back. Writers need to read the damn room. They need to actually listen to women when women say — as women have been saying this entire year, and last year, and all the years before that — that women know our own minds. We don’t need men to know our minds for us.
In The Christmas Chronicles, our adventurous heroine causes Santa to crash his sleigh. On the ground, nobody but the kids believe he’s ‘the real santa’, but Santa manages to pull adults up short by knowing everyone’s names, and also the content of their deepest desires, stretching back to when they were kids. (In storytelling terms, he knows their conscious desires — a certain toy of the year — as well as their underlying desires — their wish to make their families happy etc.) Basically, Santa is a red and white version of an omniscient god. (I’m going to leave the inherent creepiness of that aside.)
In this particular version of a ‘true believers will be richly rewarded’ story, Santa ends up in prison, which allows for a good fish-out-of water comic set-up. Jail is the last place for Santa, right? Santa breaks into people’s homes to GIVE stuff, not to take it away. The writers have made the most of the comic irony here.
The jail sequence begins with a scene completely lacking in 2018 informed sensibility.
The following conversation takes place between the newly imprisoned Santa and a police officer who thinks he’s being pranked. The only way Santa can prove he’s the ‘real’ Santa is by playing the role of a TV psychic. Santa tells the officer things deeply personal things about himself.
POLICE OFFICER: You know what I want for Christmas? SANTA: It’s my job, Dave. POLICE OFFICER: Okay, then, smart guy. What do I want? SANTA: Lisa. POLICE OFFICER: Lisa? SANTA: Your ex-wife. POLICE OFFICER: I know who Lisa is. How did you… SANTA: She left you a couple years ago, and all you want for Christmas is for her to come back. POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, well, that ain’t ever gonna happen. SANTA: Yeah, I think maybe. [facial expression suggests the officer is wrong] POLICE OFFICER: Okay, look, pal. You don’t walk in here and talk about my ex-wife. SANTA: Dave, just… just give her a call. POLICE OFFICER: She doesn’t wanna talk to me. SANTA: Yes! Yes, she does! Now, she’s… she’s having second thoughts and… she’s lonely, too. And she really misses you! POLICE OFFICER: Now I know you’re out of your tree. Will you please stop this? SANTA: You know who I am! I mean, you’ve always been a suspicious, doubtful type. That’s probably why you’re a good cop. But deep down, you know that I know what everybody wants for Christmas. So, just give her a call, Dave! POLICE OFFICER: I don’t know how you know all this stuff.
Within the world of this story, Santa knows what the unseen ex-wife really wants because he knows what everyone really wants. The ex-wife wants the man she previously left to just call her.
If stories existed in a completely separate bubble from the real world, this might work fine.
But within the world of the actual real world, when women leave their partners, it’s generally for a damn good reason, and if they give their ex-partners the impression they want no further contact, they damn well mean that. Women don’t need men sitting together in rooms, trying to persuade each other that women don’t really mean exactly what women say.
The notion that women don’t mean ‘no’ when we say ‘no’ is dangerously pervasive, for women. For women, this sometimes means murder. It very frequently means physical or emotional abuse.
When script writers create scenes like this in a movie for children, they are perpetuating the idea that women don’t know our own minds — that men know better. Worse, men *magically* know better. Or they should magically know better. Silly old emotionally deaf police officer, failing to pick up the real situation. Santa is persuading the police officer that he’s got the situation completely arse about. (Because men are emotional dolts when it comes to women — another tired, self-perpetuating trope.)
Since this character is a police officer, the scene feels even worse, if that’s possible. In family films, police officers are portrayed as the good guys, except when they blatantly are not. The police officer in The Christmas Chronicles is an unambiguous good guy. Like the child viewer, he craved certain toys. (It is implied he didn’t get them — poor him.) Now he’s an adult, all he wants is love. Poor him. It can’t be just any love, though. It must be the love of the woman who left him for reasons known only to herself. Another concerning trope: The myth of the one true love.
Domestic abuse among police officers is even higher than in the general population. This has been known for some time.
Research suggests that family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population. So where’s the public outrage?
Once again, an audience is encouraged to take a man’s sexual desire seriously without considering the woman’s side. What a man wants — the love (and possibly the control) of a woman — is prioritised above what a woman wants — to not have that with this particular man.
Since it obviously needs saying, people cannot read minds. Women can’t read minds, either — though women are acculturated into listening to cues, prioritising male desire over our own and picking up on body language, then acting accordingly. Too often, men fail to do the same for women.
Have we not had enough of that this year? Have we not?
Also relevant, family violence spikes at Christmas. The violence is heavily gendered. It’s mostly men trying to control women, thinking they know better than women, thinking their own right to exist in the world takes preference over a woman’s autonomy.
That’s why a scene in which two men discuss the desire of an unseen woman is so hugely problematic.
In case you think, “It’s only a story”, consider this: precisely because it’s only a story, the writers could have given the police officer in The Christmas Chronicles LITERALLY any other desire. It did not have to involve the love of a woman who left the officer for unexplored reasons.
If the writers were really reading the room, the police officer would have been a woman.
My wish for 2019: Keep men away from movies for kids. Hand over the reins.
For audiences: Don’t mistake a sparky, adventurous female lead for genuine feminism in film. The Christmas Chronicles is not it.