The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

Continue reading “The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame”

Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

Continue reading “Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles”

The Toys of Peace by Saki

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) tree guns

“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.

Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.

Continue reading “The Toys of Peace by Saki”

Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

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

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

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

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

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
Continue reading “Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling”

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

Continue reading “Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler”

My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro

Frank Dicksee - The Mother 1910

“My Mother’s Dream” is a short story by Alice Munro, and the final offering in The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). This is an absolute masterwork in how to subvert an established narrative trope.

Continue reading “My Mother’s Dream by Alice Munro”

Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

Continue reading “Dead Calm Film Study”

The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield

George Dunlop Leslie - Roses

“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.

Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.

Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.

Continue reading “The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield”

The Influence of Lotte Reiniger

Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) was a German animator who should be more widely remembered for her influence on art and animation. Reiniger was a pioneer of silhouette animation. She made over sixty films. Eleven are considered lost and fifty have survived.

I believe in the truth of fairy-tales more than I believe the truth of the newspaper.

Lotte Reiniger
Continue reading “The Influence of Lotte Reiniger”

The Harlot’s Progress Archetypal Story

Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908

Literary scholars today write about a type of plot known as The Harlot’s Progress. This is a narrative archetype — a type of story — which still gets written today, though in different form. In the 18th century the story of the ‘harlot’ who did immoral sex things for money then died would have been very familiar to anyone living in the West. The story was everywhere, in art, in literature, in newspapers, and in the way people talked about women.

Many of the following notes are from Chastity and Transgression in Women’s Writing 1792-1897: Interrupting the Harlot’s Progress by Roxanne Eberle, 2002.

WHERE DID THE NAME “HARLOT’S PROGRESS” COME FROM?

The narrative of women punished for sex work goes back further than this, but “Harlot’s Progress” is a series of six paintings by William Hogarth, painted in 1731. He was riffing on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Hogarth did the engravings over following year. His paintings have been destroyed but the engravings still exist.

In the first plate, an old woman tells a young woman, Moll Hackabout, that she’s beautiful and that she might consider sex work.

Plate one of The Harlot’s Progress

In the second plate Moll has two lovers. She then becomes a mistress and finally a sex worker. She is arrested and sent to prison. Then, at age 23, Moll dies from a sexually transmitted disease. All six plates can be viewed at full size over at Wikipedia.

THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS IN LITERATURE

The narrative of the harlot who comes to grief can be seen across English literature of the 18th century, as well as in these famous images. This archetype is not only applied to women who become sex workers, but is used as a moralistic tale to control the sex lives of women across the board.

Although Moll’s story was a didactic tale (for women), it was also presented as erotica (for men).

Pretty much everyone in the 19th century was familiar with this story. Hogarth’s images were printed onto decorative items such as fan-mounts (the part of a fan that’s not the stick and handle) and onto household items such as cups and saucers. 

Newspaper articles about real women were influenced by this dominant narrative. “Fallen women”, “harlots” and “prostitutes” were presented to the hegemonic public as immoral and dangerous to society.

FEATURES OF A HARLOT’S PROGRESS STORY

Harlot’s Progress stories are linear — typically a form which serves masculine desire, in both the rhetorical and sexual sense of the word. (Feminine stories — those for and about women — more often tend to be circular in shape.)

  • Heroines in Harlot’s Progress stories are presented as Good characters who deserve the best possible fate. However, until she is claimed by a man, all of her virtues remain suspect. (The man who claims her recognises her intrinsic goodness.)
  • This ideal heroine follows a set path towards marriage and domesticity. Her quest is always the same: for the protective security of a publicly established virtuous reputation. [DESIRE]
  • The Harlot’s Progress narrative starts with either seduction or sexual violence. This will show the audience how vulnerable she is.
  • If she doesn’t have a father, she will need to find a father figure before she can secure a husband. [MENTOR]
  • Before achieving marriage, the heroine navigates her way through hoards of scary men in landscapes fraught with sexual transgression. [SETTING]
  • In these spaces, female modesty is presented as fragile. [WEAKNESS]
  • If she succumbs to sexual impulses she will sabotage her chance at marriage and instead become a “fallen woman”. [MORAL DILEMMA]
  • But the reader is constantly encouraged to worry that she will be a victim of male violence.
  • The BIG STRUGGLE scene will include a situation in which the heroine has to evade predatory men and not be turned on by the threat of their violence.
  • She must avoid venturing off the path (seen also in the Grimm versions of Little Red Riding Hood, heavily influenced by the Harlot’s Progress narrative in the versions they collected). If she ventures off the path, she will run the risk of falling into a much more dangerous story.
  • The story usually ends with death. [NEW SITUATION]

Evelina by Frances Burney (1778) is considered the perfect example of The Harlot’s Progress narrative.

COULD THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS NARRATIVE BE FEMINIST?

Some critics (e.g. Margaret Homans) have argued that linear narratives tend to correlate with static narratives. By static, we mean narratives which deliberately invoke stasis. However, critics such as Roxanne Eberle have argued that (proto-) feminists made use of familiar linear narratives in order to do feminist things with them. Linear stories are perfectly adequate in allowing for much experimentation. (E.g. A story can still be linear and not kill the heroine off at the end.)

The heroines of these books were rewarded with good husbands, financial resources and a domestic form of power. (Nancy Armstrong calls this specific form of power ‘the power of domestic surveillance’ in her book Desire and Domestic Fiction.) 

Ultimately, these scripts serve the middle-class by presenting us with an ideal of the public male entrepreneur and his private angel in the house.

Importantly, these weren’t the only books being written in this era. At the turn of the 19th century the very construct of the British woman was much debated. The world was at war and Britain was grappling with social upheaval — there were massive changes going on in their rural, agrarian and feudal class system. How important were women in all this? Many people were talking about it.

‘Conservatives’ wanted to keep women virtuous and in the domestic/private sphere. ‘Radicals’ wanted to educate women well and enter the public sphere.

So alongside these archetypal Harlot’s Progress narratives we now saw the rise of the sexually transgressive but articulate heroine in fiction. Proto-feminist works (e.g. by Mary Wollstonecraft) starred heroines who had been ‘robbed’ of their chastity by men uninterested in marriage. Some heroines robbed of chastity critiqued the social system rather than succumbed to self-abasement. Proto-feminist writers found the Harlot’s Progress useful because it contained a paradox: It was very well-known by audiences, so provided a framework for variation. (Much as the mythic structure functions in popular storytelling today.) These porto-feminist variations on The Harlot’s Progress was also linear in shape, but also discursive (jumping from subject to subject, probably back and forth through time).

Progressive women were interested in Harlot’s Progress stories because they offer an extreme example of the duality of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ (morality) that enlightened women were dealing with in their own lives. Conservatives believed that unchaste women were dangerous and therefore dangerous members of society. Radical women writers challenged this belief by asking people to locate morality in the mind, separate from what a woman did with her body, or what others did to her body. (Occasionally these writers even dealt with matters of the heart.)

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN REAL SEX WORK AND FICTIONAL SEX WORK

Importantly, novels were not written for the labouring-poor classes. Books were expensive and largely read by richer people who had no idea what real sex work looked like. 

Real world sex work of this era looked very little like the archetypal fictional version. Most English sex workers were poor urban women who moved in and out of sex work as a way to supplement their families’ incomes. These women were not necessarily stigmatised within their own communities. This depended on their class. Norms within the sex work/labouring-poor culture of England at the time were distinct  from the norms of the dominant culture. Any type of sex outside marriage was frowned upon. Let’s just say sex work didn’t receive especial scorn.

Sex work wasn’t pathologised and regulated until the 1880s. It was at this point that English sex workers started to become stigmatised even within their own communities. 

THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS AND CONTEMPORARY STORYTELLING

WOMEN ARE STILL HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR (AVOIDING) SEXUAL ASSAULTS

I have just described 18th and 19th novels which starred heroines whose virtue alone could overcome sexual aggression, transforming male desire into middle-class love. But is this idea really dead?

When a police officer speaks to the public about a violent rape that took place in a public park, he’ll all-too-often tell women to stay away from parks. He’ll tell women not to get drunk if women don’t want to get raped. The problem with these broad service public announcements is this: Individual women may indeed avoid rapes in parks by restricting their own movements. But women are still far more likely to endure abuse in their own homes. And if individual women were able to avoid parks, predators would move on to another victim. Perpetrators are still not held to full account.

SEX WORKERS ARE STILL SEEN AS FALLEN, OSTRACISED WOMEN
The illustrated police news 1872 A Quebec woman creates a sensation riding through St-John Street in a Hearse, reclining on the coffin-bed, and smoking a pipe
The illustrated police news 1872: A Quebec woman creates a sensation riding through St-John Street in a Hearse, reclining on the coffin-bed, and smoking a pipe

Sex trafficking (and other kinds of human trafficking) remain a significant international problem. However, many sex workers today have chosen their profession and resent the enduring idea that they must be stuck in that job because of desperation, substance abuse or morally bad choices.

Das Spiel ist aus (1956), Walter Schnackenberg (1965)
Das Spiel ist aus (1956), Walter Schnackenberg (1965)

QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN EVALUATING NARRATIVES

  • When a story contains the rape/abuse of a woman or marginalised identity, is this presented as punishment for sexual transgression?
  • Outside specific realms of erotica, is this punishment meted out in such a way that a voyeuristic audience would enjoy it? Would a misogynistic audience enjoy it?
  • When reading/watching stories about LGBTQ characters, do these characters die? If so, what is the narrative purpose?
  • Are woman characters given their own shortcomings and moral flaws? If not, the story may be leaning on the trope of The Strong Female Character. The problem with Strong Female Characters is that they don’t get their own arcs. Characters with no arc can never be the true stars of any story.
Norman Rockwell for Saturday Evening Post Magazine – May 29, 1943

Header painting: Thoughts of the Past exhibited 1859 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope 1829-1908. Stanhope’s portrayal of a prostitute in her lodging, who is suddenly overcome with remorse for her situation, reproduces the theme of the guilt-ridden prostitute that was prevalent in literature and paintings of the 1850s and 1860s, especially among the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.