“Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.
For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter.Significantly, McCullers still liked this story after it was unearthed, and even though she had clearly grown more sophisticated as a writer. Many writers look back on their early work and cringe. Eleanor Catton can no longer enjoy The Rehearsal, for instance, saying she no longer writes in that style.
Doctor De Soto is an example of a picturebook that owes a lot to Aesop, with the characterisation of the mice and the fox already firmly in place. Mice don’t play as prominent part in the fables as you might think, but foxes are one of the main five, along with countrymen, dogs, donkeys and lions.
There’s a good reason why Dr De Soto is a mouse and not a rat:
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
But the influences on Doctor De Soto go back even further than that.
The main value in making a character small is that he immediately becomes more heroic. Jack climbs a bean stalk to battle a giant, and he must use his brain, not his brawn, to win this fight. So too must Odysseus, who defeats the Cyclops by clinging to the underbelly of a sheep and telling the Cyclops that the one who blinded him is named Norman.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
There are also shades of fairytales in here, such as The Gingerbread Man. Readers will already know that tale, and therefore know how very perilous it is to approach a fox’s mouth end. Dr De Soto is obliged to jump right in.
THE NAME DE SOTO
I wondered if ‘De Soto’ had any significance.
There is a famous Hernando De Soto in American history — a Spanish explorer born at the end of the 1400s. I can’t say for sure if Stieg intended readers to make any connection to this historical figure, but I do note that Hernando de Soto’s North American expedition ranged throughout the southeastern United States searching for gold. Enter, the possibly symbolic gold tooth? Like Hernando, the mouse dentist is undertaking a perilous task.
But the similarities end there, really. Unlike the mouse, the historical figure was not someone known to bring peoples together.
De Soto was instrumental in contributing to the development of a hostile relationship between many Native American tribes and Europeans. When his expedition encountered hostile natives in the new lands, more often than not it was his men who instigated the clashes.
I don’t know about you, but 1982 doesn’t feel that long ago to me. That is, until I pick up a children’s book published in 1982 and realise that in 2016 good publishers are no longer putting out stories about professional men and their assistant wives. We might even say that picturebooks are even ahead of the culture in this regard; in our village the pharmacist indeed has an assistant who happens to be his wife, but it’s great that we’re moving at least smashing the glass ceiling in picturebooks, mostly.
As is usual in stories, it is the female character’s compassion which puts the goodies in a dangerous situation in the first place.
“Please!” the fox wailed. “Have mercy, I’m suffering!” And he wept so bitterly it was painful to see.
“Just a moment,” said Doctor De Soto. “That poor fox,” he whispered to his wife. “What shall we do?”
“Let’s risk it,” said Mrs De Soto. She pressed the buzzer and let the fox in.
— Doctor De Soto, William Steig
That’s not to say we aren’t clinging on to traditional gender roles by rehashing without much in the way of re-visioning the same old fairytales with their conservative gender roles.
This is a tale of minatures, in which tiny animals have rigged workarounds to exist in a world much too big for their bodies.
Like all mice in children’s books, the De Sotos’ main weakness is their small size. They need to use their wits in order to survive against predators.
The De Sotos want to help others by mending teeth and keeping pain at bay. They are an altruistic pair.
The fox, whose natural inclination is to eat mice.
Part of the humour of this story comes from the (adult) reader’s real-life experience of a dentist. Dentists are known to regularly request a wider mouth. Dr De Soto does the same, but here it’s because the fox really wants to eat the dentist, not because his mouth is simply getting a bit tired!
We see the power of this mighty opponent foreshadowed in the details of the illustration, for example the fanged dentures sitting on the bench in the dental surgery.
We’re also got humour in the Freudian idea that when a patient is under the gas and muttering nonsense, that this nonsense dream is somehow an insight into their true thoughts. So when the fox mutters “Mmm, yummy,” the mice are clued into his intentions.
We don’t see what the De Sotos’ plan is — instead we see them lying awake in bed worrying about it.
Since the reader isn’t in on the plan, the fox’s return for his gold tooth is fraught with tension. Stieg amps up the tension by having the fox comically chomp down ‘as a joke’.
As it turns out, the De Sotos glue the fox’s teeth shut and this will last a good few days.
The reader realises that even if you are powerless you can run on wits.
Doctor De Soto and his assistant had out-foxed the fox. They kissed each other and took the rest of the day off.
Implied after the story ends: The fox is able to open his jaw in a few days’ time, but by this time he is well enough away from the mouse dentists that his natural instincts allow him to leave them alone to continue their good work.
Note that altitude is symbolic in this final image — the fox is on his way down (in power) while the small mice stand at the top, as if on a victory podium.
Although this is an original tale published by Hans Christian Andersen rather than one based on the oral tradition, Andersen still borrows a lot from the oral tradition. So it feels almost like it might have been an older tale.
No coincidence there — “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is quite similar to
Libro de los ejemplos (or El Conde Lucanor, 1335), a medieval Spanish collection of fifty-one cautionary tales with various sources such as Aesop and other classical writers and Persian folktales, by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (1282–1348). Andersen did not know the Spanish original but read the tale in a German translation titled “So ist der Lauf der Welt”.
The Emperor’s New Clothes has been translated into over 100 languages, inspired lots of other stories, become a metaphor for lack of substance, and is known around the world.
Sigmund Freud used “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as an example when discussing a common dream — the dreamer is naked and ashamed; onlookers are not bothered. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud basically argues that nakedness corresponds to exhibitionism:
The dreamer’s embarrassment and the spectator’s indifference [towards the dreamer’s dreamed nakedness] constitute a contradiction such as often occurs in dreams. It would be more in keeping with the dreamer’s feelings if the strangers were to look at him in astonishment, or were to laugh at him, or be outraged. I think, however, that this obnoxious feature has been displaced by wish-fulfilment while the embarrassment is for some reason retained, so that the two components are not in agreement. We have an interesting proof that the dream which is partially distorted by wish-fulfilment has not been properly understood; for it has been made the basis of a fairy tale familiar to us all in Andersen’s version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and it has more recently received poetical treatment by Fulda in “The Talisman”. In Andersen’s fairy tale we are told of two impostors who weave a costly garment for the Emperor, which shall, however be visible only to the good and true. The Emperor goes forth clad in this invisible garment, and since the imaginary fabric serves as a sort of touchstone, the people are frightened into behaving as though they did not notice the Emperor’s nakedness.
But in The Forgotten Language, Erich Fromm counters Freud’s interpretation, because nakedness can mean many things other than exhibitionism:
Being clothed can stand for the expressions of thoughts and feelings which others expect us to have while they actually are not ours. The naked body can thus symbolise the real self; the clothes can symbolise the social self that feels and thinks in terms of the current cultural pattern. If someone dreams of being naked, the dream may express his wish to be himself, to give up pretence, and his embarrassment in the dream may reflect the fear he has of the disapproval of others if he dares to be himself.
— Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
STORYWORLD OF “THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES”
This tale along with:
The Snow Queen
is about the administrative changes taking place in Denmark 1820s-30s. This is the era in which Denmark put an end to aristocratic privilege. As Maria Tatar writes, “older bureaucrats, in an effort to retain their positions, joined forces with their younger colleagues in the reform movements sweeping Europe.” All of these stories mock the grandiose titles given to ordinary people — titles designed entirely to elevate their position.
Maria Tatar speculates that Andersen himself was annoyed with all of this hierarchy because he was never truly accepted. He wasn’t so removed that he refused the honors bestowed upon him, however. Andersen wasn’t exactly a good-looking chap, either, and this may explain partly why he rejected all of this pomp and ceremony.
THE CHARACTER OF EMPEROR
My childhood versions of this tale all depict a very full-bodied figure, and I had therefore remembered the image of a man who lies around all day eating food brought to him by servants. (Because in fairy tales we are lead to believe that obesity correlates 1:1 with greed and sloth.) But now that I look at other more diverse depictions of the Emperor, I see that not all illustrators have drawn him as such. The image below, illustrated by Harry Clarke around the 1920s, depict a man described by Maria Tatar as ‘effete’. This is by any standards a ‘feminine’ (or effeminate) pose, subconsciously linking narcissism with the superficiality of femininity.
The latter half of the twentieth century, gives us more obese Emperors, and I can only guess at the cultural reasons for this. Either way: take your pick of subtle messages of censure. The vices embodied by the Emperor are most often either tied to femme phobic weaknesses or to obesity and overweight.
However, this isn’t always the case. Here we have a regular guy:
The fact is, it is so much fun for illustrators to ham up the femininity and ostentatiousness of this unpleasant and foolish character.
Modern illustrations often seem to be a parody of gay masculinity. But this was written in an age when homosexuality was invisible. I believe Andersen was aiming simply for a ‘fop’:
Fop became a pejorative term for a foolish man excessively concerned with his appearance and clothes in 17th-century England. Some of the very many similar alternative terms are: “coxcomb”,fribble,”popinjay” (meaning “parrot”), fashion-monger, and “ninny”. “Macaroni” was another term, of the 18th century, more specifically concerned with fashion.
A modern-day fop may also be a reference to a foolish person who is excessively concerned about his clothing, luxuries, minor details, refined language and leisurely hobbies. He is generally incapable of engaging in conversations, activities or thoughts without the idealism of aesthetics or pleasures.
The word “fop” is first recorded in 1440, and for several centuries just meant a fool of any kind.
The fop is more related to the modern goth (for its shared androgyny) than to gay subculture. It is still interesting, however, that ‘androgyny’ seems to mean affectation of feminine body language in so many cases, rather than the other way around — probably because male body language is the ‘normal’, unmarked version, and because the Emperor is himself male, so in order to appear different and interesting he needs to behave in marked fashion in the illustrations.
We tend to modify our body language according to our dress. There are numerous studies about how girls’ clothing stops them from running around as much as same-aged boys, for example. Numerous illustrations of an effete Emperor lead me to wonder if the ostentatious masculine fashions of the early 1800s indeed lead to body language we would now describe as effeminate, or if those men, even dressed in their high heels and wigs and plastered in make-up, behaved just as manly men behave today, striding along with large steps, closing doors noisily behind them, man-spreading on horse-drawn carts.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES”
The Emperor has a number of weaknesses:
Psychological — he needs to be surrounded by sycophants and adored by the public. He is shallow, possibly narcissistic. Easily duped.
Moral — he judges others’ competence based on what they look like.
He wants to look lovely in the eyes of his public and thereby win their respect.
The two swindlers, who are classic tricksters of the common fairytale archetype. These swindlers are much smarter than anyone in the town.
The Emperor plans to have two tailors make the most magnificent garment so he can parade in front of all his people.
The battle scene is the parade itself, when the reality of the nakedness is up against the clear-eyed innocence of a child.
The child has a complete revelation and this spreads throughout the crowd.
There is a partial self-revelation on the part of the Emperor when he sees people whispering that he is naked.
The Emperor continues on anyway, because he has no choice.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the town after that, though? I wonder if the Emperor continued to rule the land with quite the same authority as he had before. For those who would like to know what the new equilibrium is like, we can go to the original Spanish version. In this story, the king is forced to admit his foolishness.
In March 1907 Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, held a garden party at their residence, 75 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand. On the same day, a poverty-stricken neighbour was killed in a street accident.
In 1921, on her 32nd birthday, Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party”. She had taken a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay“. She felt that “The Garden Party” was better than “At The Bay”, “but that is not good enough, either…”
Commentators have said that “The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s ‘cry against corruption’ stories. These stories convey outrage at a society with great inequalities, and where the privileged ignore the injustice, getting on with their own lucky lives in a self-imposed bubble.
“The Garden Party” is like Mansfield’s other Sheridan stories — keenly interested in human relationships and the impact of local conditions on the developing personalities of young people. These stories are also about how the present affects the past and the future. Mansfield doesn’t give us all that much information about the socio-economic status of the Sheridans, but critics have looked at the Burnells in comparison to the Sheridans and concluded that the Sheridans are a middle-class family on the rise.
The Sheridans employ household servants — a cook, a gardener. Then there’s the marquee man, the florist, Godber’s man and carter. What must it be like to live with servants in your home at such close range? I’ve worked previously as a cleaner. I wasn’t cleaning houses, but academic offices (while I was a student myself). Something weird happens when you encounter the person whose private space you clean — they ignore you. Some people are very friendly, but others would like to pretend you don’t exist. For some it is supremely uncomfortable to think someone comes in and does your dirty work. When you’re the person who cleans up, you know what’s in the bins, you know where crumbs are dropped, you know all sorts of things without even meaning to. Since the Sheridans are on the rise, the parents probably didn’t grow up with servants, or this many. They’ll have developed the skill of of being both mindful and careless of ‘the working-class gaze’. Especially so in their more intimate moments, for example when Laura expresses affection for her mother. “Don’t do that — here’s the man.”