Man-Size In Marble by Edith Nesbit

Louis Haghe - Tomb de Lalaing Hoogstract 1850

“Man-Size in Marble” (1893) is a gothic short story by Edith NesbitYou can read it at Project Gutenberg, as part of Nesbit’s Grim Tales collection. This tale is her most widely anthologised short story.

What must it be like to be ahead of one’s time? It’s happened to scientists over the years. The guy who worked out there are an infinite number of infinities ploughed a lonely furrow — none of his contemporary colleagues bought his whacky theories about that. In the end, decades later, whaddaya know, he was right.

When it comes to writers ahead of their time, a standout example is E. Nesbit. For more on why, I’ve dedicated a separate article.

In this story, Nesbit is critiquing gender essentialism of the day, in which men were seen as rational and dynamic while women were seen as sensitive and passive. She does not critique this with a simple gender inversion. As I have noticed in the past, the gender flip is not especially good as a vehicle for critique anyway.

Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.

I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.

Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.

THE GOTHIC TRADITION

As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.

‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.

— abstract of E. NESBIT’S NEW WOMAN GOTHIC by Nick Freeman
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
  • Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
  • Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
  • The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
  • The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
  • Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
  • By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
  • The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
  • This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
  • Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.

STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”

BRENZETT

“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.

1893

This story was published in 1893, a significant year for New Zealand women such as myself. In September 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governed nation to extend the right to vote to women. In England suffrage came much later — they needed a world war to prove women’s mettle. But Edith Nesbit would’ve been well aware of these changes on the wind.

THE NEW WOMAN

1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped  here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)

MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!

During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.

I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.

HALLOWEEN

The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).

Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.

Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.

KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES

To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.

Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in big struggle, form a rich visual display in the church.

Wikipedia

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”

The plot of “Man-size in Marble” isn’t the most interesting thing. Far from it. If this short story contained only the surface layer of the spooks in a church, I’d have called it underwhelming. Instead, the most interesting thing about this story is the characterisation of the young newly wedded man, whose attitude towards his wife comes through during his night of indescribable terror.
In true Gothic convention, the story opens with a paragraph in which the narrator tells the reader the events contained within are indeed true. As you’ll see below, we are to read this ironically. This is a story critiquing Jack’s ‘rationalism’.
The narration is a first person male, which fooled quite a few people at the time into thinking the author was male. This was useful.

SHORTCOMING

Man, I don’t like this Jack guy. How much of this was intended by Nesbit and how much is my modern interpretation? There’s an unanswerable question, even bearing in mind Nesbit was ahead of her own time.
Jack has been described as a ‘floppy-collared aesthete’. I’m reminded of Nathaniel P from the following contemporary novel:
Waldman’s novel ‘offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman‘, which isn’t what Nesbit’s story does, but both offer insight into a man who, on the surface, is feminist but dig a little deeper and although he is not sexist, he is nonetheless constitutionally inclined to uphold the system of misogyny. (For a clear delineation between sexism and misogyny, go no further than Down Girl by Kate Manne.) Jack doesn’t treat women as adults. He treats his wife like a child by refusing to tell her what he has learned about the house from Mrs Dorman, as it might upset her.
Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.
The New Yorker review

Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:

  • He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
  • He makes a show of having emotions himself
  • But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
  • Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
  • Ergo, this is performative empathy.
As I read the opening to “Man-size In Marble” I’m reminded of that show Escape to the Country and all those city people who go touring various country houses — oftentimes none of the houses are good enough and we learn the city folk didn’t really want to move to the country after all. Well, these two do eventually find a house to their liking, fussy as they are, and then the husband complains they don’t have any money. Next minute they’ve employed a ‘peasant woman’ to do all the housework.
‘Poor’ is such a variable concept, isn’t it? These two aren’t poor poor. They are living in ‘genteel poverty’, like the women in Sense and Sensibility. I mean, if you can afford to employ someone from a lower class to do all your drudgery work, you ain’t poor.
When the peasant woman housekeeper takes off, this guy won’t believe her reasons. She tells him her niece is sick. He doesn’t buy it because the niece has always been sick. It doesn’t occur to him that sick people often get sicker — no, it’s all about him.
Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.
At this point I refer you all to The Wife (both book and film), by Meg Wolitzer.
Jacks’ rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”. The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.
His wife, Laura, is the one who won’t listen to the housekeeper (according to Jack), and is very much down in the dumps about losing Mrs Dorman — this means they will have to do all the housework themselves. And by ‘they’, we do mean Laura, don’t we. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” the husband tells her. “There will still be time to do art even if we have to do everything ourselves.” Meanwhile, it’s a point of pride that he’s useless around the house. He tells us he has surprised himself by doing an excellent job of washing the plates.
Well, if you’ve ever seen that documentary series where they take a modern family and make them live like it’s 1900, you’ll already know this, but the loss of the housekeeper really does mean the loss of the young wife’s artistic life. The husband doesn’t realise it because he’ll be swanning around doing the bare minimum at home (a bit of polishing here and there, fixing what’s broken and so on) but the day to day drudgery of cooking, cleaning and washing will be the dawn-to-dusk job of his wife. Soon children will arrive and there will be literally no time for her to pursue her creative goals.

In short, this guy has plenty of Shortcominges. But it’s up to the reader to pick up on those, because it’s written in first person so we have no detached narrator to guide us in this direction. Would a guy from 1893 have had the same reaction as I just had?

DESIRE

At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s number one Desire is to find a nice country house for himself and his new wife so they can lead an artistic country life together.

OPPONENT

They find themselves a housekeeper but it goes tits up when she leaves. Now he will have less time to pursue his creative goals.
The Big, Bad Opposition is of course the spooks in the church.
Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.
[…]
Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.
If that last paragraph isn’t a perfect description of misogyny, I don’t know what is. Nesbit’s Stone Knights = misogyny.

Sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away.

PLAN

He will try to persuade their excellent housekeeper to come back. He will also wheedle out of her why it is she has left, presumably so he can tell her that her reasons for leaving are not adequate.
He doesn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of What Spooked The Housekeeper, but he does happen to wander into the church at the exact time on All Saint’s that the statues are meant to come to life. (Coincidence works fine in gothic fiction, which is inherently melodramatic.)

BIG STRUGGLE

While the narrator is chatting to the local blokes about spooks his wife is busy getting murdered. This happens off-the-page. Though at first pretty comical, consider this a symbolic rape and the finger as phallus. Not so comical now. No wonder that was left off the page.
Writers are often advised to put the Battle on the page, otherwise the reader feels cheated. A lot of build-up over nothing. Bear in mind that this story is a Gothic ghost story in the same way that Alice Munro’s “The Love Of A Good Woman” is a murder mystery — i.e., not at all. Readers expecting genre fiction may be disappointed.
Why did Nesbit choose the husband as narrator, which meant he wouldn’t be there to see his wife get murdered? Well, first, what we can’t see is indeed more scary. So there’s that. But also, this isn’t about the spooky walking statues at all. It’s about the young husband and his patriarchal attitude towards his wife.

ANAGNORISIS

In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.

Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband.

Nesbit’s marble knights were once men, part of a Roman Catholic tradition which allowed their wealthy relatives to buy them a place beside the altar, even though the knights had done terrible things (‘deeds’) in their lifetimes. Of course, they’re continuing to do terrible things beyond the grave. They have no place beside the altar. Nesbit is critiquing the practice.
And if we haven’t realised it by now, we know that if Jack had treated his wife as a fully-functioning adult and warned her of impending doom, Laura might still be alive.

NEW SITUATION

The ending has been described by David Stuart Davies as “cruel and unhappy”. Unlike more straight-up gothic horrors, there’s no suggestion that the characters are being protected by Providence.
I extrapolate that this guy won’t be getting his housekeeper back. I guess he’ll leave the area and find another wife, and he’ll never be quite the same again.
If the young woman was killed, can this be a feminist story? The question has been asked. I argue that it can because, as I keep saying, subversion works better than inversion (in which ‘inversion’ would result in an ending in which the vulnerable maiden toughens up and defeats her opponents).
“Man-Size In Marble” is instead an example of subversion, but not at a plot level — at a metaphorical  level.
Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction.

A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor

rolling hills with sunset

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flannery O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.

Hear a rare recording of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, at Open Culture.

In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.

Never State What You Can Imply, Peter Selgin



STORYWORLD OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

A white family goes on a road trip. They are travelling from Tennessee through Georgia to Florida for a holiday. The grandmother, who would’ve been born in the late 1800s, shows a pitiful if kindly attitude towards the Black child they pass on the way. No one else in that car says anything about him at all, except the observation that he is not wearing pants.

THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENDLESSLY RENEWABLE AND GIVING

It is difficult to imagine this attitude now, but The Grandmother tells her grandchildren not to throw their lunch rubbish out the window. The parents remain silent, suggesting this behaviour would’ve been fine with them. It’s only a small detail but reminds me of a scene from Mad Men, in which Don and Betty take the children on a picnic. When they’re done they just leave all the rubbish in the park. Is that what people really did back then? I guess it must be.

When I grew up in 1980s New Zealand there was a TV advertisement showing two children in the back seat of a car, eating fast food, throwing the rubbish out the window. The children were understood to be greedy, lazy and destructive to the environment. The message was to be a Tidy Kiwi. I thought these children were rascals, and couldn’t believe anyone was allowed to eat in the car (we weren’t) let alone throw rubbish out the window. Although the Tidy Kiwi campaign started in the 1960s, by the 1980s, the ‘don’t litter’ message had gotten through to almost everyone. Throughout the 1990s, we were fed the message that if we picked up our own rubbish, we were sufficiently taking care of the environment. By the early 2000s, that had morphed into ‘recycle correctly’. The 2010s and beyond are a different story — right now the onus is on the consumer to avoid buying goods in ‘unnecessary packaging’ in the first place, to create as little rubbish as possible.

Of course this is part of a larger, deeply, more deadly problem — transportation, electricity production and industry are the main culprits in destroying the actual environment at a deep level, and all the ‘responsible consumerism’ won’t do much to help it, other than assuage our own anxiety-guilt. (Not to say we shouldn’t do every little thing we can.)

THE TOWER

They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy.

Red Sam, who owns and runs the place, complains with The Grandmother that the world is going to wreck and ruin. The title of the story is a quote from Red Sam. The Grandmother and Red Sam are of the same generation. These are characters who would’ve lived through America’s depression, so it’s interesting they see 1950s America — an era still romanticised — as a downgrade on that. What, exactly, has been downgraded to them? Do they perhaps look back fondly on a time when slavery was legal? Are they able to put that into words, or would acknowledging it create uncomfortable dissonance with their own self image as ‘good people’?

THE PLANTATION HOUSE OUTSIDE TOOMSBORO

In slightly earlier times this is a plantation that would’ve been run by Black slaves. But this is not what the grandmother remembers:

the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. … the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall

The present scenery:

The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them. … The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.

This feels like a Hotel California situation. That final sentence leads me to wonder: Are they are going to make it out? Sure enough, this dangerous description of a road foreshadows the accident:

The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. … Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.

The woods are of course a trope from long ago, often a symbol for the subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

Flannery O’Connor’s characters are often described as grotesque, which has a specific meaning in literature:

Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.

The Masters Review Blog

THE FAMILY ON THE ROAD TRIP

The Grandmother — Has connections in Tennessee. Does not want to go to Florida because she has heard there’s a criminal on the loose. She is inclined to worry unnecessarily without being able to process probabilities and likelihood. For instance, she won’t leave the cat at home in case he brushes against the knob of the gas burner and asphyxiates himself. (Has this ever happened in the history of the world?) The Grandmother is therefore revealed to be a fantasist as well as a worrier. And this is why I interpret this plot as a metaphor or as a dream, probably endured by The Grandmother as she nodded off in the backseat, rather than as ‘real’ within the world of the story. (Not that it really matters whether the car wreck and the hearse really turned up or not — this doesn’t change any of the themes in the story.)

Bailey — The Grandmother’s son. She lives with him and his family. He doesn’t have much fun in him, but he is wearing bright blue parrots all over his shirt, as if to convince himself he’s going on holiday. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space, where the boss tells his staff to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, if they like, because it will be fun. (The staff don’t look like it will be fun — Hawaiian shirts will only remind them of how un-fun it is to be stuck in a cubicle.) Within the world of this story, the brightness of the shirt is equally ironic — it is the shirt he is wearing as he’s marched off for execution.

Bailey’s wife — ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage’. We don’t know much else about her, except her grim acceptance of her own fate, much like Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men.

The Baby — sits in the front seat on its mother’s lap, which gives me anxiety. I grew up with a TV advertisement which showed a baby flying through a windscreen, and the devastated, slow-mo aftermath. (It’s amazing what we kids weren’t allowed to watch compared to the trauma we was exposed to during regular TV shows, including the shows aimed at kids.)

June Star — the granddaughter, blonde hair. Sassy. Funny. Cheeky.

John Wesley — the grandson, 8 years old, stocky with glasses. ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ This is according to the God-like (Devil-like?) killer, so I take it as a fairly accurate assessment of his character.

Pitty Sing — the cat. The Grandmother hides the cat in the car. Eventually the cat will reveal itself, angering Bailey, foreshadowing death. This cat turns The Grandmother into a bit of a witch archetype — the sort of witch who can divine the future.

THE BADDIES

The Misfit — has broken out of the Federal Penitentiary and is apparently headed towards Florida. Strong white teeth. Menacing. Like a character out of a Western, he wears a black hat. Has ditched his clothes and is not wearing a shirt. This tends to make a criminal look more confident. (I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s character in The River Wild.) He wears no armour at all, because he is confident he doesn’t need it. When he recounts all the things he has seen he is older than I first imagined. Wears glasses. ‘Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.’

Bobby Lee — one of the men in the black hearse

Hiram — one of the men in the black hearse, the one who seems to know the most about engines.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”

SHORTCOMING

The Grandmother is the character we know the most about. Her reactions are described in the most detail. She worries (needlessly) but eventually the very thing she worries about most comes true within the world of the story. So if we read this story at its most literal level, she doesn’t worry needlessly, on this particular occasion.

What gets her into this mess is that she has misremembered some roads from long ago. But if we take a fatalistic view of the story, it wouldn’t have mattered which roads they took — bad would’ve come for them wherever they were. And when I say ‘bad’, I mean death. The black hearse, of course, is an old woman facing her own impending death. Perhaps, metaphorically, the old woman dies on this trip (but in a much less melodramatic way).

Right to the end, The Grandmother has a black and white view of Good and Evil. She believes she is good — she is good because she looks nice; she is good because she comes from a good family (as if lineage is the thing). She thinks that these things will save her.

DESIRE

She doesn’t want to go on holiday but she doesn’t want to stay home, either. She wants to feel as safe as she can, wherever she happens to be, and to remain a member of the Good Gang.

OPPONENT

The Misfit and co come along to prove that the very thing she’s most worried about will come to fruition.

PLAN

After the car rolls, the family plan to wait for someone to pass by and pick them up.

When The Grandmother realises they’re in great danger she tries appealing to God and offering money. Finally she tries to persuade The Misfit that they are all related somehow, in the scheme of things — appealing to his humanity (or perhaps she’s genuinely addled because The Misfit is wearing her dead son’s ironically loud-print shirt).

BIG STRUGGLE

The scene where The Misfit turns up and shoots the adults is the Battle scene. Murder happens ostensibly because the grandmother recognises who he is and tells him she knows. There’s a chance they all would’ve left with their lives, otherwise. Or would they?

ANAGNORISIS

Did the grandmother learn anything about life before she died? She probably came to the conclusion that life contains the evil she always imagined it did — she’s been vindicated.

But she starts off quite hopeful — so long as she behaves correctly, going through the correct rituals in life, everything will turn out fine. By the end of the story all hope has been quashed, in the face of outright sociopathy, though The Grandmother never gives up, in contrast to her resigned daughter-in-law.

The reader’s revelation? Well, my takeaway point is that bad things happen to anyone, and sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some churches teach that so long as you do everything right, your life and afterlife will be excellent. This idea poses a serious dilemma for any free-thinking person — what to make of very unfortunate individuals? To me, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a critique on the idea that it’s possible to divide humanity into heaven-bound and hell-bound individuals.

NEW SITUATION

The family are dead and the baddies keep going wherever they’re going to. The Misfit has a Zen  outlook on life — he doesn’t remember what crimes put him in jail. It’s likely he’ll end up back in jail and won’t care to remember the reason. He’s almost a supernatural creature rather than a real one — an earthly Grim Reaper.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Annie Proulx’s short story “A Run Of Bad Luck“, because the way in which the reader is asked to consider fate.

Alice Munro’s re-visioning, “Save The Reaper“.

Slate’s Audiobook Special (The Flannery O’Connor part starts at 22:20)

Review by Bluestalking

Flannery O’Connor to Lit Professor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I’m in a State of Shock” from Open Culture

Header photo by Matt Howard

The Haunted Tea-Cosy by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey was an American writer and illustrator who died in the year 2000. The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas is a picture book for adults, based on the cartoons first published in the December issue of the New York Times Magazine, 1997. Bloomsbury picked it up in an early-Internet era to introduce Gorey to British readers. This was therefore Gorey’s second-to-last book.

In the preface to “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens wrote that he tried “to raise the Ghost of an Idea” with readers and trusted that it would “haunt their houses pleasantly.” In December 1997, 154 Christmases later, the “New York Times Magazine” asked our Edward Gorey, “the iconoclastic artist and author, ” to refurbish this enduring morality tale. What is Gorey’s moral? Don’t eat fruitcake? Don’t look for morals? Don’t mess with the classics? Whatever. You decide. But don’t think too hard, and have a Merry Christmas.

— the marketing copy

INSPIRATION

I wonder if Gorey ever had the experience of enjoying a cup of tea only to find himself swilling a beetle. My father still speaks of the time he had a cockroach in his mouth. I had my own taste of this medicine when I recently found an earwig in mine. Unfortunately for me, I was drinking tea at the house of a new acquaintance and had to deal with this episode discreetly. (I believe I managed it.)

DESCRIBING EDWARD GOREY

Edward Gorey’s work tends to be described as:

  • Surreal (that word may not mean what you think it means)
  • Gothic
  • Metafictive
  • Victorianist (A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and takes place in the early 1800’s.)
  • Whimsical (yes, both gothic and whimsical)
  • Absurdist

Up front, I’d get more out of it if I could be bothered reading the source of the spoof from cover to cover — A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. For reasons I’ve yet to palpate, I find that story and all movie adaptations immensely boring, but it’s such a tentpole narrative that I’ve absorbed the general gist: A miserly old man fails to enjoy Christmas, is visited by three scary ghosts and after this trauma learns not to be miserable — because it’s Christmas, after al, and Christmas is based on the old carnivalesque tradition and you are going to hav fun at dinner with the rellies, dammit. Perhaps it’s the didacticism that repels. Perhaps it’s the unscary ghost which fails to entice?

In any case, A Christmas Carol is ripe for parody because by the end of the 20th century, audiences were no longer down with such moralising works, not even for kids. But in other ways Charles Dickens remains fun — no one surpasses him for character names. Edward Gorey certainly had fun with that in “The Haunted Tea-Cosy”. (The man himself had a remarkably symbolic name, also known as an aptronym.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HAUNTED TEA-COSY

Does this series of cartoons have a classic story structure? Does it build to anything? At first read it feels deliberately random — an integral part of its humour — the so-called anti-plot. This is a consciously non-didactic story — the grandiose moral of ‘don’t be a miser’ is demoted.

Gravel and his companions found themselves at a great distance somewhere to the north.

Why are they in the north? No reason given. None needed. But Gorey is well aware of the symbolism of the North — North equals desolate and cold.

The marketing copy suggests ‘don’t eat fruitcake’ as a moral but there is really nothing to learn — any takeaway message is this: The world is bizarre. Revel in life’s inherent absurdity. Don’t even bother looking for connections. If you see any cause and effect relationships, well, that’s on you.

Gorey was also well-attuned to heart-rending melodrama, exhibited best in the graveyard scene:

A small orphan called Nub and a large stray dog named Bruno huddled against a tombstone whose inscription was worn away.

Nothing says pathetic like orphans and stray dogs. Read Grimm versions of Cinderella and you’ll find, quite often in the German fairytales, the main character found herself weeping beside her dead mother’s grave.

But even melodramatic parodies need something to hang it together:

Edmund Gravel sits down for tea on Christmas Eve, cuts a slice of fruitcake, and is immediately visited [INCITING INCIDENT] by the Spectre of Christmas That Never Was, the Spectre of Christmas That Isn’t, and the Spectre of Christmas That Never Will Be. Guided on his spectral [MYTHIC] journey by the Bahhum Bug, Edmund is taken through his village of Lower Spigot and shown [METAFICTIVE] Affecting Scenes, Distressing Scenes, and Heart-Rending Scenes.

— Goodreads reviewer, links are mine

The thread running through this story is a crime plot — the case of the missing wallpaper (wholly unconnected to the teapot, which is your classic McGuffin.

Alberta Stipple has her wallpaper stolen; it is subsequently found buried in a graveyard when grave diggers are excavating a misplaced coffin; detectives turn up to inform Lady Snaggle at her ancestral home that ‘her husband’s brains’ (note the funny phrasing) were behind an international gang of wallpaper thieves.

The story of Gravel and his bug are a mock-framing story, meaningfully disconnected (from what I can tell) from that crime plot, though perhaps someone will enlighten me on that.

The ending is abrupt, a relative of the Shaggy Dog ending, in which we realise we’ve been strung along with a non-story and its anticlimax. But! We are left with a satisfying sentence:

Giggling, dancing and shrieking prevailed and, as the evening wore on, were carried to the very edge of the unseemly.

The final word of that sentence, ‘unseemly’ is ironically underwhelming, as the ending is itself.

EDWARDIAN BOOK DESIGN, SYNTAX AND ILLUSTRATIONS

ILLUSTRATION NOTES

“The Haunted Tea-Cosy” is designed to emulate a printing era in which colour was expensive and illustrations were separate from text (recto vs verso). A Christmas Carol was published in the Edwardian era, though it’s set ambiguously in the Georgian or Victorian era.

Edward Gorey drew using a combination of techniques. He makes metafictive reference to ‘stippling’ in one of the character names of The Haunted Tea-Cosy. If you’re logged in to Pinterest, there’s a collection of his techniques here. Gorey was well-known for pen and ink — no gradations of shading. In “The Haunted Tea-Cosy” he depicts the semi-transparent ghosts with a series of short lines in the shape of a person — the gap between the lines symbolises the overall transparency. (If he were making use of, say, pencil, he could’ve pressed more lightly, but that was not his tool.) This is how Gorey created the full range of values — by leaving varying amounts of space between the lines. This would have been very Zen, I imagine.

The composition of the illustrations is, however, that of a modern comic picture book such as Mo Willems often creates. Even the limited, dusty pastel colour palette is similar.

A man and his fruitcake, a massive knife, and nothing else.
WORD CHOICE AND SYNTAX

Gorey is using the same sentence structure over and over, which serves to make it stand out. It includes commas used like parentheses to incorporate detail which is funny but also diverting (in the literal sense) because while these details are being described, something massive is happening:

The tea-cosy suddenly twitched and from beneath it leapt a creature many times the size of the space within, even if it had not already held the teapot.

Emphasis on the dimensions of the teapot are beside the point, sort of, because how on earth could something that big come out of there? We accept such things in stories though, so Gorey is making fun of our willingness to suspend disbelief, metafictively pulling us out of such inclinations.

I’m sure I don’t get half the jokes in subsequent scenes involving the subsequent ghosts, who are switched out for some reason I don’t understand because I’ve not read Dickens’ version. They visit one house after another and find each household involved in their own trivial disputes:

Next door but one the Edgar Grapples, Senior and Junior, had an argument as to what day of the week it was.

(Oblivious to the fact that they are accompanied by a visiting ghost.)

The third makes his first visit to Alicia Grumble:

Alicia Grumble woke in the night unable to think where she had put her Bible.

The illustration says it, but why is she looking for her Bible? This part of the story has been elided from the text: She is looking for her Bible to pray the ghost away, who has just turned up in her room. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just me, making too much of connections.

The vocabulary of “The Haunted Tea-Cosy” is deliberately hifalutin, similar to how short story writer Saki made use of big words in a comical manner. Douglas Adams, to a lesser but noticeable extent, and various other comic writers.

  • ‘Alfreda Scumble was abstracted from the veranda’ (notice also use of the passive — contemporary writers are encouraged to avoid it where possible, probably because we’ll end up sounding like a Victorian parody)
  • The ghosts are described as ‘subfuse but transparent personages’. I had to look up ‘subfuse‘. It means dirty and swampy — ironically, you wouldn’t except ‘dirty’ on something ‘transparent’. Hence the ‘but‘.
  • ‘at which the Bug declared in a minatory tone…’ (minatory means expressing or conveying a threat)
  • ‘the bug declared in an admonitory tone’ (this is why writers are urged to stay away from non-ironic adverbs in dialogue tags)
  • cynosure — a person or thing that is the centre of attention or admiration. ‘The cynosure was a cake taller than anything else in the room…’ But Gorey does not reward the reader by SHOWING us this cake, supposedly the centre of the wrapper story. No, he leaves it off the page. The characters are looking to the right upper corner. Those of us accustomed to picture books turn the page expecting to be rewarded for our time but nope, still no cake. Instead, they are dancing. (The dance is clearly an expressionist dance rather than a jovial one.)

INFLUENCES

Gorey influenced various modern artists such as Tim Burton, who has in turn been emulated e.g. the creators of ParaNorman. Less directly, Gorey has also been an influence on Gary Larsen (via B. Kliban) whose comic panels you’ll know as The Far Side.

Gorey himself was influenced by Dracula, which he came across at a very young age.

SEE ALSO

Gregory Maguire is another modern author sometimes asked to re-vision old tales for Christmas. I enjoy “Matchless“, a take on “The Little Match Girl“.

How Edward Gorey Illustrated Three Classic Fairytales from io9

If you like Gorey, check out Ivor Cutler.

A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner

A Rose For Emily William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.

The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.

As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.

William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.

Wikipedia, Naturalism

FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM

  • Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
  • Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
  • Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
  • In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
  • Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
  • Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
  • How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
  • We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,

POST GOTHIC

Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.

STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.

Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.

Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.

The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.

At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.

TV Tropes

Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.

Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”

A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.

I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:

  1. The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
  2. Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
  3. Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
  4. Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.

Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.

Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:

As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.  […] We did not say she was crazy then.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.

There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.

But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.

DESIRE

It’s more about what Emily does not want.

She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.

OPPONENT

The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.

The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.

PLAN

Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory).  The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.

ANAGNORISIS

Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—

The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.

The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.

NEW SITUATION

With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.