“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.
But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.
To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.
What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.
Maybe. I’m fortunate not to have met dudes like that. Or maybe not.
Nothing about this take accounts for The Split Attraction Model of human relationships — a concept which wasn’t much talked about ten years ago, and which remains little known outside queer circles and philosophy.
There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.
Francois La Rochefoucauld
The Split Attraction Model of Philosophy
American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) divided sex into three aspects:
Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture, but
Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, functioning mainly as a character study.
Chris Lilley’s hipster-ironic comedy techniques have been criticised for enforcing stereotypes rather than critiquing them. That said, Mansfield’s Mr Reginald Peacock reminds me very much of Chris Lilley’s high school drama teacher, and I consider Mr G. the modern Australian equivalent of this very old archetype: The youngish white man who considers himself sensitive, unappreciated, entitled and artistic, solipsistically the star of his own show, and wholly unable to empathise with others.
Mansfield’s Reginald Peacock has a clearly symbolic name, and so do other characters in this short story.
This post will be sprinkled with peacock art, because peacocks were once very fashionable in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Mansfield would have been surrounded by peacocks in fashion and in art. The peacock is still widely understood as a symbol of vanity, which is pretty unfair to peacocks, who are born with their magnificent plumage, and who don’t get to mate unless they strut and rattle their trains.
As a rule of thumb, readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the viewpoint character but I doubt I speak for myself when I say that Reginald Peacock is less empathetic than his wife from the get go, whose point of view we don’t see at all. Reginald is clearly an unreliable narrator. He imagines his wife wakes him up deliberately, but only because the world revolves around Reginald, not because his wife has a full-time ob of her own, and housework really was a fulltime job back in the early 1900s.
Reginald Peacock embodies a number of deadly sins: sloth, vanity, quiet wrath of his own wife. He is clearly envious of the aristocratic acquaintance who asks his children to shake their father’s hand each morning, and comically tries to gain the same respect from his own son by instituting the practice in his own household. He’s basically a comically depicted flaneur. I have a feeling Mansfield was surrounded by flaneurs in her adult lifetime, hanging around with artists and poets. She was also involved in theatre and acting, so I wager she knew a few Reginald Peacocks in real life.
Mansfield has Reginald self-describing himself as a bird, and how his wife clips his wings, which is a bit of an inversion because it’s most commonly women who are described as birds in fiction and art. I almost forgot for a second that peacocks are a bird. Perhaps the peacock is one of the few masculinised birds in fiction, outshadowing the peahens because of their highly decorative plumage. Mansfield didn’t exactly shy away from describing her female characters as birds. I guess Mansfield was equal opportunity on that score. By the way, what do you call the technique of comparing a human to an animal? If it happens the other way round we call it personification, so I’m going for animalification. At one point, Reginald Peacock is also likened to a frog. (He’s doing his daily exercises.) This is interesting because there’s a particular frog-person archetype which is basically the middle-aged equivalent of the younger peacock. (Peacocks are beautiful, like youth; frogs not so much.)
Apart from the seven deadly sins, at first glance Reginald seems prone to coveting, about to breakone of the Christian commandments, first by fantasising about the latest and most beguiling of his female students. The word ‘latest’ is key here, because these women are not fully rounded in Reginald’s mind. So long as they fit his outsourced image of a desirable woman any one of them could easily be exchanged… and oh, they are, as Mansfield demonstrates with one woman after another. Ostensibly this works because Reginald sees a succession of women over the course of his working day. Aenone Fell, Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, Miss Marian Morrow. The job fits him well: constant novelty all day, and the opportunity to perform in front of a revolving audience. None of these women has the time to get utterly sick of him.
Reginald wants to be the star of his own show, leading a better life than the one he already has. As happens to the best of us, reality punctures his romanticism. For Reginald, it wouldn’t matter who he married, the day-to-day familiarity of his partner would be the killer. Reginald is all about cultivating and seeking out novelty, constantly drawn to mystery.
The wife remains mindfully unnamed. She goes without a name because she exists as a function to Reginald, not as a human in her own right.
These days, to go without naming a put-upon wife in a story opens the writer up to challenges of sexism. I prefer to trust readers. There’s a darn good reason why Mansfield hasn’t named the wife, but has fully named Reginald , as well as his younger female ‘love’ interests. It’s evidence of his dismissal of her. But this naming avoidance also universalises the wife.
In a flashback we learn that the wife has learned to deal with Reginald by immersing herself in the day-to-day running of their household. Reginald earns enough to keep her and their son, and in an era of no social security, this was something.
I think most people have the ability to unsee things if it’s to our detriment. It would be to the wife’s emotional advantage if she were to occasionally play along with Reginald’s games. A number of Mansfield’s short stories end with a female character seeing something (perhaps with the fling of the boot, in this case), then mindfully disregarding it. “Her First Ball” is an excellent example of that. The ‘temporary epiphany’ (more commonly known as ‘phantasmagoric’) is a feature of Impressionist fiction, though contemporary short story writers regularly use it, too. As one example, Helen Simpson utilised the phantasmagoric epiphany in her modern climate change story “In-flight Entertainment“. Climate change is the ultimate ‘look away’ example of our times.
Reginald seems to have some kind of phantasmagoric epiphany in this story though goodness knows what it is. I’m sure it’s only champagne-induced.
We get no insight whatsoever into the psychology of Mrs Reginald Peacock. I am relying heavily on Mansfield’s oeuvre when trying to deduce her motivations.
Reginald himself doesn’t have much of a plan other than to reluctantly be broomed about by his wife, then quietly seeths about her while fantasising about other women. If you can call that a plan.
It’s pretty unpleasant being stuck for a (short-story-length) day with this pair, who clearly despise each other. (At least, Reginald despises her.) And we don’t get any big fight scene, either. The scene where Reginald comes home drunk is truncated, or perhaps that’s all that happens before husband and wife drift off to sleep.
It’s possible that his wife finally had a gutsful of the guy and experienced a self-revelation of her own. But we don’t get to hear her response. (And I don’t imagine that’s how it went down. See below.)
However, there’s one small shift that happens at the end, and that wholly resides within me (and I assume in other readers). I see what Reginald’s wife must have initially seen in him, and how she might put up with him still. To be clear, it’s not evident that she does put up with him. This was an era in which a married woman with a child was economically and socially unable to leave her husband. But when Reginald draws her into his own game for a moment, even after scaring her with the clunk of his flung boot, he says, “Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed!” and I’m reminded of the ending of another Mansfield short story, “A Blaze“. At the end of “A Blaze”, husband and wife (Elsa and Victor) come together in what I consider an amae relationship, in which one person loves to be ‘babied’ by the other. Both get a lot of reward from it. (The Japanese concept has far more to it than that.)
If “A Blaze” had been published after “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” I’d have guessed that the marriage dynamic in “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” were a practice story for the more sophisticated but similar relationships in “A Blaze”. In fact, “A Blaze” is the earlier story.
The title “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” suggests this is a typical day-in-the-life-of story, not an extraordinary one.
Wouldn’t you like to know how (if) Reginald’s wife responded? I want her to throw his other boot at his head, but I doubt that happened. I suspect this is one of those relationships where it’s fight fight all day, kiss kiss at night.
But I don’t know. My prior reading experience of “A Blaze” is colouring my interpretation of Mr Reginald Peacock’s marriage. Sticking only to this particular story, my best evidence for a peaceful reunion is the darkness. Reginald is clearly a night person, preferring to sleep into the day and partying at night. When he returns home to his wife, he can’t see her through the darkness. Aided by liquor and by the fantasy life he’s been living all evening without her, the darkness itself might provide sufficient mystery for him to pretend his wife is not his wife, but a more mysterious and alluring member of his cast. In turn, she might imagine Reginald is not Reginald.
Even today, highlighted by the 2020 pandemic, the work traditionally expected of women has less social and economic value attached to it than work traditionally done by men. Today, much of women’s work is also invisibilised. I’ve wondered at times if the housewives of the early 20th century at least had their work considered proper work, even though they weren’t personally recompensed, of course.
Mansfield’s 1917 creation of Mr Reginald Peacock is the painfully comic portrait of a man who sort of does consider the running of a house ‘work’ but sort of actually doesn’t at all. We know this because he encourages his wife to hire someone (while also making it impossible for her to keep anyone). The hiring of help is more about status for himself rather than help for his wife. Reginald’s his cognitive dissonance is right there on the page, because when his wife requires him to get out of bed by late morning, and to let her know if he won’t be in for his evening meal, he clearly disrespects the job she is doing.
This short story shows that in the first half twentieth century, while housework and childcare were indeed considered a fulltime job, the cognitive dissonance of husbands infuriated women, even temporarily married and child free women like Katherine Mansfield: Wifely work was proper work — invaluable! — but not valued.
Edward Hopper was a master at depicting loneliness with paint. The sense of isolation is achieved with colour and composition. Eyes don’t meet, or not at the same time. Body language is closed off. Figures are small inside vast spaces, their heads far from the top of the canvas. They gaze from windows as if longing for connection. Edward Hopper did not call this emotion ‘loneliness’, however:
Why did Hopper not want to talk about loneliness? Perhaps he wanted to avoid conflating ‘loneliness’ with ‘isolation’ and in this he was right, as shown by more recent psychological research.
There is only a weak correlation between social isolation (not seeing others) and loneliness, so we don’t necessarily need to fear becoming lonely.
“Liverpool Art & Illustration – markmyink” has this to say about Hopper’s Automat painting:
Automats were open at all hours of the day and were also ‘busy, noisy and anonymous. They served more than ten thousand customers a day.’ Moreover, the woman is sitting in the least congenial spot in the entire restaurant for introspection.
‘They were clean, efficient, well-lit and – typically furnished with round Carrera marble tables and solid oak chairs like those shown here – genteel.’
By the time Hopper painted his picture, automats had begun to be promoted as safe and proper places for the working woman to dine alone.
Phil Lockwood, who used to teach art in Sheffield, took Hopper’s famous painting of the lonely American diner and zoomed out to offer a peopled view. Do you think he’s removed the loneliness, or is it still there?
Another artist who similarly depicts loneliness is O. Louis Guglielmi. The painting below includes a girl playing alone, an empty chair on a balcony and a street mostly devoid of decoration.
Alain de Botton doesn’t like the concept of ‘single’ versus ‘in a relationship’. He instead prefers to think of ‘connected’ people and ‘disconnected’ people. This makes more sense because you can still feel lonely even when ‘in a relationship’. Simply having people nearby doesn’t quell loneliness; it really is all about connection.
A CATEGORISATION OF LONELINESS
Not everyone means the same thing when talking about loneliness. At The Spinoff, Holly Walker explains the following categories:
EMOTIONAL LONELINESS: related to the lack or loss of an intimate other
SOCIAL LONELINESS: feeling unconnected to a wider social network, such as friends, family, and neighbours
EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS: related to a feeling of lacking meaning and purpose in life.
A good example of a story about existential loneliness: Taxi Driver. Tagline: On every street in every city in this country, there is a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. I believe this particular type of ‘loneliness’ is connected to the feeling that no one is paying attention to you. In stories it frequently leads to a character doing something for attention.
HIGH LONELINESS (5.7%). This group comprise the most introverted, emotionally unstable and score poorest in wellbeing. This is a much smaller percentage than some other loneliness studies would suggest, but it depends where researchers draw the loneliness line. Chronic loneliness has a very real effect on health, affecting every kind of mortality, impacting sleep.
LOW LONELINESS (57.9%). These people don’t really feel lonely at all. This NZ percentage reflects UK and USA statistics.
APPRECIATED OUTSIDERS (29.1%) Appreciated outsiders receive acceptance from others but feel like social outsiders. These people experience experience and support in the social connections that they do have.
SUPERFICIALLY CONNECTED (7.2%) The superficially connected are the opposite to ‘Appreciated outsiders’. They have many ‘friends’ but do not enjoy close connections with many or any of them. This group had moderate wellbeing, but ‘appreciated outsiders’ are relatively higher in wellbeing despite greater introversion and neuroticism.
Hannah Hawkins-Elder explains that in reality loneliness is more of a spectrum because all of us feel lonely at different times. Loneliness forces us to seek social connection, so this is an important emotion, drawing us back into society.
LONELINESS AND AGE
Young adults (18-24 year olds) tend to score highest on loneliness in general, followed by the elderly and people with chronic health issues, neurodiversities and similar. British people feel most alone at the average age of 37, which may be quite an arbitrary age.
People look to social media for encouraging loneliness in young people. Social media enables a high quantity of friends but does not encourage authenticity. It’s easier to wear a mask online. We see everyone’s well-lit shop window on the Internet, not their messy storerooms. That said, social media apps are changing in a way which aims to do a better job at fostering authentic connections online, for example by encouraging sharing and chat between smaller groups of people who know each other well.
The 18-24 age is a very liminal, volatile time when we are still forging our own identities. We are quite often leaving home or moving cities, starting new work where we lack confidence. Connecting with others has the prerequisite for finding your people, so we must all understand who we are as people before forging deep, close personal connections. This takes time, and social media aside, may explain why young people are the loneliest demographic. However, this theory requires more research.
LONELINESS IN FICTION
LONELINESS AND THE IMAGINATION
Other people are so necessary to our mental health that when we have no people around us, we start to hallucinate.
Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.
LONELINESS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
“I’m lonely,” she said. The old gardener pushed his cap back on his bald head and stared at her a minute. “Art tha’ th’ little wench from India?” he asked. Mary nodded. “Then no wonder tha’rt lonely. Tha’lt be lonelier before tha’s done,” he said.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
All stories about friendship start from a place of loneliness. Since many children’s stories are about friendship, many start off with lonely main characters. This explains why the trope of the child moving houses is so enduring — everyone is lonely when they move to a new place, faced with the daunting task of starting friendships from scratch.
Fern is alienated from her farming family The Arables for caring too much about pigs, but soon makes barnyard friends. Initially her mother is worried about this, but the doctor reassures the mother that animal friends are just fine. Whatever it takes to quell the loneliness.
Picture books are less about loneliness than middle grade literature, though all small children experience a kind of loneliness after being required to sleep alone in their own bed. There exist many Western picture books about that particular experience. Tropes include monsters under the bed and imaginative trips into the night, with carnivalesque guests who may or may not be imaginary. The postmodern picture books of Anthony Browne have a lonely aesthetic (see for example Gorilla), though these picture books tend to appeal to an older audience.
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli is a picture book which ostensibly ends happily because a lonely man is appreciated by his wider community despite the revelation that a box of chocolates from a secret Valentine was not meant for him at all. However, I’m not consoled by this ending. Mr Hatch is your classic ‘appreciated outsider’ who is clearly in want of a lover.
In his collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, Richard Yates includes a short story about a boy who starts at a new school and becomes ostracised by his peers, helped to fit in by his well-meaning young teacher. So far, so good — you might read it to your child and they’d understand every beat. But why is “Glutton For Punishment” a short story for adults? By the end this young boy has lost the support of his teacher as well as his peers. His loneliness looks set to continue. We don’t accept that ending in stories for children, which must end with hope and at least one friend to quell the interminable loneliness.
LONELINESS AND FICTIONAL MEN
We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated in a controversial 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. I would like to know why so many more male participants than female participants preferred the electric shocks.
Like children’s stories, many fictional narratives for adults are also about loneliness followed by a happy ending of friendship, though in stories for adults, some stories end on loneliness, with no relief in sight. This marks a difference between the sort of narrative accepted for adult readership versus those accepted for child readership. A story which begins and ends with loneliness is considered a tragedy.
Hud based on the novel by Larry McMurtry is a good example of that kind of tragedy.
Hud is an excellent example of a character who cannot form deep connections because he plays by the rules of toxic masculinity. He cannot form a close connection with a woman because he uses them and assaults them. He cannot form a close connection with his father because he is in direct competition with him for patriarchal control of the farm. Ditto for his nephew, who initially looks up to him.
The Wrestler is another excellent peek into male loneliness, though again, this story is a tragedy.
There’s another type of story which so far predominantly stars men: The story of the man who gets himself a doll. There are two standout examples of this in film: Her and Lars and the Real Girl.
THE SPECIFIC LONELINESS OF THE MIDDLE AGED WOMAN
The “Sex Machine” episode of the Hidden Brain podcast outlines the history of sex objects, going back to Prometheus who created humanity from clay. Likewise, Pygmalion seemed to enjoy fashioning women to his own tastes (he carved a woman out of ivory) and we see the influence of that ancient myth in modern storytelling.
Most middle-aged women are surrounded by people, partly because of the extra caregiving duties experienced by women in midlife (for both children and elderly parents) and also because more women tend to work in people-oriented roles such as nursing and teaching and human resources.
Though she didn’t use this terminology, Irish author Marian Keyes explained on the How To Fail podcast that she feels like an appreciated outsider much of the time, and the main character of Grown Ups is also an appreciated outsider, a fifty-year-old woman who gets social gatherings organised, pays for them, does the dishes at a party and ultimately feels a little like she is buying her friends by performing all this labour.
There’s a teacherarchetype who fits into the appreciated outsider category. Richard Yates also includes one of these types of loneliness in his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness collection. “Fun With A Stranger” is the character study of an end-of-career teacher who does not know how to connect with her students, though she tries to with the best of intentions. Though told from the point of view of a student, this woman’s loneliness shines through. A teacher is a prime example of a person surrounded by people, but because of the need for emotional distancing, and due to the intensity of the job, I suspect appreciated outsiders can be found in schools everywhere.
The loneliness of the performer is similar. Surrounded by people, the performer is nonetheless alone on their stage.
Eleanor OliphantIs Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a popular contemporary novel about a thirty-year-old woman so lonely she attempts to take her own life. The ideological issues of this novel are covered in detail here. (Is there something lonely-sounding about the name Eleanor? Cf. Eleanor Rigby.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is often compared to Eleanor Oliphant. She does something very odd to avoid scrutiny as an unmarried woman nearing middle age. But was she ever really lonely? The Convenience Store Woman partners up with someone she doesn’t even really like, and immediately discovers she is now accepted by mainstream society. No one cares if they’re good together; they only care that she’s partnered. Now they can regard her as Normal.
I’d like to read a story that ends with this particular anagnorisis, and Convenience Store Woman comes pretty close to it:
There are far too many absolute cinnamon rolls who are unhappily alone, and waaaaaaaay too many selfish jerks celebrating golden wedding anniversaries and stinking up R/relationships to ever conclude that romantic love is distributed fairly according to merit.
Katherine Mansfield wrote many lonely women across her short stories. Standouts include:
Miss Brill, who sits on her on in a park and imagines social connectedness by making up backstories about complete strangers, then returns to her room with the new understanding that she is probably too old to be married and must remain forever alone.
Linda Burnell of the Prelude trilogy is a mother living in a three-generational household yet remains interminably lonely, perhaps due to post-natal depression or similar. Beryl is unmarried and romantically lonely, though I’d argue she is less lonely than Linda, who is married to hapless Stanley. Beryl knows how to console herself with her imaginative powers.
Pearl Button is playing alone in her front yard but enjoys a lovely social day after she is whisked away by some Maori women.
In “The Doll’s House“, two girls are ostracised due to their lower social class. The sisters still have each other, however. We can extrapolate that their exclusion will forge a stronger sisterly bond.
“A Dill Pickle” is another story about an unwed woman living in genteel poverty, but she is not so lonely that she will marry just anyone.
“The Escape” features a married couple who live on different emotional planets.
In “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Rosabel goes through her life surrounded by people but utterly alone and hungry. This story highlights the inherent loneliness of a large city.
“Psychology” is a more uplifting story because an unmarried woman seems to have found a way to deal with sexual loneliness, and it involves more than one person.
The song by Charlotte Cardin below is about the specific loneliness of being the ‘other’ girl rather than a guy’s ‘main girl’. Stories generally feature, centre and create empathy for ‘the main girl’, and Cardin wanted to tell the other side for a change.
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.
Ships, boats and other sea vessels are symbolically significant across literature. How are they used and what do they symbolise?
If Noah’s Ark existed, it would have looked more like a massive floating crate than like a storybook boat, but illustrators clearly enjoy creating a more aesthetically pleasing ship.
WHITE SAILS, BLACK SAILS
In the Ancient Greek myth about Minotaur, King Minos and the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete. He planned to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster.
Theseus promised his father King Aegeus that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.
Theseus did manage to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out. Unfortunately, Theseus was not a great person. He left Ariadne behind on the shore even though she saved his life, and was so drunk after celebrating his victory that he forgot to change the sails. His father therefore saw the ship approaching and assumed his son was dead. King Aegeus suicided by drowing himself in the sea, now called the Aegean Sea.
The premature, completely unnecessary suicide is utilised in a number of modern stories including The Mist by Stephen King and in one of the stories of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, directed by the Coen Brothers.
BOATS AND THE HUMAN BODY
In the most general sense, a ‘vehicle’. Bachelard notes that there are a great many references in literature testifying that the boat is the cradle rediscovered (and the mother’s womb). There is also a connexion between the boat and the human body.
A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot
SHIPS AND BOATS AS SECOND HOMES
Most people like paintings of ships. You probably know someone with a painting of a ship on their wall. Perhaps we like to imagine the adventure promised by ships… but only while cosied up inside our own safe homes.
The painting below by N.C. Wyeth is a wonderful chimera of the Dream Boat (apologies to Gaston Bachelard). Ships and boats featured prominently in 20th century literature aimed at boys. “Imagination” is an amalgamation of the main seafaring archetypes:
(The following year, Norman Rockwell painted Lands of Enchantment, perhaps inspired by Wyeth’s cover.)
“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.
“Poison” (1920) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the last in the Something Childish and Other Stories collection, published by Middleton Murry four years later, after her death. Commentators have noticed veiled references to “My Last Duchess“, a poem by Robert Browning about a murderous duke. Browning’s poem in turn is based on popular imaginings surrounding historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century.
Literary and Historical Allusions
In Browning’s dramatic monologue of a poem, a duke is showing a visitor around his castle. They stop in front of a painting of his dead young wife and the story becomes ekphrastic. At first the duke describes his dead wife in glowing terms. But as the poem progresses, we are meant to realise it was the duke who killed her. This is the story of a coercively controlling man. He didn’t like how his wife flirted with everyone (according to him). The poem is especially disturbing because the visitor has arrived to negotiate the duke’s marriage to yet another young woman, and we extrapolate that he may kill her, too. It’s basically a Bluebeard story.
Likewise, the real Duke of Ferrara may have been a Bluebeard figure of the Italian Renaissance. He married three times and never had children. Some historians think he may have poisoned his first wife when she was just 17. His next wife died from tuberculosis, but the third outlived him. But who else might the Duke of Ferrara have poisoned? These powerful men lived in an era of unmitigated power.
Browning forces his reader to become involved in his poem in order to understand it, and Mansfield asks the same of us in “Poison”. What’s going on behind the words? Who is wearing the mask?
When it comes to the turbulence of emotional valence, some commentators are reminded of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. In Keats’ poem, as in “Poison”, a character is almost tortured by the extent of their own happiness. (Happiness as anguish.) The character is anguished because they know a deliriously happy moment can never last. It’s always punctured by something.
Oh, God! What torture happiness was — what anguish!
Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life
It’s difficult to separate the author from her work. Some Katherine Mansfield biographers feel that “Poison” is covertly about her relationship with John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s long-term male partner. They were pretty turbulent as a couple.
I’m reluctant to go there myself, because writing “Poison” may have simply been a cathartic act. Perhaps Mansfield read Browning’s poem and imagined that one of his wives killed him off instead. There’s certainly plenty to be angry about when it comes to partner violence. Mansfield may have been doing an Angela Carter, who turned victimhood of “Bluebeard” right around in her re-visioning of the archetypal tale: Carter called hers “The Bloody Chamber“.
Significantly, the fictional newspaper article in this story flips the general feminine connection to death by poison, because this time it is a man who may have poisoned his wife:
Either some man did or didn’t murder his wife, and twenty thousand people have sat in court every day and two million words have been wired all over the world after each proceeding.
SETTING OF “POISON”
France is synonymous with romantic stories, then as it is now. A villa in Southern France is the perfect setting for this guy to carry out his romantic fantasies.
Mansfield paints a setting but in words, and the words she uses put us in mind of Impressionist paintings. A good description of an Impressionist painting: It’s like you only got a glimpse of a scene. You are left with an overall ‘impression’, rather than fleshed out details, as in a dream.
There’s a lot of white, a lot of green in the setting of this story. We’re seeing this image through tulle (net) curtains. We’re shown moonlight, shadows, lamps, twilight in the narrator’s imagination.
Apart from the flowers and birds (commonly used across Mansfield’s short stories), Mansfield chooses two details of the environment which come up more than once and are therefore probably motifs: the blue beetle and the pearl ring Beatrice wears on her third finger.
Pearls are found in oysters — hard to crack open. Pearls suggest containment and also working hard for rich reward. Over the course of “Poison” our narrator prizes Beatrice open a little. Ignoring subconscious misgivings, he continues to see her beauty shining from within.
The motif of the blue beetle is less clear to me. Mansfield may be talking about the Hoplia coerulea, found in humid environments, generally near a stream or a swamp, in Southern France and Northern Spain.
The narrator may be focusing on the beetle as a strategy to avoid dwelling on his deep fear that Beatrice is pretty far from perfect. A beetle can also look a bit like a pearl — especially certain iridescent beetles, especially when light hits them, say through net curtains on a sunshiny day. The beetle might almost be the grotesque symbolic equivalent of the pearl. The difference is that beetles crawl/fly away, whereas Beatrice’s pearl is stuck to her finger forever.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “POISON”?
With nothing else to do apart from walking around and eating snacks, two upper-class characters return to their hotel in the South of France after a walk and a poke around the shops. A servant called Annette brings them food. They wait around for the post. This is all from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. His companion is Beatrice, a twice-before married woman who he is over-the-top smitten with.
The entire story is framed around an ironic ticking clock: the pair of them are waiting for something, actually nothing, to arrive (in the post).
“”Who? The silly old postman? But you’re not expecting a letter.”
“No, but it’s maddening all the same…
I believe ‘waiting around for the post’ is a metaphor for the narrator ‘waiting around for something to happen in his life, more generally’. By the end of the story the reader is waiting for the penny to drop with him.
Otherwise, this storytelling decision perplexes me a little. Mansfield introduces what we might deem ‘false suspense’ with all that waiting around for post. Because when the post arrives, it’s not some amazing life-changing letter, but is simply the newspaper, which they surely get everyday and is therefore not a surprise. An article in the newspaper leads to a semi-revelation for our narrator, although in true literary Impressionist form, he doesn’t have any major breakthrough. It simply sets him thinking.
Just before the newspaper arrives, conversation has turned to the couple’s future together. The narrator wants to marry Beatrice. But Beatrice remains unknowable, to both the narrator and to us. The basic worldview of Impressionists went like this: People don’t really change very much. Plus, there’s no such thing as the veridical truth of a situation anyway. We can only ever view the world through our own particular prisms. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Two people in the ‘same’ relationship experience completely different versions of it.
Throughout “Poison”, Mansfield is playing with the various permutations of the word ‘poison’. First the narrator has a cigarette, both deliciously necessary but also a type of poison.
There are times when a cigarette is just the very one thing that will carry you over the moment. It is more than a confederate, even; it is a secret, perfect little friend who knows all about it and understands absolutely. While you smoke you look down at it — smile or frown, as the occasion demands; you inhale deeply and expel the smoke in a slow fan. This was one of those moments.
Mansfield doesn’t touch on the criminal meaning until the newspaper is opened and read — literal as in ‘putting something into someone’s food and then watching for them die in agony’.
Instead she encourages us to go there ourselves, by delving into the metaphorical meaning, in which it’s possible to poison someone invisibly. We could apply plenty of modern terms to describe this form of poisoning within a relationship: Passive aggression, emotional withdrawal, coercive control… We never hear any backstory about Beatrice’s former relationships so we don’t know the exact nature of the ‘poisoning’. We don’t even know Beatrice’s degree of culpability. However, Mansfield makes use of symbolism to give Beatrice the appearance of innocence:
She was dressed in white, with pearls round her throat and lilies-of-the-valley tucked into her belt.
Mansfield was very aware of the symbolism around flowers. Unlike lilies, lilies of the valley most often symbolise chastity, purity, happiness and humility.
The white dress emphasises Beatrice’s innocence, and the reader will think of a wedding dress, and its associations with virginity.
We are therefore surprised when Mansfield reveals that Beatrice has already been married twice. (This makes her a ‘fast woman’ for the era.) The flowers ‘tucked into her belt’ suggest Beatrice exercises restraint — a desirable feminine virtue. Of course, we are told these details because these are what the narrator is looking for: evidence of a good woman. (Significantly, the narrator is also dressed in white.)
But appearances can be deceptive. And people can see only what we want to see, especially when romantic love is involved. The reader is not deluded by love for Beatrice and can see infatuation. In contrast, the narrator is yet to achieve a clear-headed view of Beatrice. But by the end of the story, he seems to have understood more of Beatrice over the course of recounting their conversation ‘out loud’. This often happens in first person narratives with storyteller narrators. The very point of them telling their stories (to no one in particular) is to come to some greater understanding.
Until the newspaper arrives, Mansfield never touches directly upon the literal meaning of poison. But because she so clearly goes there in the metaphorical sense, the reader is primed to suspect that perhaps Beatrice has poisoned both of her earlier husbands. At this point, Mansfield is leaning upon an age-old trope which connects ‘women’ to ‘poisoning’.
Witches, Women and Poisoning
This notion of women as sneaky, murderous poisoners harks back to the era of witchcraft and hasn’t entirely died. During the European witch craze, women were often accused of poisoning their victims. (Men were also tried for witchcraft but in England it was 90 per cent women.) These so-called poisoners didn’t need to be anywhere near their victims in order to do away with them — these witches were supposedly making use of necromancers and magic.
Historical Women and Poisoning
I would be interested to know if Mansfield knew about the case of Louisa Collins, the last woman ever hanged in Australia. Louisa Collins was found guilty of poisoning two husbands with Rough on Rats (basically arsenic, available at any local store). Her hanging was carried out in 1889, and happened across the Tasman Sea, not in New Zealand, and when Mansfield was just one year old. However, it’s possible this case was much talked about in New Zealand, because both New Zealand and Australia were grappling with how to treat those found guilty of heinous crimes: to hang or not to hang? It was shocking to the public that a woman was being hanged. Three women in New Zealand had been sentence for execution by this time, but all three women (accused of murdering children) had their sentences commuted to imprisonment. Louisa’s hanging in Australia was certainly reported in the Auckland newspaper in 1889. Media coverage of this Australian case in New Zealand, as well as the mythology around it over the next few decades as Mansfield was growing up, may have furnished the writer with ideas for “Poison”.
Minnie Dean and New Zealand Imaginations
I guess Mansfield would’ve known about the Louisa Collins case because in 1895, when Mansfield was seven years old, New Zealand agreed to hang its first (and only) woman: Williamina (Minnie) Dean.
Scottish born Minnie Dean settled near Invercargill (near the bottom of the South Island.) She took in unwanted young children for money. Minnie Dean was found guilty of murdering some of them, sometimes by suffocation, sometimes by poisoning (with laudanum). Dead little bodies were found buried in her yard. New Zealand never hanged another woman after that. It was that shocking. But it was salaciously shocking. People clearly enjoyed the drama of it. Outside the court house, vendors were selling hat boxes with figurines of babies inside it. (Minnie had apparently killed a baby then tried to hide the body inside a hat box.) While some New Zealanders no doubt found this distasteful, for others this was the late 19th century equivalent of going to the movies for a murder mystery then buying a plush toy.
I was born in New Zealand 90 years after Katherine Mansfield. The case of Minnie Dean was never a formal part of our history curriculum, but the figure of Minnie Dean, this formidable child killer, loomed large in our collective consciousness. There is a highly wooded park we called “Dean’s Bush” near where I lived in Christchurch. This bush and historic house is not named after Minnie Dean at all, and is now more regularly called Riccarton Bush, but in my subconscious I connected this wooded area to ‘child killer’. It’s actually a beautiful Christchurch spot, but the area took on a sinister tone in my mind. I hated walking through there.
In any case, if the trial of Minnie Dean had that much effect on me, born 90 years later than Mansfield, I can imagine the case had a large effect on the childhood games Mansfield played with her sisters, and on her writer’s imagination.
NARRATION OF “POISON”
“Poison” is told through the mind of a male narrator whose point of view is best described as thinking about the events as they occur in the present. Of course, such a narrative perspective cannot really be achieved, but this narrator is certainly not telling the story with any kind of judgmental stance after the fact. Again, the story represents Mansfield’s blend of the immediacy of a stage performance with the internal point of view of one of the actors on the stage. It cannot happen, but it does. The story is like a soliloquy without the rest of the stage performances around it.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
Beatrice and her narrator-lover are presented to us without backstory —in statu nascendi— though it is eventually revealed that Beatrice has been married twice before. He is 24 years old at the time of the story, and because he mentions his age in hindsight, we deduce he’s had a little time to reflect on this conversation. This story is atemporal. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between this particular conversation and the retelling of it. Has he now married Beatrice or has he made a clean break? Or perhaps this only happened yesterday?
I do see evidence of reflection on the part of the narrator, suggesting some time has passed since the events of the story:
Not because I cared for such horrible shows, but because I felt it might possibly perhaps lessen this ghastly feeling of absolute freedom, her absolute freedom, of course.
That passage shows the reader that our narrator has realised his love is a controlling kind of love.
Despite these insights, the voice is quite ‘immediate’, as in, he is narrating this story not long after events happened.
This immediacy of voice doesn’t stand out as unusual today, especially if you read a lot of young adult literature. A large proportion of young adult novels are written in first person and from the perspective of a young adult who is still young. In fact, if a significant amount of time has elapsed between the happenings in a story and the supposed retelling of it, and if the first person narrator has changed so much that they are now a heterodiegetic narrator, the work is no longer classed as young adult literature. (Many works for adults cover the young adult years.)
“Poison” almost counts as young adult literature by today’s conventions of narration, except Beatrice must be in her late twenties (at least) if she’s already been married twice. The voice of the narrator suggests to me he is younger than Beatrice. In fact he tells us he ‘was twenty-four at the time’. His dramatic monologue feels like the headiness of unmoderated first love.
Our narrator is not only naive — Mansfield has gone one step further and painted him as a bit of a ridiculous figure. Mansfield the author is winking at the reader when she writes, via the voice of her narrator:
And when she lay on her back, with the pearls slipped under her chin, and sighed “I’m thirsty, dearest. Donne-moi un orange,” I would gladly, willingly, have dived for an orange into the jaws of a crocodile— [wink] if crocodiles ate oranges.
(Crocodiles eat almost anything, including oranges.) What’s humorous here is not that the narrator is saying something factually inaccurate about crocodiles, but the fact that he’s made a ridiculous analogy then immediately second guessed himself. He could be laughing at himself, though I see no real evidence of that. Later, at the most serious part of the story (when he has his anagnorisis) he tells us ‘I made a little joke’. This positioning highlights that he is not joking at all.
In Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler notes that Mansfield made much use of ‘nervous’ characters, meaning ‘characters whose nerves are of primary concern’. Several of these stories are filtered through the viewpoints of women: “Revelations” and “The Escape“. One portrays a man: “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“.
Tense and terribly “modern” relationships between a man and a woman occur in three other stories: “Psychology“, “A Dill Pickle” and “Poison“.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
Kobler is not alone in then saying that the best Mansfield short story about modern heterosexual relationships is “Bliss“.
It’s always interesting when an author avoids naming a character. There could be many reasons for doing so. One common reason: To keep a character as an archetype in the reader’s mind. The fewer details we have about someone, the more likely we are to avoid seeing them as human. This — in my own experience — is also the exact reason why some readers get really annoyed when authors avoid naming characters, especially when an unnamed character has a marginalised identity or is a woman. (Not the case here.) This is to do with a long history of symbolic annihilation. To name someone, it is thought, is to individualise them, and to give them power.
Below, Kobler noties a pattern in Mansfield’s decisions to avoid naming certain characters, and also questions Mansfield’s decision not to name this particular narrator:
Like the majority of the males in Mansfield’s stories about these modern liaisons, the narrator of “Poison” has no name, a fact that lends credence to the belief that Mansfield really did believe that the men of her generation were all alike — unless, of course, they were so different as to be named Reginald, as in Peacock, and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove.” This narrator, however, perhaps ought to have a name, because he seems to embody more of the loving and caring sensitivity of Henry in “Something Childish but Very Natural” than he does the hurtful men of “A Dill Pickle” and “Psychology“.
Katherine Mansfield: A study of the short fiction, J.F. Kobler
(Male commentators really don’t like it when male characters go unnamed. I wonder if they apply the same outrage to the fact that many, many more female characters historically go unnamed.)
But I would like to draw attention to the following sentence:
“Who are you?” Who was she? She was — Woman.
Our narrator himself has realised that he regards Beatrice as an archetypal perfect Woman, as indicated by the capital W. Sure, the author does not name him, but he hasn’t noticed that Beatrice is an individualised character. Not at all. (Not until the retelling of his story.) This is Mansfield doing to him as he is doing to Beatrice.
The narrator seems to have realised how different they are, and how it will be impossible to please her in the way he hoped to.
There is no plot revelation of the kind that would tie up a genre short story, say a mystery. In that kind of story the reader might understand that Beatrice is a poisoner, and that the narrator is in danger of being poisoned himself. But this is instead a lyrical short story and Mansfield gives us only a symbol web as a lens through which to interpret events. This is in line with the Impressionist’s view that we are all viewing events through our own blurry lenses.
The true revelation comes for the reader. Guided by Beatrice’s insights into how relationships work, we now understand that the idealised relationship between this couple has now been ‘poisoned’.
“Guilt!” she cried. “Guilt! Didn’t you realise that? They’re fascinated like sick people are fascinated by anything — any scrap of news about their own case. The man in the dock may be innocent enough, but the people in court are nearly all of them poisoners. Haven’t you ever thought”— she was pale with excitement —”of the amount of poisoning that goes on? It’s the exception to find married people who don’t poison each other — married people and lovers. Oh,” she cried, “the number of cups of tea, glasses of wine, cups of coffee that are just tainted. The number I’ve had myself, and drunk, either knowing or not knowing — and risked it. The only reason why so many couples”— she laughed —”survive, is because the one is frightened of giving the other the fatal dose. That dose takes nerve! But it’s bound to come sooner or later. There’s no going back once the first little dose has been given. It’s the beginning of the end, really — don’t you agree? Don’t you see what I mean?”
At this point, Beatrice unpins her lilies of the valley. She is taking off her ‘mask’ of purity and innocence. Mansfield chooses a slightly unusual ‘body language beat‘ to garnish this line of dialogue:
She unpinned the lilies-of-the-valley and lay back, drawing them across her eyes.
But this is not just a ‘beat’ — by drawing these symbols of innocence across her eyes she is drawing attention to the fact that our narrator has been blind.
We had very little backstory about these characters. Completely in line with that, they depart from the stage/page as abruptly as they came onto it. Mansfield offers no hint about what happens next. We can extrapolate that this narrator will never be so heavily enamoured about anyone again, and certainly not when it comes to Beatrice.
“Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest (1930). Our main character Edna should be feeling great right now. She’s eighteen, she’s beautiful and she’s in love. One slight problem. She is about to become a Bride of Christ, also known as taking the veil. (Or so we think from the title!)
Mansfield was expert at varying emotional valence from scene to scene on the page, and “Taking The Veil” is an excellent example. Check out “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “The Singing Lesson“ and “Bliss” for others.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “TAKING THE VEIL”
What outwardly happens: A young woman called Edna walks from the library to the cathedral holding a black book. She sits in the garden and overhears the choir practising. The main story takes place inside her head. The outward story is underwhelming so, in order to work, the story inside her head is melodramatic. In this parallel ‘head story’, Edna even dies from an illness after rescuing a small animal.
Whether Edna’s fantasy happens in the veridical world of the story, or whether it happens only inside Edna’s mind, for storytelling purposes it doesn’t matter.
That is a useful takeaway point for writers when crafting highly imaginative characters like Edna, who looks to the rest of the world like a staid young conservative Catholic girl on the brink of marriage, but who on the inside is absolutely roiling.
ESCAPE INTO IMAGINATION
Perhaps “Taking The Veil” came about because the unconventional ‘remittance woman’ Katherine Mansfield, the writer, wondered if even her staid, gender-conforming counterparts also experienced ‘break-free’ fantasies. For a conventional girl, what might a break-free fantasy have looked like? We have an example in Edna. Ironically, comically, Edna’s idea of breaking free is to join a nunnery.
The story structure is similar to a carnivalesque children’s story such as Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea. A character goes about their regular mundane life but an imagination (or imaginative) character appears out of nowhere. Our main character has fun living a completely different life.
The story ends with a return to safety and to the mundane realities of the real world. (It’s basically a home-away-home structure.) In picture books for toddlers, the aim of these stories is simply to have fun. But in a lyrical short story such as this one, the main character escapes her mundane life via a fantasy, and by doing so she does learn something. In this case, Edna will reminds herself of her love for her fiancé. I argue below that this is not an epiphany, per se. Edna is not a self-aware character, and experiences no true anagnorisis. But the melodrama does become increasingly melodramatic until she feels quite downcast, at which point she snaps out of her diverting fantasy.
MANSFIELD AND CATHOLICISM
Unlike her fictional creation of Edna, Katherine Mansfield herself was not a product of a Catholic educational system. She attended Wellington Girls’ High School, a New Zealand public school. But Mansfield was no doubt surrounded by Catholicism later, especially when she lived in France.
The French literary movement at the beginning of the 20th century was hugely influenced by Catholicism. This return to Catholic ideas was a reaction against the Positivism, Naturalism and materialism of the 19th century. Ironically, many right-wing, Catholic, French literary critics were reacting against Modernism at the time but loved the stories of Katherine Mansfield. This is ironic because Mansfield was later regarded as an author working at the vanguard of Modernism (which they said they despised). For more on that see Katherine Mansfield: The view from France by Gerri Kimber.
Katherine Mansfield was in essence a queer leftie. If she’d lived in our time she’d have had her septum pierced and would be sporting sleeve tattoos of carnations and birds. “Taking The Veil” isn’t a story about the Catholic tradition of becoming a nun. Nor does it make use of Catholic symbolism (unlike, say, horror from the West which is full of it). Mansfield wasn’t able to view Catholicism from the inside, and neither can I.
SETTING OF “TAKING THE VEIL”
Instead, Mansfield is exploring the tumultuous feelings of being young and in love, falling in lust in an instant, but also being afraid of matrimony and sex. Mansfield juxtaposes temporary sparks of lust against the long-term, safe kind of love, and explores how a young Catholic woman might tame these emotions into something acceptable, something safe to show to the world. In order to explore these ideas in fiction, the context of a restrictive Catholic tradition comes in handy.
IT seemed impossible that anyone should be unhappy on such a beautiful morning. Nobody was, decided Edna, except herself. The windows were flung wide in the houses. From within there came the sound of pianos, little hands chased after each other and ran away from each other, practising scales. The trees fluttered in the sunny gardens, all bright with spring flowers. Street boys whistled, a little dog barked; people passed by, walking so lightly, so swiftly, they looked as though they wanted to break into a run. Now she actually saw in the distance a parasol, peach-coloured, the first parasol of the year.
How does Edna really feel?
Edna’s positive view of her environs even as she (ostensibly) feels like crap must be a close cousin to pathetic fallacy, in which a character’s environs afford insight into their internal state. Is Edna really all that miserable? I don’t reckon. Here’s the clue:
Perhaps Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt.
Inversely, perhaps Edna did not feel quite as unhappy as she looked. At any rate, Mansfield is telegraphing that this character is not as she appears. I put it to you that Edna’s world looks great because Edna feels great. (Later in the story it becomes clear that Edna takes a Gothy delight in her own melancholy.)
Today Edna is playing a role. She’s trying ‘nun’ on for size, probably inspired by the book she’s got out of the library. And how are nuns supposed to act? The archetypal nun emanates a staid, steady, calming presence. This may give an overall impression of sadness. Our cultural notion of nuns is key here. Despite a century between Mansfield and the contemporary reader, my expectations of ‘proper nun comportment’ are no doubt shared by Edna. We all make use of pop cultural stereotypes and scripts. When Edna tries ‘nun’ on for size, she is also trying on ‘sadness’.
At the story’s opening, I suspect any negative feelings derive from Edna’s nervousness at the prospect of married life. Perhaps this is a story about the Fear of Engulfment.
Fear of Engulfment is the specific female fear of being impregnated and then having to give birth, over and over and over, perhaps until the day you die. It’s easy for many womb-owners to forget the extent of this ancient fear now, but until recently this state of being was reality for any sexually active heterosexual cis women. Fairy tales such as “The Frog Princess” are said to be about the Fear of Engulfment.
Of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, “Psychology” is a good example of a character’s fear of engulfment. The main character in “Psychology” has her own way of enjoying a sex life without penetrative, partnered sex. Edna’s way is similar — she enjoys the platonic company of a safe man (in this case her fiancé) while enjoying a fuller sex life in her head.
Edna is at an age where she’s inclined to fall in lust easily, and now she has to do something with those massive feelings.
To an outsider, Edna doesn’t have many problems. She’s in the prime of her life. She has plenty of body confidence. She knows she’s beautiful. She’s engaged to be married to her childhood best friend. She’s clearly upper middle class. We know this from mention of a nurse (ie. nanny).
Edna’s Imaginary Audience
At first the following paragraph reads like a wise statement offered via an unseen narrator, but after the description of her book, when we are firmly inside Edna’s head, we realise this entire passage describes how Edna perceives her own self:
Perhaps even Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt. It is not easy to look tragic at eighteen, when you are extremely pretty, with the cheeks and lips and shining eyes of perfect health. Above all, when you are wearing a French blue frock and your new spring hat trimmed with cornflowers. True, she carried under her arm a book bound in horrid black leather. Perhaps the book provided a gloomy note, but only by accident; it was the ordinary Library binding. For Edna had made going to the Library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now.
This paragraph shows that, in common with other young adult characters across Mansfield’s short stories, Edna views herself through the lens of an Imaginary Audience, constantly perceiving herself as if from another’s point of view. This is common in the years between adolescence and young adulthood, when we’re checking ourselves in shop windows, entering crowded rooms with excruciating levels of self-consciousness, wondering how we are perceived, wondering if we’re acceptable.
Some commentators pinpoint this as a feature of narcissism, but narcissism is quite different. Imaginary audience ‘syndrome’ (not a syndrome) is more to do with navigating the world in a newly adult body, and the lack of confidence that naturally attends lack of life experience. Until we’ve worked out who we are, we’re more inclined to reflect off others, using other people as our mirrors.
The problem with perceiving yourself from another’s point of view: When it becomes habit, you become disconnected from your body. Peggy Orenstein wrote extensively about this in her book Girls & Sex. (Here’s no coincidence: Peggy Orenstein wrote her BA dissertation on Katherine Mansfield in 1983.) Girls and women are highly sexualised, valued for appearance over all else. When this becomes internalised, women across a culture can lose touch with what they really want, and who they really desire.
So I consider Edna’s imagined audience and disassociated view of herself highly problematic for Edna.
Because she is so dissociated, Edna doesn’t know what she wants, who she wants or what constitutes enduring feelings. (This does change at the end.) It’s up to us to understand Edna’s stage in life and what she wants. How is this achieved? Via narration. If we don’t interpret the irony (Mansfield’s main ironic delivery method) we’re not going to understand Edna.
If we take a look at Mansfield’s other work, we know she was an expert with narrative irony: a writing technique in which a character presents the reader with a ‘fact’ or statement that isn’t true within the world of the story. Key point: there’s no narrator winking at the reader signalling that we are not to take the judgement at face value. Questioning everything is the responsibility of the reader. This is in line with the literary Impressionist view that there is no such thing as the real truth anyhow.
Everything we know about Edna is a deduction based on very little by way of backstory. Mansfield preferred to simply present readers with a situation almost as if the characters have been birthed for the purposes of the story at hand. In other words, her characters are presented in statu nascendi. In “Taking The Veil”, where backstory occurs, it only takes us back in time as far as the play, in which Edna falls in lust with the actor. We get a few snippets of conversation from the time Edna tried to break up with Jimmy but we don’t know when that happend. The dialogue remains suspended in space-time.
At the story’s opening, Mansfield has decided to trick readers into ‘knowing’ this about Edna:
Edna is about to become a nun. (A deliberately tricky title!)
Edna is in love with a flesh and blood boy.
Edna has very recently fallen ‘in love with’ a stage actor.
EDNA’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION
When analysing characters in a text, commentators are inclined to assume everyone is sexual. We are also inclined to assume that if we love someone romantically then we must, at some point, want to have sex with that person.
Here’s where my reading of Edna becomes very modern, and although Mansfield was ahead of her time, she didn’t have access to our modern terminology. I wonder if Mansfield meant to put Edna somewhere on the asexual spectrum, specifically at the aegosexual part of it. (This is a new word and there are other terms which may eventually replace this one.)
In short, aegosexuality is an orientation (inasmuch as straight/gay/bi are also orientations) in which someone isn’t interested in participating in sex acts with other people, but will think and fantasise about it. An aegosexual individual will fall romantically in love as easily as an allosexual (non-asexual) individual. The object of affection may be someone they know from real life, or might be a celebrity or a fictional character.
For more on this orientation, Radio New Zealand’s Bang! podcast features an interview with someone in her thirties who identifies as aegosexual.
For me it’s a lack of interest in anything physical, but the fantasy or conceptual element is there.
Alternatively, Edna may simply be a product of her ultra-conservative times, yet to experience her ‘sexual awakening’. I suspect this is the dominant interpretation ie. Once Edna gets married and learns to share sex with her husband, she’s going to be just fine.
Some young people take longer to develop any feelings for anyone. Taking another story from that era, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley is pretty similar to Edna in her thoughts about boys:
Anne often states she is not comfortable with a romantic liaison. The adolescent girl tells Marilla: “Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it? Diana and I are seriously thinking of promising each other that we will never marry but be nice old maids and live together forever”.
(Bear in mind that Anne of Green Gables in the novel is different from how she is portrayed in a later screen adaptation. In the Sullivan Entertainment miniseries she is very aware of Gilbert’s interest in her. In fact this less likeable Anne seems to take delight at turning him down. This turns the story from a coming-of-age drama into a romantic comedy.)
Attraction can change over the course of a lifetime. (But doesn’t always.) It pays to read Katherine Mansfield through a queer lens. When we consider different types of attraction separately, this is known as the Split Attraction Model.
Any love story requires a romantic opponent. At first glance that’d be the boy Edna has known her whole life. Edna’s in love with Jimmy, but in a comfortable, queer-platonic way. Even his ‘smooth-feeling handkerchief’ is comforting. This isn’t going to provide much drama for the purposes of a short story, though we do get a glimpse into the time Edna tried to break up with him. This story isn’t about Edna’s conflict with Jimmy. This is about Edna’s psychology which led to the temporary break up with Jimmy. The human oppositional aspect is very much backgrounded.
So what of the psychology? Why is Edna wrestling with herself? Supporting my own theory of aegosexuality, if Edna were a straight allo-girl wouldn’t she just marry Jimmy? The conflict and drama of this story is all inside Edna’s head. Clearly, societal expectations don’t line up with how Edna feels on the inside.
As object of her romantic fantasies, Edna fixes (for now) upon the unavailable, purely hypothetical actor she saw at the theatre the other night. We learn via Edna’s free indirect speech that she’d drop Jimmy in a heartbeat if the actor were to show any interest in her. But again, we are not supposed to trust Edna’s narrative about herself. She describes a fleeting feeling rather than a real possibility. The actor is unavailable because he and Edna are separated by a stage. Moreover, he plays a blind man, implying another barrier between them forever. Edna regards him as his an entirely fictional character, not as a flesh and blood actor. If “Taking The Veil” were a modern story, Edna might have seen him on TV and fell equally in lust.
Later in the story we learn we were right to suspect a disconnect between Edna’s fantasies and Edna’s real world spectrum of possible actions:
The man she was in love with, the famous actor—Edna had far too much common-sense not to realise that would never be.
Chocolate has a long association with lust, which explains why Mansfield (melo-)dramatised the very small act of Edna taking a chocolate almond from a box. In storytelling and in pop narrative (especially around pop cultural ideas about premenstrual pain) chocolate is often considered a sex substitute, as well as an aphrodisiac. This makes me wonder how long chocolate has been thought of in this way. How did Katherine Mansfield think of chocolate?
Primarily symbolic of love, chocolate is a sensual food with aphrodisiac properties that are due, in part, to association. However, its melting point is the same temperature as blood.
What might you do if you were a beautiful, Catholic, 18-year-old woman who loves being in love but doesn’t ever want to have sex?
Joining the convent looks like a pretty good option, right? Even more so in an era when getting married was one of the very few routes to financial security for women, who were universally expected to get married and have babies. Becoming a nun and living in genteel poverty was one of the few socially sanctioned non-marriage options for Catholic girls.
The whole entire narrative is an inner big struggle but what’s the climax of it?
The moment Edna decided to join a convent seems impetuous on her part, coming about purely because Edna happened to be sitting in the garden of a cathedral. In stories, anagnorises must follow big struggles (yeah, it’s a rule) and Katherine Mansfield uses a few snippets from the break-up conversation she and Jimmy must have had at some point:
” But, Edna! ” cried Jimmy. ” Can you never change ? Can I never hope again? ‘:
Oh, what sorrow to have to say it, but it must be said. ” No, Jimmy, I will never change.”
Rather comically, Mansfield uses the background choir practice as a leitmotif. Their ‘ah-no’ is purely tonal, without semantic meaning, but to Edna listening from out in the garden their ‘ah no’ sounds like a cry for help. Notice too how the ‘little flower’ falls. Mansfield really liked her flower motifs:
Edna bowed her head ; and a little flower fell on her lap, and the voice of Sister Agnes cried suddenly Ah-no, and the echo came, Ah-no…
At that moment the future was revealed. Edna saw it all. She was astonished ; it took her breath away at first. But, after all, what could be more natural? She would go into a convent…
Why wouldn’t Jimmy believe his fiancée she says she’s breaking up with him? Because it is pretty unbelievable for the era, is why. Jimmy is Edna’s best chance at a conventional life. And she does love him. In those times, in that part of the world, a girl like Edna would need some good reason to break up with Jimmy. But she is not sufficiently self-aware to understand what that reason might be. (Jimmy has no hope.) So she will settle for an ‘excuse’ rather than a reason. Hence, the convent.
Has Edna experienced a genuine anagnorisis? I don’t think so. The literary Impressionists didn’t really think that people changed just like that. Self-awareness is a slow, piecemeal affair and we get ourselves wrong.
But the reader does experience a plot reveal at this point. (Speaking for myself, anyhow.) It is now revealed that Edna’s decision to join a convent is as impetuous (and temporary) as her lust for the actor, symbolised also by the flower which fell (a universal symbol of impermanence).
Mansfield had experience in the theatre, on stage herself, and though it’s not obvious to a modern audience now, her writing was clearly influenced by stagecraft. (Not obvious now because every writer is influenced by stage craft.) When Edna sees her future, she is imagining the whole thing playing out as if she is watching herself on the stage.
We already know she’s very good at viewing herself like this, because Mansfield introduced her as a girl with an Imaginary Audience at the very beginning of the narrative. Note the melodramatic touches:
How can they add to her suffering like this ? The world is cruel, terribly cruel!
Edna clearly takes delight in her own melancholy.
Unlike grief after the death of someone or something known, melancholy is the feeling you get when you’re grieving for something and you don’t know what that something is.
I wonder if there’s an English or borrowed word for this. Masochism is too strong; schadenfreude only describes taking delight in other people’s misery, and that’s not quite the same even in reverse. For now the best I can say is that Edna has Goth sensibilities. She’s clearly been reading Gothic literature (hence the melodramatic touches and the graveyard and the church…) but I’m talking about the 1970s and 80s Goth now.
A big part of Goth sensibility: Finding pleasure in their own melancholy. Another big thing for Goths: rebelling against society’s pressure to conform to gender norms. Imaginatively, Edna would like to rebel in some way. But I doubt she has the imaginative breadth to imagine what true rebellion might look like. Rebelling by escaping to the hugely restrictive institution of the nunnery is a comically ironic thing to fantasise about. Many goths were into death chic (hence the black clothes and white faces). As Edna sits in the graveyard contemplating her own death, yeah, Edna’s sure into death chic. Case closed. Edna is a Goth.
The final paragraph of “Taking The Veil” plunges the reader into a that confused space Edna currently occupies: Is there really a family visiting the graveyard crying about their only daughter, or is this part entirely in Edna’s imagination? (It’s not a binary distinction — it could be that Edna sees three people and pastes identities onto them.)
Whether Edna remains alone in the graveyard or not, she experiences another revelation: To break off her engagement with Jimmy would be to wound him forever. She doesn’t have it in her to do that. She will not become a nun. She will make Jimmy happy and become his wife.
Sideshadowing: If Edna were to spend the rest of her life as Sister Angela, I’m sure her sparks of lust and secret fantasies would make the whole thing bearable. For Edna, perhaps the prospect of marrying Jimmy is on a par with the prospect of joining a nunnery. She may expect both situations to be restrictive and physically unsatisfying.
Extrapolation: Since we can never really know how others experience their sexuality, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone’s life is a trajectory towards satisfying penetration within the Sanctity of Marriage. Even after marriage, Edna is just as likely to continue as she is right now, seeking pleasure imaginatively.
This theme of secret fantasy life as a means of getting through marriage has been explored by various writers, especially woman writers, notably by Alice Munro in her story “Cortes Island“.
The header illustration is by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt The Vale of Rest (1858–9). I’ve chosen it because of the nuns, but also because Mansfield’s story is about a burial — a burial of big, nascently (a)sexual emotions.
“Feuille d’Album” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in the Bliss collection. The word ‘album’ comes from Latin, neuter of albus ‘white’, and used as a noun means ‘a blank tablet’. This is the story of a man who appears to have no personality. Because of this, a group of women become fascinated by him, imagining he has deep, dark secrets. They endeavour to find out how he lives.
NARRATION OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”
The narrative voice of “Feuille d’album” has a strong personality. This is ‘the village voice’ of a subculture of women, society ladies, with the leisure to speculate about the life of an unfathomable young man of their acquaintance.
If this story were adapted for screen, I’d love Scottish actress Shirley Henderson to narrate in one of her English accents, for example that of Edith Dubarry in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.
Although the viewpoint character is this nosy unseen narrator, the ‘main character’ is the story of Ian French. We must see her as unreliable. Here’s what she can know via the gossip mill:
He is socially awkward in the women’s presence.
He keeps a neat house (because some of them have visited)
He gave an egg to the young woman who lives opposite.
He may or may not have said “Excuse me Mademoiselle, you dropped this.” The gag is too perfect, a society tall tale (with a shaggy dog ending), and the result of many retellings.
Because she has such a distinctive voice, and feels so much a part of the society she describes, this narrator is clearly not omniscient. She is never present in Ian’s rooms. She doesn’t see him watching, scribbling things down. Therefore, the bulk of the story must be pure imagination on the narrator’s part. Highly imaginative narrators/characters are very useful in stories.
He is probably the son of a wealthy family, highly trained in the arts. He may have been sent to France as a ‘remittance man‘ to keep him out of the way, as he may be embarrassing, socially. (Some commentators have speculated that Katherine Mansfield might have been a remittance woman, sent to Europe because she was a woman who loves woman.)
Through my contemporary lens, I understand Ian French as autistic. At first I suspected social anxiety, but as the story progressed, a number of autistic-esque features hoved into view.
Ian is very good at what he does, and he does that thing a lot (painting).
He appears to freeze in social situations. Perhaps this is because he has a disability when it comes to reading social cues, and his way of dealing with this is to simply be quiet.
He has a surprisingly well-ordered house.
He has developed strategies to get things done on any given day. He writes himself notes, perhaps in the voice of a mother or nanny, who he still needs to hear from, if only in his head.
He fixates on the woman with few clues. Obsessive love is common across the breadth of human experience, but Ian seems to fixate on her motherly aspects. He seems to see someone who could take care of him. The details he fixates on are unusual.
Case in point, the egg. He (supposedly, and supposedly based on what the narrator has previously observed) really loves that egg, and he is perhaps attracted to it in a sensory kind of way. The flipside of sensory processing issues is that unexpected things can feel immensely pleasurable.
The character of Ian French was surely inspired by Mansfield’s interactions with human beings in real life, even if Ian French is a conglomeration. There is no ‘autism epidemic’ — in previous eras there was simply no name applied to neurodifference.
Ian’s opponents are the society ladies who speculate about his private life, epitomised by the voice of the unseen narrator. These women position themselves as allies, checking up on him, but are counterproductive when it comes to Ian finding the social connections he wants. They clearly consider him a figure of fun. We deduce that he knows this, for he turns them away whenever they darken his door.
A man who is a figure of fun is unlikely to find his people. He must find a new connection, with a person outside the social clutches of these particular ladies of leisure.
Unfortunately for Ian, we can also deduce that whatever he said to the young woman about the egg has got back to the ladies of leisure. So in fact, the object of his affection has revealed herself (off the page) to be as dismissive as they are.
Ian watches the girl until he knows her weekly schedule, then he plots a way to meet her. We don’t know he has plotted this, in the veridical truth of the story. Because of the unreliable narration, it’s possible he never talked to the young woman at all, and that the entire interaction with the egg is a comical fabrication. Nevertheless, that is the level zero story. Any metadiegetic discourse in which we’re told, “Psst, that’s not actually what happened!” is missing. We must check our own tendency to believe these stories. We must. not. listen. to this gossip. Leave the poor guy alone.
Back to the level zero story. Because Ian is so passive, the ‘planning’ comes from his opponents in the form of three women who visit his house. Notice how Mansfield is making use of the Rule of Three.
The climax of this story is the meeting with the young woman who likes eggs. The story finishes after this scene.
the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. … A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.
Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles and Ends
Until this moment, the storyteller has invited us into her gossipy world. I confess that I was expecting some sort of dark act — a stabbing, perhaps? This is entirely set up, of course. Plus there’s the history of salacious stories about women murdered by stalker men. So this climax is an example of an anticlimax, which also subverts our expectations of crime and melodrama.
The story has closed with a perspectival shift. In many short stories, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt.
These final two steps are left for the reader to ‘write’.
The plot revelation, arrived at via deduction is the part where we realise the young woman may have gone back to the ladies of leisure and told them the story about the egg, making Ian look hopelessly silly and an object of fun.