“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single café scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.
I’m in a restaurant in Cambridge and this woman just yelled at a man “economics is part of culture” and he shouted back “that’s YOUR notion” and five minutes later she said, “do you want this” and he said “what is it” and she said “a pickle”
@sarahlovescali 9:41 am – 11 Aug 2019
Here’s your soundtrack: horribly anachronistic but about a dill pickle. (There are no words so we must use our imagination.)
WHAT HAPPENS IN “A DILL PICKLE”
A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down.
“The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1922.
CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in February 1922 as she was finding her tuberculosis treatment debilitating. She died in January of 1923, soon after its publication. Thirty-four seems young to be contemplating old age, and to write about an elderly character with any sort of gravitas, but it’s likely Mansfield always had empathy for the elderly. She had probably sensed she would die young. For one thing, she’d faced plague. The Beauchamp family escaped central Wellington to live in Karori, probably to evade the bacterial infections which were highly dangerous to Wellingtonians at the turn of the 20th century. Aside from that, Mansfield grew up with weak lungs. The family doctor told her family (if not Mansfield herself?) that she was a case of tuberculosis waiting to happen.
By the time Mansfield actually did succumb to tuberculosis, I wonder how she had processed the concept of ‘inevitability’. The modern-day analogue is a person who knows they carry genes which put them in the firing line for future health problems and a likely early death (e.g. for breast cancer, Huntingdons, early onset Alzheimers). The more we learn about genetics, the more all of us will be expected to either confront death (by paying for gene sequencing, say), or to ignore it completely (like The Boss in this story). How much should we mull over our own deaths? What is the perfect amount of death-mulling in order to live a good life? This is the ultimate moral dilemma for privileged people of the modern age.
We can only read her stories and speculate about how Mansfield lived with ill-health, but putting her writing to one side, she did live life to the fullest, perhaps because she was always under the spectre of death.
When facing death, it’s common for people to readjust our sense of scale. Big things seem smaller (we realise we are not invincible). Important events are cast as freshly irrelevant. The flip side is that small lives become more meaningful: A fly can lose its life just like that. And we’re no different. Everything feels more connected. (Users of psilocybin will tell you of similar experiences, without necessarily facing their own mortality.)
This is partly why imagery surrounding ‘miniatures‘ is so commonly utilised by storytellers. You can make the argument that all stories are about life, and therefore all stories are about death.
What Happens In “The Fly”?
Old Woodifield is an elderly man who goes to visit his former boss at the boss’s office. He’s impressed that the boss is still doing well in the workplace, even though he’s a full five years older than himself.
Old Woodifield forgets what he came to say, but after a tipple of whiskey (which his health properly forbids), he remembers: His daughters visited France recently, including the graves at Flanders Fields, where both old men lost sons.
Old Woodifield tells his boss that they also found the boss’s son’s grave, and would like to reassure him the grave is very well kept. Then Woodifield leaves, unaware of how he has plunged his former boss into the depths of despair.
The reader stays in the room and we watch on as The Boss slowly kills a fly entrapped in his ink pot.
Setting of “The Fly”
The story is set in the post-WW1 era, near London. “The City” is capitalised, so refers to “The City” district of central London. France is revealed to be a foreign country with very foreign customs when Old Woodifield offers the anecdote about paying for the entire jar of jam. (There is an historic cultural juxtaposition between England and France.)
Some of the language indicates its era:
“Toss off” now means something else entirely, but back then meant to ‘down’ a drink.
‘Wiped his moustaches’ — this word has evolved in the opposite direction of trousers (which were once considered plural, now considered singular, often called ‘trouser’).
‘Chaps’ now refers almost exclusively to the butt-less leather trousers. Back then the word referred to the same leggings and belt, but not in place of butt-covering attire. The word was pronounced ‘shaps’, fyi.
Narration In “The Fly”
This story is told with omniscient narration, neither entering too far into the mind of the boss nor Mr Woodifield.
“The Fly” is typical of Mansfield’s storytelling technique: The reader is moved through a series of incidents, carried along with the action. Eventually the reader discovers causal relationships. Honeymoon, The Voyage and Preludemake use of the same narrative technique.
Character Web of “The Fly”
As first presented, the Boss appears to be the archetypal godlike figure, giving life and taking it away. The Boss is given no name—he is known simply as ‘Boss’—authority, father figure to both Woodifield and to Macey. He gives a little drop of whiskey to Woodifield, insisting it wouldn’t hurt a child, even though alcohol is forbidden to the old man. This interaction is very reminiscent of a scene in Annie Proulx’s much later short story “On The Antler“, though in Proulx’s story the alcohol is literally poisoned. (To someone who can’t drink for health reasons, alcohol on its own can be poison.)
The Boss is also set up as materialistic. Mansfield both shows and tells us this fact.
[SHOWING] ‘New carpet,’ and he pointed to the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings. ‘New furniture,’ and he nodded towards the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle. ‘Electric heating!’ He waved almost exultantly towards the five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.
[TELLING] But he did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years.
Some critics have said this indicates an earlier, less polished time in Mansfield’s writing development because succinctness is highly prized. However, I’m not on board with that view. I think succinctness can be too highly prized. Like any other kind of emphasis, emphasis achieved by both showing and telling is acceptable to me as a reader.
More interesting: Why did Mansfield want to underscore this facet of The Boss’s personality?
Materialistic characters are non-empathetic characters. That’s a rule.
He’s also a braggart. A rich, powerful man who is also a braggart is the worst kind of rich, powerful man.
But he is also pitiable in his own strange way. Braggarts are showing their shortcoming: They’re not as confident as they hope to appear. A man who brags about his possessions is making up for something very weak about himself. The reader draws this conclusion early (subconsciously, if nothing else) and so when we see his actions at the end, the ending is both surprising and expected. (The rule for endings.)
On second reading (or in hindsight) we understand that by fixating on objects, The Boss can avoid thinking about death. Objects cannot die. Flies can die. Flies are not objects. But he seems to consider the fly a kind of object, as a part of the room itself, until he is hit by its tiny death.
I conclude that Mansfield had good reason to underscore the materialistic views of The Boss.
The Boss’s Son
We don’t know what the son was really like because we’re viewing him from the father’s point of view. Bereft family members have a tendency to remember only the best of the dearly departed. It’s highly likely the son wasn’t anything like the angel he remains in his father’s memory.
This is from a completely different book, published in the late 1800s. I thought of the father and son from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Fly”.
Also possible: The Boss required the son to come and work for him whether son wanted to or not, and The Boss refused to listen to anything else. It’s possible The Boss has sociopathic tendencies. While most neurotypical people think nothing of killing a fly, I think most of us prefer a swift and painless death for any living creature.
Like many parents, The Boss had hoped to achieve immortality via his son. Losing his only son means losing his own immortality.
When the Boss begins to play with the fly, birth imagery appears and readers remembers that Woodifield was described as a baby. As the fly struggles to recover from the persistent blobs of ink The Boss drops on him, readers understand that the fly is a symbol for humanity and the fly’s struggle is the struggle of humankind.
Flies also ‘fly’. Katherine Mansfield is making use of The Symbolism of Flight. Flies can soar through the heavens and perhaps they have lots of fun, escaping any kind of earth-bound reality. But flies die in the end. Alongside us, flies endure an ordinary and inevitable lifecycle: birth, youth, ‘old age’ (for a fly), death. There is struggle, even for free creatures.
But along with the struggle there are moments of flight, desires, hopes, aspirations. If we put ourselves in the fly’s position, it probably thinks it can get away, until the deathly amount of ink is dropped upon it.
Where did Katherine Mansfield come down on the Freudian concept of repression? Old Woodifield has repressed nothing. But look at him. He’s five years younger than The Boss, already retired, his health is at the point where he can’t take whiskey and he seems to be losing his memory, possibly hastened by the stroke which caused his retirement. He is now under the care of his wife and daughters.
We can’t apply a cause and effect analysis to how humans age in real life, but we’re talking about fiction here. Could it be that in “The Fly”, Old Woodfield’s openness towards mortality has actually hastened his own?
Helen Garner wrote a novel called The Spare Room, in which a woman is cast into the reluctant role of caregiver when a friend comes to stay. The friend is undergoing cancer treatment. In interviews, Garner has said that ‘denial of one’s impending death’ is one way of dealing with death. Since death comes anyway, there’s no right or wrong way of dealing with it.
My brother, a hospital nurse, also tells me that it is very, very common to be admitted to hospital in the late stages of a deadly illness and still not ‘accept’ death is happening.
One possible reading of “The Fly”: By repressing thoughts of death, we don’t ever have to deal with it. (By the time we’ve dealt with it, we’ll be fully dead., which is not dealing.) In the meantime, keep working, keep busy.
Western governments, spurred on by a rapidly ageing population, probably take The Boss’s view.
Alternate reading: Old Woodifield has ‘Old’ in his name, but is consistently described as a baby. We could look at this both ways: Old people are helpless like babies and there’s your comparison. When Mansfield calls Old Woodifield a baby, she might simply be underscoring his old age. On the other hand, his acceptance of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death makes him immortal, in a way. Once we learn that death is a thing, and that it will eventually come for us, we’re ‘outside’ death. (‘Forever young’, despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Symbol Web of “The Fly”
In the first episode in “The Fly” Woodifield and the Boss are contrasted in using imagistic patterns.
Old Woodifield, though five years younger, is nearing his grave. He’s ‘boxed up‘ and looks ‘like a baby in his pram’ but still likes to go out as ‘he clings’ to his ‘last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves’. He ‘pipes’, ‘peers’, has ‘shuffling footsteps’ is frail’ and ‘old’ (stated seventeen times) and ‘on his last pins’.
The Boss, on the other hand, though described in less imagistic language, is still ‘at the helm’, ‘going strong’, rolls in his chair, and ‘flips’ the Financial Times, interested as he is in his business and life. The Boss has a strong lust for life and shows a great capacity to survive. The imagery that defines the environment is remarkably positive, and equally rich in suggestions of the boss’s energy, his strength, warmth and generosity.
Indeed the implication, especially through contrasting comparisons with old Woodifield, is that the Boss has an unaging vitality. He seems to be immune to life’s ravages and this suggests an important theme. The very effect of the description of the room and the boss’s subsequent conversation with Woodifield is to establish a dichotomy between the two men as well as to portray them naturally in a realistic social context.
Mortality, already implied by the contrasting images, is directly conveyed by the striking verbal metaphor of the boss’s son in his grave: ‘It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girls staring down at him’. This momento mori together with his son’s photograph make him forget the six years, although his mental grasp has weakened. But the Boss has built up not only his thriving business but also an effective defence mechanism. There are no tears to shed.
By sheer accident the boss finds a fly in the inkwell and unconsciously picks it out, watching the struggling fly brushing off the ink in order to survive, the Boss finds in its fight for life an analogy with his own will to survive. The introductory, contrasting images have generated a sense of the boss’s zest for life, which is also evident in the action.
Killing the fly he paradoxically wishes it to weather adversity, increasingly identifying himself as the courageous little insect in the animal images: ‘like a minute little cat’, ‘the little beggar’ and ‘he’s a plucky little devil.’ Time and his zest for life ‘(‘for the life of him’) have healed the wound in his heart.
The images reveal the true nature of the Boss and inform and extend the meaning of the action in the short story. With Mansfield’s method of narrative restraint, which eschews expository comments, the boss’s final oblivion is expressed in the referential narrator’s discourse, but the full weight of the boss’s fight for survival is expressed by imagistic patterns.
Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
The Boss represses his own hard emotions, pressing reset again and again, which leaves him open to continued small wounds when he leasts expects them.
The Boss is the archetype of the broken man who wants to embed himself in his work in order to forget other kinds of pain. The men of Mad Men are uniformly of that type. If they were to understand their own difficult emotions, those emotions would absolutely break them.
Short stories are well-known for their epiphanic moments, and for characters who change just a smudge. (There’s little time for massive character arcs.) “The Fly” is an excellent example of minimal character change (if any at all).
The Boss seems quite happy to continue on as Top Dog of his own company, and no doubt enjoys the authority that comes with it. But this was an era in which men did tend to retire at a certain, fixed age.
The Boss hasn’t retired, which suggests he wants to live in the past. Today starts off as many other days must have, no different from how days have looked his whole working life.
I’m filling in gaps, but I imagine The Boss pretends he’s a much younger man, and that his son is also younger, safely ensconced in his school work, or at home with his mother, still alive and still full of promise.
Old Woodifield is the opponent because in contrast to The Boss, this is an old man who has come to terms with his impending death. (He’s long since retired.) He’s also come to terms with his own son’s death in the war, to the point where he can talk at length about how well the graves are tended. This is a man who has not repressed his grief, or his own fear of death.
When confronted with such a peer, The Boss is asked to confront his own dark emotions. This is the unique trait of a same-aged peer, and why school reunions in particular can be so confronting. We can look at a much older person and separate ourselves from their mortality. We look at much younger people and we consider them almost ageless. But when we look at those the exact same age, we tend to compare ourselves to our peers in every facet—how are we doing in life? How old do we appear to others?
Only our same-aged peers can show us.
In storytelling terms, Old Woodifield is The Boss’s foil.
Foil: A character with behaviour and/or values that contrast those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character.
Foils work best when they’re the same in many ways:
You’ll have heard of Save The Cat as a writing technique. (Kill The Dog is its inverse, though Kill The Dog isn’t dissimilar in function: It is used to show an audience the good in a main character.)
Often in a story, a character will save the life of an insect to show the audience how empathetic they are, deep down. This technique was utilised numerous times throughout the coming-of-age film American Honey, for instance. After the main character does something questionable, she is shown to save an insect, until eventually we see her do something really nice for some hungry kids. It’s also utilised in one of the first scenes of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to get us onside with Frances McDormand’s character. Mildred Hayes is presented as a tough nut who may or may not be in the right, insofar as the audience knows, so in the same confrontational opening scene the writer/director has her walk over to the windowsill and flip a beetle back onto its feet.
But in “The Fly”, a man is presented to the reader as your regular Boss (hence the lack of a name — this guy is an archetype). But then, when he sort of tortures a harmless — if annoying — little fly, Mansfield breaks archetype to add a little extra. That little extra is not good. It’s uncomfortable to read and now we definitely don’t like this guy. (Even if we don’t like flies either.) This story represents the true inverse of Save The Cat.
The Battle between The Boss and Fly is heavily stacked, and obviously ‘won’ by the Boss, but for him it’ll be a pyrrhic victory, since the death of the fly can only remind him of death in general… his son’s, his own. (And possibly his wife’s as well — in the eras before birth control, an only child often indicated death of a parent, outside secondary infertility.)
One reading of this short story is that The Boss realises his own mortality for the first time after Old Woodifield’s visit, but I’m not on board with that reading. The final sentence indicates The Boss has had many chances to come to terms with his own mortality (and with the death of his son), but each occasion leads him to repress any uncomfortable grief and…
On the other hand, the words ‘for the life of him’ are chosen carefully. You could argue that because of the word ‘life’, The Boss is left with a newly intimate, though subconscious, knowledge of his own mortality.
Once again, Old Woodifield has been set up as his foil. For Old Woodifield we decode the text as indicative of dementia, but for The Boss, forgetting is an act of will.
I’m not entirely sure Mansfield did a great job of depicting old age. She never made it to old age herself (and I’m not there yet, either). Time will tell, and I may shift my position. But have a read of Kevin Barry’s award winning short story “Beer Trip To Llandudno”, which explores the middle-aged version of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. That is a story about middle aged men, written by a middle aged man. As a middle aged person myself, these men’s attitude towards death rings true. The self-realisations about death in “The Fly” feel like middle-aged realisations rather than old-age revelations. Or perhaps Mansfield’s position on death is different yet again, for precisely the reason that Mansfield never made it, even to middle age, and knew full well she would not.
Dollhouses in stories fall into a number of main categories:
Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
Girlhood and naivety
The doll house can also create a mise en abyme effect, or provide other ways for storytellers to play around with scale.
The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.
However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.
The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls
Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.
Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.
Gilmore girls wiki
Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents — and the big fancy dollhouse — represent.
Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends
The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.
Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.
Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series
Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family — a typically Mormon aspiration — is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.
But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an snail under the leaf setting.
A dollhouse is meant to be looked at— at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative — and they are storybook in their nature; as in a stage set, staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side.
Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.
The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.
Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.
All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.
My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film
My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.
Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.
“The Doll’s House”, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield
This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.
“The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.
The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”
“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.
Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.
“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.
The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.
“Something Childish But Very Natural”, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield
There’s no actual doll house in “Something Childish But Very Natural“. But after Edna tells Henry that she’d like to remain in childhood for a good while longer, rejecting his advances, the young lovers turn London into their personal playground. They both seem to come from upper middle-class families, which partly explains why they see other people’s houses as ‘small’ but I think there’s more to it than that. To them, these houses are doll houses — designed for play — and Mansfield is also playing with scale.
The houses were small and covered with creepers and ivy. Some of them had worn wooden steps leading up to the doors. You had to go down a little flight of steps to enter some of the others; and just across the road—to be seen from every window—was the river, with a walk beside it and some high poplar trees.
“This is the place for us to live in,” said Henry. “There’s a house to let, too. I wonder if it would wait if we asked it. I’m sure it would.”
“Yes, I would like to live there,” said Edna.
The setting seems to have shrunk a little in relation to our two lovers. This reflects their emotional state. Nothing seems scary to them. They feel that together they can conquer the world. This perfectly describes the feeling of intense new love.
Beatrix Potter uses a very similar trick in “The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle“. It appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce
Tom’s Midnight Garden is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:
[T}his was a great disappointment to him—he found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could not push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.
Kings of Summer
Kings of Summer is an indie coming-of-age film and again features no actual doll house. Instead, a group of high school aged boys get sick of society and decide to retreat to the wild. In the nearby woods, they renovate and decorate a life-sized version of a doll house. These boys might as well be playing. That’s how much hope they have of really escaping society without suffering the fate of Chris McCandless.
Kings of Summer is what ‘a dollhouse story’ can look like when it’s a story about boys and masculinity.
[D]riving around The Ville today, where Moore has lived for almost his entire life, the neighborhood looks very different. Some buildings are simply rundown or abandoned, but others are missing large chunks entirely. Walls have disappeared. The bricks are gone. “We call them dollhouses,” says Moore, “because you can look inside of them.”
Aunt Fanny has always been somewhat peculiar. No one is surprised that while the Halloran clan gathers at the crumbling old mansion for a funeral she wanders off to the secret garden. But when she reports the vision she had there, the family is engulfed in fear, violence, and madness. For Aunt Fanny’s long-dead father has given her the precise date of the final cataclysm!
In March 1907 Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, held a garden party at their residence, 75 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand. On the same day, a poverty-stricken neighbour was killed in a street accident.
In 1921, on her 32nd birthday, Katherine Mansfield finished writing “The Garden Party”. She had taken a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay“. She felt that “The Garden Party” was better than “At The Bay”, “but that is not good enough, either…”
CRY AGAINST CORRUPTION
Commentators have said that “The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s ‘cry against corruption’ stories. These stories convey outrage at a society with great inequalities, and where the privileged ignore the injustice, getting on with their own lucky lives in a self-imposed bubble. ‘Self-imposed bubble’ describes the anti-epiphanies and half-epiphanies which characterise Mansfield short stories. Mansfield expects readers to bring quite a bit to the ending of this one. You will be left wondering, “Wait, what am I to make of that?” That’s the plan. A Modernist writer expects every reader to bring something a little different to a story, because of the belief that there’s no such thing as ‘The Truth’, there are only different versions of it. Every reader is meant to experience this story slightly differently.
“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.
The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.
The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife—the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses—no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.
The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?
In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE BLOODY CHAMBER”?
In France somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, a 17-year-old girl is chosen to marry a wealthy Marquis. Immensely lonely, the unnamed narrator one day goes exploring her new castle while her husband is away on business only to find a torture chamber, housing the recently dead body of the Marquis’ recently deceased former wife. The Marquis returns, knowing that his new wife has discovered the torture chamber. (He gave her the keys, after all.)
In many Gothic romances, an older man brings a young wife into his family mansion. The imposing house contains a terrible secret, but the wife must promise not to explore it. In finally giving in to curiosity, she, however, acts according to the husband’s covert script, for he never intended the requirement of obedience to be fulfilled. His goal, Anne Williams explains, is to make her realize the extent of his wealth and power and to see her (reflected) place in it. The dead women in Bluebeard’s forbidden chamber, she argues, represent, “patriarchy’s secret, founding ‘truth’ about the female: woman as mortal, expendable matter/mater” (43). We are dealing here with what I call Bluebeard Gothic, a specific variant of the Gothic romance that uses the “Bluebeard” fairy tale as its key intertext. Many women authors have used it in order to explore patriarchal power structures. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few.
He leads her down to the Bloody Chamber and is about to kill her when the narrator’s mother turns up, having galloped on horseback to save her daughter. She has intuited something wrong during a brief phone call. The mother, with a valiant background of her own, shoots the Marquis dead. A few postscript-sort-of paragraphs explain that the musically talented narrator inherited the castle, gave most of the wealth away, married the kind and blind piano tuner and started up a school of music.
The narrator makes reference to Paul Poiret (20 April 1879, Paris, France – 30 April 1944, Paris), who was a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century. This is one detail that tells us when the story was set. This is an era when ancient customs have not been forgotten by the aristocracy — strange customs linger ominously: ‘‘The maid will have changed our sheets already,’ he said. ‘We do not hang the bloody sheets out of the window to prove to the whole of Brittany you are a virgin, not in these civilized times.’ These were times when French women were expected to abide by ‘rules for hair’, long and flowing while a virgin, pinned up after marriage (cut shorter in middle age, close cropped for the elderly): ‘he would not let me take off my ruby choker, although it was growing very uncomfortable, nor fasten up my descending hair, the sign of a virginity so recently ruptured that still remained a wounded presence between us.’
A young woman moving to an old house has been a staple of gothic literature ever since the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. Today that trope has unmoored itself a bit from being strictly gothic, with modern authors employing it to lend an air of nostalgia, romance, or intrigue to their stories. These three books probably couldn’t be more different, aside from the fact that they thrust their heroines into strange old houses and see what happens when the dust shakes off. After 250-ish years, it’s hard to say this isn’t a useful plot device!
A stand-out feature of this short story is the portrait of an ominous castle where you just know something terrible is happening. It is cold, but the cold juxtaposes with the odd image of warmth. The landscape is lonely, as is the narrator. (Notice also, the narrator describes herself as a flower):
As soon as my husband handed me down from the high step of the train, I smelled the amniotic salinity of the ocean. It was November; the trees, stunted by the Atlantic gales, were bare and the lonely halt was deserted but for his leather-gaitered chauffeur waiting meekly beside the sleek black motor car. It was cold; I drew my furs about me, a wrap of white and black, broad stripes of ermine and sable, with a collar from which my head rose like the calyx of a wildflower.
With the extended metaphor of the lily, even the sky is ‘streaked’ with the colours of flowers:
And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.
The castle, in its misty blues, greens and purples, is the colour of the sea and as explained by the author, is almost of the sea itself. Although cut off from land by tide, it’s important that it be reachable by horse (for the plot to conclude successfully). Still, the half-day isolation exudes the feelings of solitude. Why does the narrator describe the castle as ‘amphibious’ (able to live/operate on both land and water)? At its most basic meaning ‘amphibious’ means ‘two-fold in nature’ or ‘duplicitous’, or ‘not what it seems’. A magnificent abode such as this nevertheless houses great sorrow.
And, ah! his castle. The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves, with the melancholy of a mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago. That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!
Later, the narrator finds the Bloody Chamber:
Not a narrow, dusty little passage at all; why had he lied to me? But an ill-lit one, certainly; the electricity, for some reason, did not extend here, so I retreated to the still-room and found a bundle of waxed tapers in a cupboard, stored there with matches to light the oak board at grand dinners. I put a match to my little taper and advanced with it in my hand, like a penitent, along the corridor hung with heavy, I think Venetian, tapestries. The flame picked out, here, the head of a man, there, the rich breast of a woman spilling through a rent in her dress—the Rape of the Sabines, perhaps? The naked swords and immolated horses suggested some grisly mythological subject. The corridor wound downwards; there was an almost imperceptible ramp to the thickly carpeted floor. The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing. For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea.
Though set in modern(ish) times, this story is of the middle ages. So of course it is devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity. ‘Like a penitent’ puts the reader in mind of a religious ceremony, since religion cannot be disentangled from a time before separation of church and state. ‘Naked swords’ suggests vulnerability, though it is not the swords themselves that are vulnerable. The author points out that the objects ‘suggest some grisly mythological subject’. Notice the change in temperature; all around is cold, but here in the torture chamber there is only heat — the heat of hell, perhaps, but also to show the reader that this is another world, separate from the cold surrounding landscape. Things happen down here that would never happen up there.
As far as engaging all the senses, the above paragraph is a case-study in writing: We are given plenty of texture (the wall-hangings, the carpet) but rather than go through all of the five senses, including smell, as beginner writers are often told to do, a master writer such as Angela Carter is able to weave the senses in an almost synesthesic way: ‘The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing.’
The young chatelaine has grown up poor due to her mother marrying a poor soldier who then got killed in the war. But since the mother married down, she brings up her daughter with the middle to upper-class attitudes she herself harbours; this young woman is very knowledgeable about art and music, with a perfect musical ear. The mother spent everything she had on her daughter’s education. This explains how she was then able to marry up herself. Yet our narrator is not entirely naive — she is naive only in relation to her much older self. She knows that her husband’s business dealings in poppies are connected to dealings in opium. The marquis calls her ‘Saint Cecilia’ (the patroness of musicians) presumably because of her musical talents.
The Marquis ‘was rich as Croesus.’ He has a black beard and red lips — red and black symbolism of blood and death, drawing attention to the ‘snout’ area. He smells of leather — his cologne, his clothing, his books, his sofa. He has dead eyes. This creature is borderline supernatural. He is the werewolf/vampire of folklore.
His face was as still as ever I’d seen it, still as a pond iced thickly over, yet his lips, that always looked so strangely red and naked between the black fringes of his beard, now curved a little. He smiled; he welcomed his bride home.
The Marquis is surrounded by equally ominous characters. The chauffeur eyes the young bride ‘invidiously’ (invidious – tending to cause discontent, animosity, or envy). Even the housekeeper ‘had a bland, pale, impassive, dislikeable face beneath the impeccably starched white linen head-dress of the region. Her greeting, correct but lifeless, chilled me.‘ This feels like a house of ghosts, except for the blind piano-tuner, whose very blindness makes him innocent. He therefore is immune to corruption, unable to see the torture chamber, as other members of the household presumably can.
Less information is given about the mother, but at the end we realise we’ve been given more than enough. We know that this is a mother who will miss her daughter dearly:
[Mother] would linger over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter’s wedding day.
We also know that she has bravery and adventure in her past:
Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?
We are given this information near the beginning of the story and are almost encouraged to forget about it as, like the new bride, we are forced to confront immediate and present danger; the ominous intentions of the monstrous Marquis. Yet when the mother saves the day we are both surprised and not surprised.
For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms.
Angela Carter writes with a left-wing feminist ideology (which is why I enjoy her stories), and anyone who is moderately well-read in feminism will recognise phrases such as ‘And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring’ from books such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, in which Wolf explains that women are acculturated to view women’s bodies as sexual objects just as men are, and therefore derive pleasure from sex by imagining themselves from their male partner’s point of view. The entire story is about the young women as sexual object, with the narrator herself cognisant of the fact that was an item to be purchased then consumed as a dish.
The narrator’s left-leaning politics are made apparent in the ending, when she gives most of the wealth away to the poor. She is uncomfortable with wealth made from others’ poverty and addictions.
As Frances Spufford points out, the original intended message for the Bluebeard story was that women shouldn’t be curious.
Astonishingly, the moral traditionally tacked on to the story was that curiosity is dangerous — as if Bluebeard’s murderous rage were the wife’s fault for looking inside the chamber. Can anyone really have believed that if she hadn’t, they would have lived happily ever after, the plot flipping over into Beauty and the Beast despite the butchery in the basement? Even more astonishingly, Bruno Bettelheim, concentration-camp survivor, effectively concurred. Leaping past the issue of who did what to whom in the chamber, and taking it as a symbol of forbidden knowledge in a general, sexual sense, he interpreted Bluebeard as a story about a woman’s infidelity and — twisting time strangely — her husband’s anger over it. Bettelheim’s moral: ‘Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.’
The Child That Books Built
The movement in the 1970s, of which Angela Carter was a big part, was in response to people like Bettelheim, still interpreting traditional tales in horribly sexist fashion. Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
Many of Carter’s figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). Carter was also a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
This first person narrator is retelling a story from a time when she was much younger: ‘My satin nightdress had just been shaken from its wrappings; it had slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders.’ So we know from the outset that she has survived the tale. She has also gained the insight that only comes with hindsight, which is a good technique to use when writing in the first person because it allows certain advantages of the third-person narrator. The story is written as a kind of confession/setting the record straight. The reader feels as if we are being let in on a community secret.
There is plenty of foreshadowing about the ominous, animalistic nature of the husband:
I could see the dark, leonine shape of his head
though he was a big man, he moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow. (He creeps around silently, as a dog can, with the coldness of a ghost.)
there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.
The Romanian countess who died in the boating accident is also described by the narrator in animalistic terms: ‘The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.’ Use of the word muzzle is particularly apt, since a muzzle can also refer to a device placed over the nose area to stop an animal from eating/biting etc.
Other vocabulary choices and images foreshadow an ominous event with hints of the supernatural:
the ‘ribbon made up in rubies’ which ‘bites into‘ her neck (an animal metaphor so common you almost don’t notice it)
the way the narrator’s new husband regards her as if ‘eyeing up horseflesh‘
an eldritch half-light seeped into the railway carriage (eldritch – weird and sinister or ghostly)
There is an uncomfortable overlap of sex and violence: ‘He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me (stertorous – [of breathing] noisy and laboured.) ‘I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm; I had bled.‘ Also: ‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer,’ opined my husband’s favourite poet.’
A truth about supernatural stories is that the reader must be sort of expecting it. No one likes to think they’re reading a realist story and suddenly have a ghost sprung on them. The genre has certain markers. For instance, the formal language. Rather than the equally correct ‘than me’ ending a sentence, the author chooses ‘than I’. Is this story truly supernatural? Was the phone call enough, or is there some telepathy involved? The way sparks seem to fly out of the opal ring at certain times makes this feel like a supernatural story to me. I get the feeling the castle is peopled mainly by ghosts.
In this way, Angela Carter makes use of fairytale techniques. When you read the Grimms’ version of fairytales you’ll find disturbing analogies about girls and women compared to food, and oftentimes eaten. Here too we have, ‘He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’. Carter underscores this by comparing food itself to a woman, using a word reserved for women ‘voluptuous’: ‘A Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese‘
The arum lily has wonderfully ominous uses in fiction because all parts of the plants are poisonous, containing significant amounts of calcium oxalate as raphides. Not only that, the arum lily is not closely related to the real lily (lilium), and has an aura of ‘imposter’ about it — a signal that not all is as it appears.
In another short story ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, Mansfield writes ‘People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.’ Again, the arum lily signifies something terrible is about to happen, despite the glorious setting of the party at the top of the hill. It’s handy that arum lilies are often used in funerals, too. Mansfield knew her flower symbolism. In her short story “Poison” she uses lilies of the valley — symbolically sweeter and more innocent, but also poisonous.
Angela Carter puts her own spin on the lily imagery however, as all original writers must: ‘…with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you….My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminiscent of pampered flesh….But the last thing I remembered, before I slept, was the tall jar of lilies beside the bed, how the thick glass distorted their fat stems so they looked like arms, dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water.’ It eventually becomes clear that the lily is a metaphor for the young narrator herself, with her white skin, sometimes due to fear: ‘In spite of my fear of him, that made me whiter than my wrap, I felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once begun to fester…The mass of lilies that surrounded me exhaled, now, the odour of their withering. They looked like the trumpets of the angels of death.‘
I gathered myself together, reached into the cloisonne cupboard beside the bed that concealed the telephone and addressed the mouthpiece. His agent in New York. Urgent.
Sentence fragments are used to convey information quickly, especially mundane information such as answering a telephone, but have the added effect of producing tension, especially when surrounded by longer sentences.
As in the TV series Six Feet Under and many other stories about death, the juxtapositions serve to highlight the difference between the living and the dead.
‘And this absence of the evidence of his real life began to impress me strangely; there must, I thought, be a great deal to conceal if he takes such pains to hide it.’
I looked at the precious little clock made from hypocritically innocent flowers long ago
Time was his servant, too; it would trap me, here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a hopeless morning.
And still the bloodstain mocked the fresh water that spilled from the mouth of the leering dolphin. (Dolphins are usually thought to be smiling.)
Unfamiliar myself with much gothic literature, I found myself looking up quite a few words:
wagon-lit — a sleeping car on a continental railway
reticule — A woman’s small handbag, originally netted and typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.
marrons glacés — a confection, originating in southern France and northern Italy consisting of a chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. Marrons glacés are an ingredient in many desserts and are also eaten on their own.
vellum — Fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf.
Catherine de’ Medici was an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II.
pellucid — transparently clear
parure — a set of jewels intended to be worn together
immolated — killed or offered as a sacrifice, especially by burning
sacerdotal — related to priests; priestly
catafalque — a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.
nacreous — relating to nacre, which is mother-of-pearl
gendarmerie — a body of soldiers, especially in France, serving in an army group acting as armed police with authority over civilians.
pentacle = pentagram, a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of aregular pentagon until they meet, used as an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc.
Iron maiden — I know these guys as a heavy metal band but an iron maiden is a torture device, probably just fictional, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. Earlier the narrator thinks of herself as a ‘mermaiden‘ — a Middle English term for ‘mermaid’.
to prefigure — to be an early indication or version of (something)
scullion — a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks
vassal — a person or country in a subordinate position to another
lustratory — lustral, purificatory (I think this may be a very unusual word, or made up by the author)
auto-da-fé — the burning of a heretic
widow’s weeds — clothes worn by a widow during a period of mourning for her spouse (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”)
dolorous — feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress
lisle — a fine, smooth cotton thread used especially for stockings
centime — French for ‘cent’
Nice turns of phrase such as, ‘He raised the sword and cut bright segments from the air with it‘ tells the reader that the air is thick with tension.
There have been many reprintings of this short story collection — some with retro looking covers straight out of the seventies, with the newer ones looking decidedly more modern with their darker palette and silhouette graphic design.
In 1979, the year that The Bloody Chamber was first published, Carter was not the first writer to tackle revisionist takes of fairy tales. Others, most notably Isak Dinisen (an acknowledged influence of Carter’s), Robert Coover and Anne Sexton, had published acclaimed retellings. What made The Bloody Chamber groundbreaking and singular, however, was the way it centred female sexuality and selfhood with an unapologetic, robust gusto, back when society wasn’t quite as commercially and critically embracing as it is now of feminist narratives. In a time when second-wave feminists were derided as bra-burning harpies, Carter’s openly gynocentric fiction was revelatory and iconoclastic.
Each of the stories is a re-visioning of a classic tale:
The Bloody Chamber — Bluebeard (Barbebleue, 1697) written down famously by Charles Perrault The Courtship of Mr Lyon — Beauty and the Beast The Tiger’s Bride — Beauty and the Beast Puss-in-Boots — Carter hasn’t changed the name from earlier versions. The Erl-King —The Erl-King takes his name from a folklore persona. An erlking is a mischievous sprite or elf that lures young people with the intent of killing them. The Snow Child — Snow White The Lady of the House of Love — which began as a radio play, Vampirella, for BBC Radio 3 in the summer of 1976 is about a beast of the courtly south who meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore. The original Vampirella had a lot of footnote-like material about vampires. Because it was produced for radio, this explains why the voice speaks directly to the reader. The Werewolf — Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon rouge) The Company of Wolves — The Grandmother’s Tale, an oral fairytale related to later versions of Little Red Riding Hood Wolf-Alice — Again, the beast of the courtly south meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore
In The Company Of Wolves is a long short story, perhaps more of a novella, at 16,400 words.
For a story with a similar plot, see Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier, which turns the typical Gothic relations of dominance upside down: the romantic hero turns out to be a masochist, while his wife is allotted the role of the beating woman.
Rebecca is also movie, and miniseries and like “The Bloody Chamber” is about a very young woman who marries an aristocratic, much older man whose previous wife has gone missing in mysterious circumstances, also a boating accident. Rebecca was first published in 1938, so shares a similar time period.
As the blind piano tuner says in the Angela Carter story, ‘I can scarcely believe it,’ he said, wondering. ‘That man … so rich; so well-born.’ That is what made Rebecca successful, though I feel the story is lost on modern audiences because its intrigue relies upon the reader’s incredulity that such a well-born person could do something so heinous. The modern audience knows that the rich (or especially the rich) do heinous things.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Horrible things tend to happen in magnificent castles. Likewise, lovely things happen in the most dire of accommodations. Is it possible to foreshadow happiness?
That wonderful header image is an illustration by Rebecca Whiteman, inspired by Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”
A key term in classical Chinese poetry is ju jue yi bujue (句絕意不絕) which means “lines that end but meaning that does not end.” This is a useful distinction, and a similar concept applies to many short stories.
I have encapsulated everything I know about story endings elsewhere. Almost all narrative ends with a Anagnorisis followed by a hint at the main character’s New Situation, though sometimes writers leave off the New Situation for the audience to extrapolate. The Wrestler is an excellent film example of Extrapolation.
In this regard, The Wrestler feels like a short story in tone. If you like to read short stories, you probably fall into the category of audience who enjoys piecing things together, imagining the outcome for yourself.
Another film which does this is Ghost World. In his review of Ghost World, Roger Ebert points to a trope more reminiscent of short stories than of film:
The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?
The short story is about form — less so than the poem, but more so than the novel. Endings should be fundamental. Their job is not so much resolution; a short-story ending wants to somehow emphasises or echo the quality of the story, as though a story’s voice, in its dying fall, can reminds us of everything we have just read. Even an airy, apparently open ending, like those in the stories of Lydia Davis or Alice Munro, is a way of saying ‘this is what my story is about’.
Tegan Bennett Daylight, The Details
A book about the connections we form with literature and each other
Tegan Bennett Daylight has led a life in books – as a writer, a teacher and a critic, but first and foremost as a reader.
In this deeply insightful and intimate work, Daylight describes how her reading has nourished her life, and how life has informed her reading. In both, she shows us that it’s the small points of connection – the details – that really matter: what we notice when someone close to us dies, when we give birth, when we make friends. In life’s disasters and delights, the details are what we can share and compare and carry with us.
Daylight writes with invigorating candour and compassion about her mother’s last days; her own experiences of childbearing and its aftermath (in her celebrated essay ‘Vagina’); her long admiration of Helen Garner and George Saunders; and her great loves and friendships. Each chapter is a revelation, and a celebration of how books offer not an escape from ‘real life’ but a richer engagement with the business of living.
Yep, there is such a thing as a ‘short story ending’ even if the story is not a short story. Even if it’s a film. We might instead call it a ‘lyrical’ ending.
“Get in, get out” is a maxim you’ll have heard before when it comes to writing short stories. In this post, I collect various interpretations on the “Get Out” part of that old chestnut. What does it mean, exactly, to Get Out?
The last collaborator is your audience…when the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you’ve written. Things that seem to work well — work in a sense of carry the story forward and be integral to the piece — suddenly become a little less relevant or a little less functional or a little overlong or a little overweight or a little whatever. And so you start reshaping from an audience.
Ambiguity is the mark of good literature, be it for children or adults.
The short story is about form — less so than the poem, but more so than the novel. Endings should be fundamental. Their job is not so much resolution; a short-story ending wants to somehow emphasise or echo the quality of the story, as though a story’s voice, in its dying fall, can remind us of everything we have just read. Even an airy, apparently open ending, like those in the stories of Lydia Davis or Alice Munro, is a way of saying ‘this is what my story is about’.
Tegan Bennett Daylight, The Details
A book about the connections we form with literature and each other
Tegan Bennett Daylight has led a life in books – as a writer, a teacher and a critic, but first and foremost as a reader. In this deeply insightful and intimate work, Daylight describes how her reading has nourished her life, and how life has informed her reading. In both, she shows us that it’s the small points of connection – the details – that really matter: what we notice when someone close to us dies, when we give birth, when we make friends. In life’s disasters and delights, the details are what we can share and compare and carry with us.
Daylight writes with invigorating candour and compassion about her mother’s last days; her own experiences of childbearing and its aftermath (in her celebrated essay ‘Vagina’); her long admiration of Helen Garner and George Saunders; and her great loves and friendships. Each chapter is a revelation, and a celebration of how books offer not an escape from ‘real life’ but a richer engagement with the business of living.
The result is a work that will truly deepen your relationship with books, and with other readers. The delight is in the details.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NOVEL AND SHORT STORY ENDINGS
Using different terminology Nancy Kress is saying the same thing: The New Situation is often left off. She goes even further in fact, saying even the Anagnorisis can be left off, with a short story concluding right after the Battle (ie. climax).
The truth is that although everything in any work of fiction should contribute to the whole, the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. A novel is so long that by the time the reader comes to the end, 99 percent of the plot, character development, theme and everything else are over. And since the structure of a novel usually requires a climax followed by a denouement, the very end of a novel is a time of decreasing tension. Nothing startling, new or highly emotional is likely to turn up this late in such a lengthy tale. A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.Even when an additional scene follows the climax, it is likely to carry heavy symbolic significance. And the shorter the story, the more important the last few paragraphs become.
In a certain kind of short story, the last sentence is especially crucial.
In a literary story, perhaps nothing is resolved. Readers unused to these stories often say, “Nothing happened,” or may think they’re missing the last page, or didn’t ‘get it’. Sometimes the point is that there is no resolution — because life can be like that. These stories are ‘the question minus the answer‘. Literary stories make their point via symbolism.
One thing about the short story is that it’s kind of an exotic, hothouse version of the “real” story. It does a little more—there’s more compression, of course, but also a higher expectation of shapeliness and some kind of aesthetic closure—a moment where the wires the writer has filled with current get a chance to really cross.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QUESTION, NOT THE ANSWER
Describing a short story by Amy Tan, the following is from J. T. Busnell, about the issues his students sometimes have when studying short stories which end abruptly:
And then comes the final line: “I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.” My students often complain that this ending seems abrupt, unfinished. In the anthology we use, it comes at the very bottom of the page, and students often admit to having flipped to the next page, expecting the story to continue. Usually I avoid telling them that it does continue in the collection of linked stories, because doing so allows students to dismiss the ending as a concession to the larger narrative or as something other than an ending. Instead, I direct them to the letter by Chekhov in which he famously instructs A.S. Suvorin, “You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.” In other words, the writer’s job is, first, to write about questions complex enough that they avoid simplistic answers or easy moralizing and, second, to demonstrate such questions with precision and accuracy. The writer’s job is not, however, to answer them. Answers are not only reductive, they’re also political, prescriptive, moralistic, and this undermines the efforts of such realists to be “visible nowhere.”
This is exactly what Tan’s ending accomplishes. To show Waverly’s “next move” would provide an answer, and, as Chekhov says, that’s not her job.
Right, so if we’re writing a literary short story we’re onto a winner if we are able to articulate a good question.
A COMMON PROBLEM WITH SHORT STORY ENDINGS
Here’s what it doesn’t mean: Chopping off the last two stages of the seven step structure. At The Masters Review, editors have seen this in their submissions. They are well placed to describe literary endings done badly:
We regularly reject stories where we feel the endings aren’t fully earned. I can best summarize this to mean, that for me, when I read a story where I feel the writer is working toward an end but the rest of the piece isn’t supporting that conclusion, whether it be emotionally, on a plot level, or thematically, that ending isn’t fully earned. […]
A story’s ending is most powerful when it feels like the culmination of everything that has been bubblingthroughout it — the character’s motivations and actions, the preoccupations of the prose. I know that, in the past, incredibly strong stories that end with a seemingly random disaster have been hotly debated. We get upset when we come to the end of a carefully crafted story and a character who we’re invested in suddenly dies, or is injured, or it turns out (please, no!) has been dreaming this whole time — with no clear reason, we’re often left wondering what the author’s intention was. For example, one of our honorable mentions (which, overall, we really enjoyed) for this last contest ends with a shot being fired (though it’s not clear that any harm is done by it), and neither one of us was sure why. Though this sort of violence is built to more thoroughly in this story than others, here it seemed to take the place of a deeper reflection or significance.
Of course, there are degrees to this. I think that story endings can often be strengthened. One of the most common edits I make to pieces we do accept is to change the ending. Take, for example, “Family, Family,” our second-place Fall Fiction Contest winner. (Read it now to prevent any spoilers.) Though the original ending felt natural enough, all of our editors thought that it was lacking power and that it could have had a clearer “takeaway,” so I flat-out asked the author what she meant by it. Her answer was clear: she wanted to convey the desire of a first-grader who has been ridiculed by his peers to return to the safety of his nursery school classroom, to go backwards in time rather than face the challenges of growing up. We ended up changing the ending image entirely, so that the little boy literally climbs into a pine doll cradle, for which he is (of course) too big. This resonates instantly.
Even when editing pieces with quite a bit of narrative distance … I’ll often push the author to give a little more (even a sentence!) at the end. I never want the ending of a story to be too “neat,” but at the same time I want to finish it feeling satiated.
This advice is echoed by David Jauss, who wrote a book called On Writing Fiction. In his chapter called Some Epiphanies About Epiphanies, Jauss writes:
there are indeed far too many epiphanies in American fiction these days, and […] most of them are unearned or unconvincing, the literary equivalent of faked orgasms.
Jauss thinks most of the problem with epiphanies is that they happen at the end of the story. He offers examples of stories which do not put the epiphany at the end of the story, but play with expected structure by placing it elsewhere.
I’ve noticed myself that short story writers can play with placement of the epiphany by first giving the reader their epiphany, and holding onto the character’s epiphany until after they’re done. (The sex metaphors keep on coming.) Examples of authors who play around with the placement of the epiphany (or Anagnorisis):
Oftentimes, and we have to remember this, the character experiences an epiphany OFF THE PAGE (or screen), and we only know they’ve had one because of the plans they make next.
THE INFLUENCE OF CHEKHOV
A word for the literary short story which leaves the reader to extrapolate is Post-Chekhovian, because Anton Chekhov is kind of famous for starting this trend. James Joyce also wrote like this, ending with ‘tacit’ epiphanies rather than clear anagnorises.
DRAMATIC VS AESTHETIC CLOSURE
Whereas Nancy Kress makes a distinction between ‘plotted’ and ‘literary’, critic Charles May draws a distinction between stories that are resolved dramatically and stories that are resolved aesthetically. I think this is a different way of saying the same thing.
A primary characteristic of the modern post-Chekhovian short story is that stories that depend on the metaphoric meaning of events and objects can only achieve closure aesthetically rather than phenomenologically. James Joyce’s stories often end with tacit epiphanies, for example, in which a spinster understands but cannot explain the significance of clay or in which a young boy understands but cannot explain the significance of Araby. His most respected short fiction, “The Dead”, is like a textbook case of a story that transforms hard matter into metaphor and that is resolved only aesthetically. Throughout the story the “stuff” described stubbornly remains mere metonymic details; even the snow that is introduced casually into the story on the shoes of the party-goers’ feet is merely the cold white stuff that covers the ground — that is until the end of the story when Gabriel’s recognition transforms it into a metaphor that closes the work by mystically covering over everything.
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis
May goes on to explain that Bernard Malamud is one of the best-known writers within this tradition of stories that end with aesthetic rather than dramatic resolutions. He seems to construct his stories backwards. The meaning of his stories is left to the reader. Irreconcilable forces are resolved aesthetically.
The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis
TAXONOMIES OF SHORT STORY ENDINGS
Ah, my favourite. Taxonomies. Pick your fave and go with it.
All short stories use at least one of five signals of closure: solution of the central problem, natural termination, completion of antithesis, manifestation of a moral, and encapsulation.”
John Gerlach, Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story, 1955
Gerlach’s study is about how the anticipation of the ending of a short story structures the whole:
SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM: This kind of ending is more common to the short story than to novels. Short stories focus on one problem only. The short story is over when that one problem is solved.
NATURAL TERMINATION: “is the completion of an action that has a predictable end.” For example, the day ends, the main character dies. A lot of picture books have this kind of ending too, with the beginning of the story coinciding with the main character getting out of bed, and ending when the main character is tucked in at night. Other types of natural terminations are, for instance, a visit being over (because there’s an implied return to point of origin), or a mental state like happiness or bliss suggests the end of some process.
COMPLETION OF ANTITHESIS: Antithesis refers to any opposition, often characterised by irony, that indicates something has polarised into extremes. In short stories, space is often metaphorical. There’s an emphasis on mental life. When a character sets out on an adventure, that character is actually exploring a set of attitudes towards something. When a story returns to any aspect of the beginning, this is one form of ‘antithesis’. The new territory doesn’t have to be explored because boundaries have been established by the story.
MANIFESTATION OF A MORAL: The reader’s sense that a theme has emerged can give a story a sense of closure.
ENCAPSULATION: “a coda that distances the reader from the story by altering the point of view or summarising the passing of time.”
But in The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis, Per Winther is keen to point out that this is not an exhaustive list.
Winther’s alternative taxonomy of short story endings:
SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM
EMOTIONAL AND/OR COGNITIVE MATERIAL
MANIFESTATION OF A MORAL
Winther renames Gerlach’s last category of Encapsulation EVALUATION. Examples of evaluations as closures:
I was glad I was not there.
I had never met such a bore in my life.
An evaluation as closural marker is often the first-person narrator’s exasperated final comment.
Evaluations often serve as the manifestation of a moral, also.
“I guess he loved the man as much as I did the horse because he knew what I knew.”
MORE ON WINTHER’S ‘PERSPECTIVAL SHIFT’
Modern short stories tend to have a more gradual shift of narrative focus at the story’s end. In these cases there is no change in point of view — the focalizer stays the same, and time is not an essential factor. Still, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt. Hence the addition of Winther’s seventh category.
METONYMIC VS METAPHORIC
Charles May thinks in terms of metonymic vs metaphoric. This is where my head starts to hurt.
Metaphor substitutes a concept with another; metonymy selects a related term.
Metaphor is based on similarity; metonymy is based on contiguity.
Metaphor suppresses an idea; metonymy combines ideas.
Why is the short story’s resolution often metaphoric? Since the short story cannot reconcile “the tension between the necessity of the everyday metonymic world and the sacred metaphoric world,” [Charles] May finds that “the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.”…the short story’s brevity “force[s] it to focus not on the whole of experience … but rather on a single experience lifted out of the everyday flow of human actuality.”
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis
THE STRANGE TIME-WARPY LOOPINESS OF SHORT STORY ENDINGS
In a short story, an end does more than complete a pattern and effect closure. The amazing thing about the short story is that beginning and end make a strange loop: beginning is end, and end is also beginning. Epiphany expressed through analogy fuses past, present, and future in a moment of continuous flux. Epiphany encompasses answers to the questions posited by structure, reconciling the contraries inherent in the differences between appearance and reality, on the one hand, and form and content on the other.
Mary Rohrberger, The Art Of Brevity
In other words, a common plot shape for a short story is the circle, if only metaphorically.
Storytellers have thought of many ways to create a circular feeling of completion or closure, basically by addressing the dramatic questions raised in Act One. However once in awhile a few loose ends are desirable.Some storytellers prefer an open-ended Return. In the open-ended point of view, the story-telling goes on after the story is over; it continues in the minds and hearts of the audience, in the conversations and even arguments people have in coffee shops after seeing a movie or reading a book.
Writers of the open-ended persuasion prefer to leave moral conclusions for the reader or viewer. Some questions have no answers, some have many. Some stories end, not by answering questions or solving riddles but by posing new questions that resonate in the audience long after the story is over.
Hollywood films are often criticized for pat, fairy tale endings in which all problems are solved and the cultural assumptions of the audience are left undisturbed. By contrast the open-ended approach views the world as an ambiguous, imperfect place. For more sophisticated stories with hard or realistic edges, the open-ended form may be more appropriate.
from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Michael Connelly On Tidy Endings
In an interview at The Bestseller Experiment podcast, bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly says that he doesn’t tidy everything up in his novels. Connelly has a background as a crime journalist, and in his real world earlier career many, many crimes were never tidied up. When he left to become a full time novelist he left many files open-ended. This was a reminder to him that real life is vastly different from fiction. He tidies his book endings up a lot more than is done in real life, but refuses to tidy absolutely everything.
A Brief History Of Open Endings
A number of significant changes took place as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the way we tell stories – endings are just as likely now to consist of an ‘open ending’, partly to add an air of uncertainty and partly because in a godless universe death doesn’t mean what it once did. As Shakespearean scholar Jan Kott noted before him, ‘Ancient Tragedy is loss of life, modern Tragedy is loss of purpose’. Characters nowadays are just as likely to drift into meaningless oblivion as to die.
Into The Woods by John Yorke
AUTHORS ON WRITING ENDINGS
I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.
Stephen King, from On Writing
If you choose to use a protagonist who is an admirable crook, do not fall into the moralistic trap of using the cliché ending in which, after all his trials and tribulations, the lead loses the stolen loot either through a quirk of fate, the machinations of an even morecrooked partner, or the cunning of the police. If you have established your crook as a sympathetic character and have gotten your reader to root for him throughout the bank robbery (or whatever), your audience will only be frustrated when he loses everything simply because you feel that you must prove “crime doesn’t pay.”
Dean Koontz, from Writing Popular Fiction
I can’t start writing until I have a closing line.
I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.