Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.Continue reading “Little House On The Prairie”
If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.
Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.
That, folks, is peak monster.
Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.
At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.Continue reading “Cannibalism in Storytelling”
“Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest. 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.
The story opens on a beautiful, utopian day.
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 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.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TAKING THE VEIL”
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.
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.
“The Lumber-Room” by H.H. Monro (Saki) is one of the short stories from Beasts and Super-Beasts, published 1914, though it was first published in a newspaper. He died two years later in the war. Significantly for this short story, Saki was gay.
There’s something very Peter Rabbit about this short story for adults. Peter Rabbit was widely read to children at the time Saki’s story was published. It’s conceivable that the fictional adults in “The Lumber-Room” believed all children (as proxy rabbits) want to get up to mischief in gardens because they had read Beatrix Potter’s tale over and over.
STORYWORLD OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
- Saki’s stories are set in upper-class Edwardian England.
- A lumber-room is a room in an upper-class English house where items are stored when not in use.
- Jagborough is a fictional seaside resort but has a likely-sounding English name.
- Nicholas wants to go into the deepest, most secret part of the house (rather than outside in the garden) to see what’s there. This is his inner-world, his imagination, his subconscious.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LUMBER-ROOM”
“The Lumber-Room” is a carnivalesque story, or certainly would be if it were written for children. A child goes on an adventure, has fun without adult supervision, then returns to the safe but restrictive adult world by the end of the story. Except in this one, there’s no return to safety. The child main character of Saki’s short story understands that adults can’t be trusted. This is not a message you typically (or ever) see in picture books for children, unless it refers specifically to ‘adults can’t see the same magic’.
Notice that the aunt manufactures a ‘carnivalesque’ adventure (‘something of a festival nature’) for the other children, but this is unlikely to be fun in the slightest. We can deduce this because the girl-cousin hurts herself getting into the car and cries loudly. When supervised and arranged by adults, especially in the spirit of punishment for the ostracised, carnivalesque adventures are nothing of the sort. Sure enough, we learn the other children had a terrible time. The boy’s boots were too tight (his conservative, mainstream life too constrictive), and the tide had been up, leaving no space for play.
Saki opens “The Lumber-Room” in an interesting way, by telling us a self-contained story in the first paragraph. This mini story describes why Nicholas is in disgrace. Hitchcock might have called the frog in the bread-and-milk a McGuffin — we never hear about the frog again, but it kicks the real story off. This initial micro-story lets Nicholas have his Anagnorisis upfront. The story now progresses with a wiser, more knowing, less trusting child, because Nicholas has learned that adults can turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them, insisting things are one way when they decidedly are not.
Nicholas is your classic trickster — very intelligent but believably so. Readers love tricksters. We identify with tricksters immediately.
Nicholas’s Shortcoming is that he is a child. This is true for almost all children in stories, because their freedom is severely limited.
Not only that, Nicholas is a misunderstood child. We know from this particular episode of his life story that he wants to look at a narrative tapestry while the adult assumes he wants to get into the gooseberries, but this must only scratch the surface of all the ways in which he is misunderstood.
Nicholas is an aesthete rather than an athlete — the two main types of man as decided in the 19th century. He likes to walk around and look at nice things, inhaling their scent, considering the stories behind them.
Nicholas might therefore be considered a proxy for a gay adult man living in the Edwardian era. This man is expected to like ‘gooseberries’ but is in fact drawn into the hidden, secret pleasures of the locked room, which contains many beautiful treasures.
Nicholas wants to get into the forbidden lumber-room and explore all the wonderful things hidden to him.
The off-the-page gay man can’t necessarily explain why he loves the forbidden treasures so much, but he does love it and takes every opportunity to go there. When he does go there, he hurts no one. And the things that are in there are off-limits for no good reason.
The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them.
This is not a story of someone who is acting in the world, where there is danger, but someone who is content to watch on, which is bearable so long as he understands his own inner self.
The ‘aunt’ is his main opponent, though she is simply standing in for ‘correct and upright society’ more generally.
Saki himself ‘was brought up by two unmarried aunts with a fondness for the birch, and developed a lifelong aversion to spinsters’ (The Guardian).
Nicholas understands the concepts of reverse psychology and diversion.
- He will reinforce the aunts beliefs about him by making a show of crawling into the gooseberry garden.
- While the aunt is busy hunting him down in the overgrown garden he will use the key to get into the lumber-room.
There’s something very fairytale about the Battle scene, in which Nicholas knows full well the ‘aunt’ stuck in the tank is exactly who she says she is, but he makes us of superstition and folklore to pretend naïveté, cracking on that he really believes she’s a changeling of some sort.
As mentioned above, this story structure is a bit unusual because the mini-story upfront gives Nicholas his revelation.
The big reveal for the reader is that Nicholas is not interested in gooseberries, but in the more adult, less understandable pleasures of the treasures in the lumber-room.
Nicholas didn’t know what he’d find inside this forbidden room, but once he entered it, the pleasures were more than he could have imagined, especially when he found the book of beautiful birds.
Before that he observes a tapestry meant as a fire screen. Saki describes it for the reader. When writers describe a painting or photo within a story this is known as ekphrasis, which was a popular Greek pastime. Short story writers make use of it even now, and the tapestry in “The Lumber-Room” seems to function as an indirect way of arriving at a character’s Anagnorisis.
What does Nicholas understand by looking at the hunters and the stag?
A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly-growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.
There are plenty of interpretations, but here’s mine:
- ‘It would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag’ and it would not be difficult for heteronormative society to work out what’s going on right under their noses if only they were to look.
- But when they do look, it is very dangerous for the stag.
- It is pleasurable in this forbidden room but it is also dangerous. Perhaps danger is part of the pleasure itself.
- There’s no easy way to win the big struggle when you are the stag.
Nicholas’s secret is now a safe thing. He comes up with a way the story on the tapestry could end that could be all right. Will Eaves, on the Neuromantics podcast says this crops up a lot in Greek myth: How can these sexually irresponsible labile figures have an effect in the world that ends up restoring balance? (Myth is very important to Saki’s literary world. A lot of the macabre stories have roots in green man figures and whatnot.)
The aunt who is — significantly — not Nicholas’s own aunt doesn’t really know him. So she is obliged to believe that perhaps he was naive enough to think that she had been swapped out by some evil witch. We don’t get to know of any further consequences for Nicholas but we can extrapolate that the aunt has either got the measure of him now (that he is much smarter than he cracks on) or else much dumber. I bet she’s keeping a close eye on him, to work out which of those it is.
The gay man sort of gets away with entering the metaphorical lumber-room because people simply assume he wants something else entirely. While they are assuming that, they aren’t looking for him in there. But he doesn’t get away with it entirely. Others know something is up. They know that he is tricking them in some way, though can’t quite get the measure of him, in a society where sexuality and orientation isn’t discussed. People don’t even have the language to discuss it. In that way, the adult gay man is similar to a child — children know things, but are often ill-equipped with language to describe these things.
Credit goes to Episode 3 of the Neuromantics podcast for alerting me to the gay subtext of this story. I’d otherwise have missed it. (At 29 minutes) The Neuromantics talk about “The Lumber-Room” in a discussion about people’s inner-world. Nicholas’s inner world is so much more important and satisfying to him than anything else.
Header painting: John Dawson Watson — The Collector’s Home
“Je ne parle pas français” (I don’t speak French) is a 1918 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Nothing much ‘happens’, but the character of Raoul Duquette is a comedic archetype seen in contemporary creations such as Dwight Schrute from The Office.
Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life
Hard to fathom today, but the obliquely gay subject matter of this story would have shocked a 1918 readership. John Middleton Murry therefore printed it privately. When it was published for a wider audience in 1920, it was only after heavy censoring. Mansfield hated the cuts, which amounted to bowdlerisation.
THE BOWDLERISATION OF Lgbtq TEXTS
Bowdlerisation is the act of editing a work in an attempt to make it ‘more suitable’ for its intended audience. The word often used to describe adult literary works subsequently adapted for a young reader.
But bowdlerisation can be carried out for other, political reasons. For instance, a lesbian love story might be bowdlerised by removing the lesbian elements, gender flipping it, avoiding the obvious, or by cherchez l’homme (tracing any woman’s motivations back to her supposed desire for a man). Emily Dickinson’s letters to Sue Gilbert were bowdlerised by Dickinson’s niece, Martha, who deleted sentences such as ‘be my own again, and kiss me as you used to’. Note that Martha published her famous aunt’s bowdlerised love letters in 1920 — the exact year “Je ne parle pas francais” was released to the public.
Katherine Mansfield’s private letters have been subjected to these strategies, along with Frances Hodgkins, Ursula Bethell and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Owing to the obliqueness required by the era, this short story has been interpreted in different ways by various commentators:
- a reflection on the impact mass media has on reality, or how people decode reality. (Mass media was nascent at the time, so Mansfield demonstrates quite some insight into the impact it would eventually have on us all moving forward.)
- a story about the menace of pretence. Power without value can be attractive and value without power can be debilitating.
- a bemused exploration of pop genres e.g. the sensational vs the sentimental
Some commentators have suggested that Katherine Mansfield would have identified in turn with Duquette and with Mouse. Like Duquette, Mansfield was a theatre creative, liked to hang out in cafes observing humanity and was a member of the rainbow community (bisexual? pansexual?). And she had certainly experienced the emotions we might expect Mouse to experience in this story, alone in another country where she doesn’t speak the language, disconnected from everything she knows to be home.
By the way, Mansfield did speak French. She would speak schoolgirl French with her sisters, thinking no one else in their company could understand what they were saying. (Others very often could — French has been studied by academic streams in New Zealand high schools for generations.) If you don’t speak French: This is how to pronounce the title.
What happens in “Je ne parle pas français”?
This is not a high concept log line: A man sits in a French cafe, musing about the time he met Mouse, the nickname of a love opponent. The story is revealed to us slowly, and we the narrator’s background, dovetailing his setting present with past events. Meanwhile, we are expected to read behind the lines. As the past dovetails with the present, the reality of Duquette’s desires/plans bifurcates from the story he’s telling us.
So what’s between the lines? Duquette has fallen in love (or lust) with an Englishman named Dick. They hang around together but then Dick returns to England, shocking Duquette by dismissing the close relationship Duquette thinks they’ve shared. But Dick returns to Paris later, this time bringing a woman with him. Dick does not know what to make of this. Is she a cover or is she his lover? Duquette is ultimately unable to code Dick as a straight guy and invents a narrative in which Dick flees his girlfriend, unable to pursue a romantic relationship with either a man or a woman, returning instead to his mother.
Stories in which a character sits around and observes are difficult to pull off. The longer the story, the harder it is to pull off, and I think these stories are much better suited to the short story form than to the novel. Today readers have less patience for the flaneur, which basically describes Duquette. Standing around in a cafe is inherently boring, so any ‘action’ in a story like this derives from the backstory. The cafe scene bookends the love tragedy of Dick and Duquette, and offers readers an insight into Duquette’s character, showing us that he is not reliable. When he offers commentary on the cafe and its characters, he’s telling us far more about himself.
“Je ne parle pas français” is an excellent example of ‘unreliable narration’. Via the technique of internal monologue, more is revealed of the viewpoint character than the character understands about himself. Raoul Duquette is a comedic character lacking in self-awareness, though I believe he’s keeping details to himself for safety reasons. (It was not safe being rainbow in early 1900s Europe.)
Whenever Mansfield made use of irony it was narrative irony. She created a gap between what the reader understands and what the viewpoint characters understand. This narrative irony is one way of creating dramatic irony. Mansfield made use of it right from her earliest work — “In A Cafe” uses the same form of narrative irony and was written at the age of 19.
Mansfield had already created unreliable narrators in the earlier German Pension stories. But Raoul Duquette is more subtle and complex than the young, naive Englishwoman who narrated those. By the time she wrote “Je ne parle pas français” Mansfield had mastered the technique of narrative irony.
Mansfield wrote in first person more often in her earlier, less sophisticated stories. Her best work tends to be third person. This is her most sophisticated story written in first person.
STORY WORLD OF “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS”
The bookend setting of the seedy Parisian cafe juxtaposes ironically with the meat of the story — the imaginatively romantic melodrama of Duquette and Dick’s love life.
There is also juxtaposition in the public/private spaces. The cafe is a degraded public space whereas the meat of the story takes place in private. (The secret story happens entirely off the page.)
This story is all about the public/private/secret divisions which segment our lives. If you’re writing a story with this division at its heart, think about how your settings might underscore the theme.
Was Mansfield a country mouse or a city mouse? In “Vignettes“, city life is seen as liberating. But in the later “Je ne parle pas français”, city life is seen as sophisticated in a corrupt sort of way. Ina daydream, Duquette pictures himself and Mouse living a simple life away from the city.
Mansfield’s feelings about the city had clearly changed in the 10 years between those two stories.
What was happening in Paris around 1918-1920? World War I was over and people weren’t expecting another one in their lifetimes. Overall, this was a time of hope and jubilation. Paris celebrated the win with a big parade. Food rationing had ended. The demolition of the Theirs Wall began in 1919. This had been built around the city in the 1840s. The fortification would gradually be replaced with low-cost housing. In 1921, the Paris population reached its historic high. The city’s economy boomed until the effects of the Great Depression hit 10 years later, in 1931. Katherine Mansfield didn’t live to see the Depression. She died in 1923.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS”
What are we encouraged to feel about Raoul Duquette?
He is drawn to melodrama.
He wins us over with a mixture of flamboyant cynicism, faux-self awareness and cutting observations.
Yet he has delusions of grandeur, considering himself the demiurge of his own paracosm (which he doesn’t realise is a paracosm, conflating his construction of reality with veridical truth).
Duquette habitually creates roles for himself and others. We must mindfully sit on the fence about Dick (and about Mouse). We never meet Dick except via the erotically motivated Duquette, so Dick could be anyone at all. We can’t trust Duquette to describe him.
Today we might casually diagnose Duquette with narcissism, though I prefer to think in terms of ‘imaginary audience’, which is much more common, and perhaps a feature of youth in general.
The imaginary audience refers to a state where an individual imagines and believes that multitudes of people are enthusiastically listening to or watching him or her. Though this state is often exhibited in young adolescence, people of any age may harbour a fantasy of animaginary audience.Wikipedia, Imaginary Audience
Extended Metaphor OF THE STAGE
For Duquette, life is a stage. This creates a microcosm in which the drama plays: the play within a play, involving Mouse and Dick Harmon.
“Je ne parle pas français” uses language in order to expose language, constructs a form (the recalled memory, which shapes the whole story as an extended “as if”) that will also function metaphorically — as an embodiment, here, of the menace of pretence. To recognize that power without value can be attractive and that value without power can be debilitating is, in other words, a concrete challenge to language as well as an abstract problem in morality. And “Je ne parle pas français” is not alone in probing this issue. The value of language is one of the most pervasive motifs in Mansfield’s writing, and questioning the consequences of language can be one of the most unsettling results of examining her formal practice.Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
The stage metaphor in turn leads us to a deeper theme regarding the two lives we lead — the life of performance and artifice vs the authentic life. Japanese culture has everyday words to describe these two selves — omote and ura, ‘face’ and ‘mind’ (in old Japanese). English lacks vocabulary to describe this dichotomy, except in academic circles.
I would use the word ‘solipsistic’ to describe Duquette. He walks into the cafe as if he is the only real human — everyone else is a prop. When he thinks of others, he casts them in stories. First the straw floor of the cafe reminds him of the nativity scene, then he refers to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the phrase “dying fall”. In the first scene of Twelfth Night a lovesick count named Orsino is listening to music that has a “dying fall.” Today musicians might use the phrase to describe a diminuendo or decrescendo. This dying fall foreshadows the melodramatic ‘swan song’ mentioned later in the story. Like the story of the swan who sings beautifully before keeling over, dead, Duquette is comically melodramatic, and the stand-out unexpected detail from this story is the line about the dead kitten:
No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel of pink blotting-paper, incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a little dead kitten, which I’ve never felt.
The structure of the bit reminds me of the line: “A theologian is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat… which isn’t there.”
DUQUETTE, DWIGHT & HUMOUR
But of all the contemporary characters that spring to mind, Duquette reminds me (at a non-surface level) of Dwight Schrute from The Office (American spin-off). Both characters ‘save time’ when asking questions. The following is from Mansfield’s story:
Query : Why am I so bitter against Life ? And why do I see her as a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick ?
Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.
Dwight Schrute also says, “Question” before asking questions. Though Dwight is a hopelessly naive lover of high fantasy, I imagine he might feel similarly dismissive of cinema. Like the comedic character of Duquette (and also Walter Mitty), Dwight Schrute fancies himself the central character of his own private narrative. In Dwight’s case this manifests in him coming to the rescue of people who don’t need saving, but all in the aid of proving his own worth, mainly to himself.
Duquette saves no one and he knows it, but the similarities continue. Like Duquette, Dwight Schrute has little affection for cats. (Dwight puts Angela’s beloved cat in her freezer, which ends their romance.) A dead cat to Dwight is the same as an alive one. Both characters are melodramatic but without the sentimentality you might expect to go with. But as you read, notice how Duquette makes a show of sentimentality. He’s not genuinely sentimental, in my opinion. Some commentators have dismissed Mansfield for writing cloying, twee little stories but those commentators have failed to grasp the subtle irony.
Duquette and Dwight’s lack of sentimentality derives from self-absorption. Though this is also Duquette’s line, I can imagine Dwight Schrute saying, “I have no patience with people who can’t let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over and done with. Let it go, then! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It’s always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it’s changed.” This philosophical stance foreshadows the end of Mansfield’s story: There will be no Anagnorisis for the character, in true Literary Impressionist style. (The literary Impressionists thought Anagnorisiss were contrivances, since people don’t easily change.)
Like Dwight (and also Michael Scott, his boss), we laugh at Duquette because his comparisons run to the absurd, even if the beginning of a paragraph makes superficial sense: “Why, that’s even true of a hat you chase after”, Duquette continues, “and I don’t mean superficially—I mean profoundly speaking…”
Humour derives from the bafflement of the reader, discombobulated owing to the lack of apparent segue. (Another comedy series that takes The Ridiculous Comparison to its extreme is Welcome To Night Vale.) https://youtu.be/GU2W_nlijx0
I don’t want to make too much of the Dwight Schrute/Raoul Duquette comparison. On the surface they are unalike. After all, Duquette is a Frenchman and a dandy living in the early 1900s. Schrute is an Amish-background contemporary American office worker who farms beets and plays competitive ping pong.
But to conclude to topic of Duquette’s Shortcomings, the extent of Duquette’s moral shortcoming is kept as a humorously conveyed reveal for the end of the story. He has the ability to not care too much about the welfare of others.
Duquette wants to be a part of something big. Not only that, he wants to be at the centre of it. He wants the attention of others. This is connected to his needs and shortcomings — these two aspects are inextricable in the best stories.
Clearly, he also wants love. Or sex. We don’t know because he’s not letting on. Maybe just the latter.
There’s a trope known as the ‘psycho-sexual vampire’. Raoul Duquette is a good example, being a voyeur who ‘feeds’ on the emotions of others. Moreover, he wants to manipulate the reader by taking us into his confidence (ostensibly) and creates complicity. Unless we step back and say, “Hang on, is this guy telling me the truth of the situation?” we’re likely to be fully taken in, Lolita style.
Psycho sexual stories are about the psychological aspects of sex. A Nazi sympathiser was one of the first writers to create the vampire as a symbol of the psycho sexual impulse. His name was Hanns Heinz Ewers. Partly for the Nazi reason, his work isn’t very popular today. Check out Alraune (1911) if you’d like to go there.
But let’s go back a little earlier, to a work ahead of its time. Carmilla is a gothic novella written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, published 1871-2. The plot of this older story revolves around a beautiful female vampire’s attempts to seduce a frail young girl. It’s a rare lesbian love story. In fact, the vampire part only comes in at the end, when Laura realises ‘Carmilla’, who has been trying to seduce her, is in fact succubus type creature and must be killed. The psychological complexity of this vampire story is what makes Le Fanu’s story ahead of its time.
“Je ne parle pas français” is not a supernatural horror at all, but Raoul Duquette shares commonalities with the horror vampire of the age. I would love to know if Mansfield read Carmilla. There’s a good chance she did, being well-read, being in love with women, and with Carmilla being the stand-out vampire story of the age until Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (The sexual aspects of Carmilla in turn influenced Dracula.)
But historically there are very few gay vampire stories featuring two male characters. I wonder if Mansfield saw a gap that needed filling, inspired by Le Fanu’s work. There’s nothing supernatural about “Je ne parle pas français” — supernatural wasn’t Mansfield’s thing. But remember, Le Fanu’s story didn’t have much supernatural about it either, despite the vampire. In Carmilla, as in Mansfield’s story, we have one character who is in touch with her sexuality (Carmilla/Duquette) while the other pulls away (Laura/Dick). This oscillation between attraction and repulsion drives the Erotics of Abstinence audiences continue to enjoy today in stories such as Twilight.
Duquette’s romantic opponent is Dick, who may or may not have a handle on his own sexual orientation, who may or may not be into men, and the situation becomes triangulated with the arrival of (female) Mouse.
Duquette doesn’t really acknowledge at any point that Mouse is his opponent. He doesn’t seem to know why he didn’t help her out. Instead he considers ‘Life Itself’ his opponent, an ‘old hag’, because life doesn’t abide by confirming Duquette’s own view of himself. (Except very occasionally, like when he walked into this cafe today and felt he was at the centre of something big.)
Like any gay man in an era when sexually transgressive acts are illegal, Duquette dissembles by avoiding a direct declaration of his desires, let alone exactly how he will get what he wants. At the turn of the century, ‘homosexuality’ was only just beginning to be conceptualised as an identity rather than simply an (illegal) act. But he clearly figures if he and Dick only spend enough time together than their relationship would naturally progress… somehow.
“After that I took Dick about with me everywhere, and he came to my flat, and sat in the arm-chair, very indolent, playing with the paper-knife. I cannot think why his indolence always gave me the impression he had been to sea … I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t completely innocent.”
In the early 1900s, one’s sex life was a private matter. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy (in her 1996 essay “But we would never talk about it’: The Structures of Lesbian Discretion in South Dakota, 1928-1933”) has said, in regards to determining individuals’ biographies, that if people seemed to deny their orientation in earlier eras, this ‘should be interpreted as an assertion that their sexuality was not a public matter, rather than as a denial that they have a sexual interest in [the same sex]’.
I would be interested to know if ‘has been to sea’ is a euphemism of early 1900s Gay Polari. Are there contemporary examples in pop culture, for instance from the song “Beautiful Boys” by CocoRosie about Jean Genet, ‘tattoos of ships and tattoos of tears‘. Across time, the navy and ships are connected to gay culture. https://youtu.be/Y3p4e-htTHw
Gay love on ships goes back way further than The Village People — matelotage was a gay marriage of sorts practiced by male pirates from the 17th century. Pirates were themselves transgressive, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that they had a higher tolerance for other transgressive ways of living.
The phrase ‘Parisian, a true Parisian’ is almost certainly code for a gay man, with associations of a gigolo of duplicitous nature and the kind of effete man with literary pretensions. (Historically, marginalised groups required to wear public masks for their own safety have also been simultaneously persecuted for ‘lying’ about themselves.)
Dick flees from his woman companion and runs back to his mother from Paris, unable to face getting into a relationship with Mouse, or perhaps with any woman. In Duquette’s head this has been a Romeo and Juliet-esque suicide with all the imagined melodrama around that.
The story that takes place inside Dick’s head shows that the character is playing into a narrative — and cultural phenomenon — which began in the 1800s and which continues dangerously into the present:
As gay identity spread, so did the notion that gay men were more prone to suicide. Late-19th- and early 20th-century writers picked up on the association between homosexuality and suicide … when gay characters’ deaths are portrayed lovingly, romantically or cathartically today – such as the suicide of Virginia Woolf in the novel The Hours (1998) or of Michael Corrigan in the TV drama House of Cards (2013-15) – it is worth noting these are echoes of a literary device that first sounded in Weimar Berlin. And to acknowledge that, so long as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers see characters who look and talk and think like themselves, and who then kill themselves, suicide will continue to suggest itself as a plausible course of action.Sam Haselby, Aeon
Of course, we don’t know Dick is gay and he does not in fact die in the story. He simply goes home to England, using his mother as an excuse to end the relationship with Mouse, whatever that entailed. But this dominant cultural narrative is why Duquette has jumped to the suicide conclusion, and why Mansfield would have used it.
Herein lies a downside of internal monologue, in which there’s no unseen narrator to moderate a flawed character’s problematic ideologies: When Mansfield creates the gay-suicide scene she inevitably creates yet another narrative in which a gay man hates himself and dies as a result. With internal monologue (and similar narrative techniques e.g. stream of consciousness) writers are always hoping for the best of readers.
There is no room for epiphany in this circular text, whose protagonist is condemned to sterile repetition of cultural cliches.Maurizio Ascari
By the time we reunite with present-world Duquette, still in the cafe, has he experienced any epiphany owing to his association with Dick and Mouse? Any increase at all in his self-awareness? Well no — he may have developed as a human being had he done something self-sacrificial such as look after an English woman alone in Paris — a woman he considers his love opponent and therefore unworthy of his time.
But he doesn’t help her at all, breaking his promise to her. (He didn’t have to promise in the first place — it only made him look good in the moment.) After a double carriage return Mansfield writes with a brilliant touch of humour: “Of course you know what to expect. You anticipate, fully, what I am going to write. It wouldn’t be me, otherwise.” Mansfield has trusted us to understand this character over the course of the story. Duquette is not only an unreliable narrator and an unreliable person in general. Looking back we do see all the clues.
Clues create the symbol web. For instance, Duquette hasn’t paid for either of the mirrors in his house. Mansfield makes much use of mirrors (and windows) in her stories. If Duquette hasn’t paid for the mirrors in his own house, he clearly has little purchase on who he is as a person. There’s nothing subtle about this message: Reader, you can’t trust the guy reflected in these (unpaid for) mirrors. Why does Duquette even tell the reader he hasn’t paid for them? My read is that he’s secretly proud of his ability to get by in life on the smell of an oily rag, living a champagne lifestyle on beer money. Duquette is probably a working class boy who, through wit and positioning, is hoping to insert himself less precariously into the upper-middle class. In this respect I’m reminded of Miss Delysia La Fosse from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Delysia is a woman who has married into money, but her impoverished background is kept as a late reveal. The pretty young woman who marries into royalty by behaving in appropriate ways and looking nice in upper-class garb is an archetype as old as myth and fairytales. Duquette will have read them, I suspect.
Duquette still thinks of Mouse whenever he hears certain tunes playing in cafes. But he has already told us he doesn’t live with regret. This feels like a contemporary response. Had he lived in the year 2012 he might be preaching, “YOLO!”
Let’s not gloss past that attitude uncritically. For what is a life sans regret? Regret is a necessary precursor to self-reflection. If we subscribe to an ‘You Only Life Once’ philosophy, we’re in danger of becoming a self-centred population of Raoul Duquettes.
Header painting: Leonid Pasternak Boris Pasternak, Writing, 1919
Schitt’s Creek is a CBC sitcom written by father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy. You’ll either find it funny or you won’t — I think it’s the funniest thing on Netflix at the moment.
That said, I agree with all the reviewers who’ve said something like this:
Season 1 is decent, but Season 2 is where it really takes off.
From a writing point of view, it’s interesting to consider why this show took an entire season to really get funny.
CHARACTER HUMOUR TAKES TIME
Like all sitcoms, but possibly more than most, Schitt’s Creek is a comedy which relies heavily on character humour.
What is character humour?
Comedic character acting on personality traits
In order for this to work, the audience needs to think in terms of stereotypes or, more kindly, in terms of archetypes. Alternatively, the audience has to know (or feel they know) a character so well that they are able to think, “How very typical of [Character].”
When writers make use of stock comedy characters, it takes no time at all for the audience to ‘know’ them.
- The dumb blonde
- The rich bitch with delusions of grandeur
- The player
- The schemer
- The normal guy
- The petty, vindictive guy
- The redneck
Schitt’s Creek does make use of these tropes:
- Moira is the rich bitch who pines for her heyday as a soap actress
- Alexis is the dumb blonde
- Roland Schitt is the redneck
Part of the reason why Schitt’s Creek took an entire season to rev up is because these familiar character tropes have an unfamiliar twist on them. We’re now dealing with archetypes rather than stereotypes.
Because this is a fish-out-of-water comedy, the rich bitch is unable to act as she normally does. The dumb blonde isn’t so much ‘dumb’ as unable to hear what anyone else is really saying because she’s been brought up in a completely superficial environment where appearance is everything. This puts her at a huge social disadvantage, in a place where social niceties don’t count for anything. Roland appears to be a redneck, complete with the mullet and the cheap tastes, but he is also the mayor of the town.
Where Schitt’s Creek shines is in its addition of some new comedic archetypes.
David Rose in particular is a new type of comedic character for TV:
They quietly introduced a pansexual character and no one laughed at him. Well, not because of his sexuality, at least.
Gay comic characters began with Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served back in 1972. Since then we’ve seen all sorts of coverage of gay characters — some of it still funny, some of it cringingly not. Comedy is now entering a new phase, thank goodness, where sexual orientation is no longer the entire content of the joke. David’s dating life is a cause for much awkwardness, but not because of his orientation — it is funny only because relationships in general can be awkward, especially in a small town when you live in close quarters with your natal family.
David’s sexual orientation was kept as a reveal for the audience part way through Season One. Once we understood this part of him he became more empathetic, and so did his horrible family, who had already accepted him for who he is despite their many, many flaws. Once we saw the family’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, they became instantly more familiar, which helps the character comedy to work.
Then there’s David’s father. Johnny Rose is marvellously accepting of difference, but to the point where he goes several steps too far. (This goes hand in hand with his acceptance of Moira’s eccentricity. Who else would put up with that woman?) Season Two was able to make the most of this dynamic between Johnny and David in particular, because David is quite private and easily embarrassed, a lot, which counterpoints against his determinedly ‘open minded’ father. In short, David Rose is a new kind of comedic trope, and the relationship between David and his father is a new kind of comedic duo. I think this combo is brilliant, and probably works so well because the actor/writers are themselves a father and son team.
I would argue that precisely because this type of character comedy feels so new, it took a while for the characters to work at full comic capacity.
THE STORYWORLD DIVERSIFIES
In Season One, the Rose family spends a lot of time in their motel rooms. This makes sense within the world of the story — they are not happy to be in Schitt’s Creek, and everyone but the eternally rosy Mr Rose (a comically symbolic name) falls into a depressive slump, unwilling to get out amongst it. But by Season Two Moira, David and Alexis have gotten to know some locals and the writers have found many opportunities to get them away from the motel rooms. The motel is now just a base. This feels less claustrophobic for the audience.
In Season Two, David found a job at tacky Blouse Barn; Alexis is employed as a well-meaning but inevitably diva receptionist at the vet; Moira accidentally found herself elected to council and sings with the local choir; and David Rose is using the local mechanic’s spare desk to brainstorm ideas for his next business. Every single one of these arenas make for excellent fish out of water comedy. Whereas Season One relied heavily upon the big picture fish-out-of-water trope — a mega wealthy family is forced to move to a small, rural town — the comedy doesn’t really work until that large umbrella is crosscut and condensed. By Season Two, each member of the Rose family is sent on a circular journey through essentially the same area (Schitt’s Creek), and the fish-out-of-water jokes both intensify and diversify. Each member of the Rose family is a different kind of ‘fish’.
The local eatery is another very important part of the setting, as it is in many, many ongoing TV shows across all genres. This allows yet another arena for the entitled members of the Rose family to interact with regular townsfolk who — importantly — function as the straight people rather than as the butt of the jokes.
THE CONCEPT OF SCHITT’S CREEK IS HIGHLY EXTENSIBLE
Schitt’s Creek is satire which makes fun of rich people and their sense of entitlement, and is perhaps a woke evolution on a show such as My Name Is Earl (2005-2009). My Name Is Earl relied more heavily on classist tropes. These unalloyed stereotypes slid on past because the writers gave its underdogs the last laugh. That’s something the Schitt’s Creek writers do better, though it will be interesting to see how it holds up across decades.
That aside, My Name Is Earl had such a high concept that it could never really last past two good seasons, tops. The karma concept of Earl ultimately proved far too limiting for its writing team. After they’d done the meta season they had nothing else in the tank.
Schitt’s Creek is another high concept comedy — a rich family loses its fortune and is forced to move to the shitty town they purchased as a joke. But here’s the difference: The fish-out-of-water jokes can continue until each member of the Rose family are fully settled into their new lives, and even then, the joke will be that they have become what they initially despised. (Comedy has a lot in common with horror.) Schitt’s Creek is now up to Season Five and still going strong.
The writers will be facing a big storytelling challenge now that each member of the Rose family is happily in a relationship, because that ostensibly cuts out the entire category of dating humour. It will be interesting to see what they do with that.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a heart-wrenching short story in part because of its density and one-sitting experience. This is an amazing feat. I mean, it’s so short, right? Normally you need the build-up of an entire novel to induce such strong reactions in readers. Or at least the soundtrack, cinematography and expert acting of a film. Annie Proulx’s short stories have the wordcount of short stories but the emotional resonance of epics.
I’m reading this story in what is now called Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories. Here are the other stories:
The Half-Skinned Steer
The Mud Below
The Blood Bay
People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water
The Bunchgrass End Of The World
Pair a Spurs
A Lonely Coast
The Governors of Wyoming
55 Miles To The Gas Pump
“Brokeback Mountain” was published in the New Yorker in 1997, but came to most people’s attention in 2005 when it was adapted for screen and won critical acclaim.
Read the full text at The New Yorker.
What Kind Of Story Even Is This?
Australia’s SBS social media team recently Facebooked a re-screening of the film Brokeback Mountain, describing it as, and I quote, ‘Ang Lee’s tender love story’. I didn’t write the thing but even I have two problems with that. First of all, for all a screenwriter/director brings to a story, the story ‘belongs’ to the person who created it. Ang Lee adapted it but bear in mind, Annie Proulx made something from nothing at all. Once a story gets adapted for screen, kudos tends to transfer to the people who brought it to screen and the original author probably gets some extra visibility too, but compared to the self-congratulatory movie industry, writers are basically invisible.
Second, nothing about “Brokeback Mountain” is ‘tender’, unless you forget the beating and murder of the gay man, or the almost-maybe-anal-rape of the wife. ‘Tender’ is not a word generally associated with the work of Annie Proulx. Unforgiving, brutal, tragic… now those are adjectives I can go for.
I suspect this is all part of why Annie Proulx wishes she’d never written Brokeback Mountain:
[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.
This says something wider about our expectations for movie endings. It’s baffling, because although we think Hollywood loves happy endings, although we expect happy endings, when you take a survey of Hollywood stories, actually there are far fewer genuinely happy endings than you probably think. The truth is, audiences don’t need happy endings, even the most basic of Hollywood consumers who go for the popcorn:
Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.
– Robert McKee
In the same interview, Proulx tells us what “Brokeback Mountain” is intended to be about:
They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way — I’m not gay, but … The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved. And maybe they do. But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.
Annie Proulx has astutely picked that gender is playing a part here. I think gender plays a part in who gets plaudits and accolades in Hollywood, too. Rarely does a film adaptation of a film come out in which the audience is not hyper-aware that the story belongs to Stephen King.
On the subject of gender:
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
— The Great Divide: Writing Across Gender from The Millions
- 1960s Wyoming. Jack and Ennis meet in 1963
- Their first job together is at a sheep operation north of Signal. Signal is a fictional place. The movie was filmed in Cowley, Alberta. “The summer range lay above the tree line on Forest Service land on Brokeback Mountain.”
- Jack Twist raised in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border
- Ennis Del Mar was also raised on a small, poor ranch but from around Sage, near the Utah line
- There’s no real safety net for poor kids. Ennis is unable to finish highschool due to losing his parents and poverty.
- Life-shattering levels of homophobia
- Hyper-masculinity is revered
- These two men, used to living as closeted gay men, have been given a job which requires them to leave no trace of themselves. While tending the sheep and keeping ‘predators’ (read: violent homophobics) away they must light no ‘fire’ (read: keep their true feelings to themselves). “Roll up that tent every morning in case Forest Service snoops round.”
- Rodeo life is a big part of the culture. Jack in particular is fascinated with this. From “The Mud Below” we know that Annie Proulx considers the rodeo symbolic of hyper masculinity. But rodeo life is changing. It’s turned into a highly competitive sport — much like rugby went from being a pastime to an industry in my home country at around the same time. This means you need money behind you to make any money out of it yourself.
- A Basque American guy helps the white men load up the mules. Today there are about 60,000 Basque Americans. Wyoming is not a particularly likely place to find someone of Basque descent — most have settled in other states.
When analysing the structure of a story, the first thing I usually do is work out who the main character is. But every now and then you don’t get a main character — as Proulx explained above, this is about a society, not a single person. Nevertheless, to say anything about a society a writer needs to zone in on individuated characters. Here we have co-heroes Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.
Being gay in a homophobic society is pretty much all that needs to be said here.
Terrified of living true to themselves, Ennis and Jack want to live as straight manly-men but their wishes are scuppered by the inconvenient reality of falling of love with each other.
In any love story, the love interest is the number one opponent, but I don’t want to call this a love story first and foremost. This is a hate story. Ennis and Jack’s biggest opponents are the unnamed men who would kick the shit out of them if they knew what they’d been up to up there in those mountains.
Ennis’s main opponent is his dead father, who he suspects of beating a gay man to death and showing it to him and his brother many years ago when they were very young and impressionable.
There are also living representations of his hate-filled father, such as the employer who saw them through binoculars and John Twist. These people represent a hostile wider society, which is the over-riding opponent.
Jack can’t leave his wife Alma and two young daughters. He is also terrified of being killed.
Ennis wants them to both leave their families (he’s happier to leave his wife and their son — it seems he’s married her mainly for the prospect of inheritance). He has plans for them to run a ranch together. He’ll use the money he’s sure to get out of his father-in-law to buy one and they can lead a good life together running it.
Jack’s counter plan is for them to meet regularly on the mountain whenever they can get away from their regular lives.
The confrontation, where Ennis and Jack finally voice their dilemma. One of them is prepared to sacrifice physical safety to live with his male lover; the other is not.
There is no anagnorisis. Not in the sense that Ennis finally breaks free of his fear and lives a happy, fulfilled life.
Convinced that Jack has been killed in a hate crime, he continues to live closeted and in fear.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Thumbnail Character Sketches
At first glance Jack seemed fair enough, with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of a jug, but noticeable.
– Annie Proulx, quoted in Super Easy Ways To Create Characters For Short Stories, because Proulx is a master of the thumbnail character sketch.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
If you want a tender love story try Mary and Max, an Australian claymation film about a blossoming pen pal relationship.
Lonesome Dove stands out these days for its absence of the homoerotica which would surely be present in an outback environment with only men around. There is some similarity between “Brokeback Mountain” and Lonesome Dove, though, because it’s about two men whose relationship with each other eclipses anything else in their lives.
For another film about a forbidden same-sex relationship which spans years of absence, there’s also Lovesong (2016) directed and written by So-yong Kim. While outwardly similar to Brokeback Mountain, the intensity of feelings assumed to exist in the characters never crosses over into the audience. This is largely due to the passivity of one of the women.