1. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS FEATURE A TECHNIQUE CALLED ‘PILLOW SHOTS’
A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.
It comes from the famous director Yasujiro Ozu and is common in Japanese cinema. Why are they called pillow shots? It’s the cinematic equivalent of ‘pillow words’ used in Japanese poetry. A pillow word represents a sort of musical beat between what went before and what comes after. It functions as a kind of punctuation, signalling the end of something and a transition to something else.
Similarly, silence plays an important part in Japanese films, and Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t subscribe to the Dreamworks school of thought, in which kids need action from the get-go.
Although it looks as if nothing is happening in some of Miyzaki’s pillow shots, Japanese animators are more likely to use dynamic backgrounds and Western animators to use static ones. For instance, something in the Japanese background will be in motion and change. Even when there’s action going on in the foreground, Miyazaki will quite likely have something going on in the background.
2. THE ENGLISH DUBS AREN’T ALL THAT GREAT
The English translations of Miyazaki movies are often quite different. For example, the agency of Sophie is taken away somewhat in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle. Regional dialects are lost when they are dubbed into standard American English. Voices are quite different, also. Miyazaki’s children’s voices tend to be authentic child voice actors whereas sometimes Hollywood uses an adult to mimic a child.
Also, the English dubs tend to put words in where there were none, under the assumption that a young Western audience needs them. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, several additional words and sounds occur at moments of silence in the original.
3. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS TEND TO STAR GIRLS BUT THEY ARE ONLY ‘FEMINIST’ IN THEIR OWN, OLD-FASHIONED KINDA WAY
6. HAYAO MIYAZAKI USES A WIDE RANGE OF CLASSIC LITERATURE AND BUILDS ON IT.
The name ‘Laputa’ (from ‘Castle In The Sky’) is derived from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, wherein Swift’s Laputa is also a flying island controlled by its citizens. Anthony Lioi feels that Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is similar to Swift’s Laputa, where the technological superiority of the castle in the sky is used for political ends.
7. THERE’S THIS JAPANESE CONCEPT CALLED ‘MA’
When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.
8. THE FILMS ARE COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS ‘MAGICAL REALISM’
For more on magical realism see the blog posts by Michelle Witte.
However, there is a case to be made for reserving the word for specifically Latin American literature using magic to explore ideas of colonisation. To avoid this appropriation there is another word we can use: fabulism.
9. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS A WORLDWIDE INFLUENCE ON OTHER STORYTELLERS
[Miyazaki’s] stories are everything but cliché. There’s never a cliché I’ve ever detected in his stories; the storylines are completely original and the way the characters interact is very believable. I think that’s one of the things that inspired us to rewrite the book in the way our characters interact. You referenced that when we were talking about the scene with the sisters yelling at each other. It’s so natural and cathartic to see that going on. When characters interact believably, you believe in them and it makes it seem much more real to you. One of the big reasons we didn’t have this film as a musical in the traditional sense is that the minute a character begins to sing, it places that film in a certain realm, a musical realm, which is great but it’s not really happening the way we wanted this film to feel like it’s happening.
Specifically, if you reference a film like Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, that film shares a lot of similarities with ours. We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, the sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly. It’s done in such a believable way… You’ve got these fantastic elements and yet you feel like you watched a story that really existed between a family.
10. HAYAO MIYAZAKI LOVED BOTH JAPANESE AND IMPORTED CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Like a disproportionate number of adult story creators, Hayao Miyazaki was a ‘physically weak’ child and the time not spent on running about was spent reading. Open Culture published a list of Miyazaki’s favourite children’s books showing that (of course) he didn’t just enjoy stories for and about boys, but loved stories about girls equally. Miyazaki didn’t stop reading children’s books just because he stopped being a child, either.
11. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS THE ULTIMATE PANTSER
A plotter describes a storyteller who works out the plot outline before fleshing it out. They know the ending before even starting to type. A pantser is the opposite of this, working out the plot as they go along. Miyazaki is the ultimate pantser because he has an entire studio working for him, under his direction, and none of these people knows how the story is going to progress. Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Scripts undergo numerous revisions and workshopping before filming begins. For this reason, the Studio Ghibli plots feel quite different from Hollywood blockbusters, and even more meandering than most indie films. For Miyazaki, the main thing is emotion. Emotion is first and foremost; plot is secondary.
Miyazaki also never studied screenwriting.
12. VILLAINS ALSO DEVELOP AS CHARACTERS
Miyazaki’s baddies are rounded characters in their own right. There’s no clear line between good and evil. An example of a character who is ostensibly a villain but who has a soft side is No Face from Spirited Away. He begins as greedy but becomes an ally.
There’s no binary of good and evil. These two things coexist in the same characters. The protagonist doesn’t win, but grows and adapts to a world that isn’t built to their needs.
Characters begin flawed and end flawed. There’s not the same sort of character arc as we are accustomed to in the West, though writers such as Matt Weiner have embraced this realism. Don Draper never really evolves, either. The goal in a Miyazaki movie is to develop emotionally. Any external goal is secondary. Western stories tend to use an external goal as a metaphor for internal change.
Whereas the humans in Miyazaki films have complex emotions, the fantasy characters do not. We are never let in on what they are thinking. They remain mysterious to us. Mysterious creatures hold our attention in a way that an empathetic human character does not.
13. FLIGHT IS VERY IMPORTANT
Miyazaki’s father owned a plane company and Hayao is fascinated with flight. Every single one of his movies contains a flight scene, or a scene in which a character sees something from a long distance. More on the symbolism of flight.
14. MIYAZAKI DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A PESSIMIST
But doesn’t want that to come through in his movies. He wants to offer young viewers a sense of hope. This reality versus aspiration is evident in each of Miyazaki’s films — the themes demonstrate that the mind of the creator is focused on issues such as corporate greed and environmental destruction, but the endings of the stories are still hopeful.
15. MIYAZAKI DOES NOT LIKE HIS STUDIO DESCRIBED AS ‘THE JAPANESE DISNEY’
Far more accurate to call him ‘The Japanese Yuri Norstein’. Norstein (or Norshteyn) is a Russian animator born the same year as Miyazaki (1941). These men have lived through the same world events. Take a look at a few of his productions and you’ll see the similarities. Hedgehog in the Fog is his best-known work in the West:
16. THE AUDIENCE FOR GHIBLI MOVIES AREN’T JUST CHILDREN
Certain films such as Totoro and Ponyo are written with young children in mind. But when stories are written to appeal to human emotion, there is no upper age limit. Miyazaki works under the principle that children don’t necessarily have to understand what they see right away — they can see something now and understand it later. That’s just fine with him.
17. GEKIGA, NOT MANGA
Miyazaki began his career as a manga artist and is influenced by a type of manga called ‘gekiga’. This literally means ‘dramatic pictures’. It was a term coined by manga artists who wished to separate their own work from ‘less serious’ cartoonists. Creators of gekiga tend to depict more realistic humans and backgrounds. Miyazaki has no love for the manga industry in general, and its cheap tricks to get an audience reaction. He avoids large, flashy moments in favour of small, subtle ones.
Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all have a distinct spiritual presence. Even rocks, weather systems and certain words are considered animated and therefore alive.
Miyazaki believes people to be part of nature — this is the traditional Japanese way of thinking, unlike in other major world religions, in which humans (specifically male humans) are thought to be at the top of some tree of life, with animals placed her for our own use.
Short answer: Main characters don’t have to be likeable. But they do need to be interesting.
Readers of fiction are unique in that they want to empathize with characters who are different from them, even if those characters make decisions that they may not personally want to make, or may not personally agree with.
I enjoy certain friends who aren’t necessarily “nice” people, because they’re like characters in a book who reliably make any scene they’re in more interesting.
First, some ideas from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Lena Dunham has noted that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:
“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.”
from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.
In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.
Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.
The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:
emphasises the evil of the universe
and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.
Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.
In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
The best visual representation of this concept is by Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan:
But in this post I feel a little bad about dismissing snails, so I include art in which the beauty of snails comes to the fore:
What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?
As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.
Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.
Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:
Pines By Blake Crouch
The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)
A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS
The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:
There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.
This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over.The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’
But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.
A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin
The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.
THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA
Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”
Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.
FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS
American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.
Get Out, a 2017 film. A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.
Anyway, if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.
Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”
The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.
Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.
This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)
Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.
In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.
Everyone knows that magic and trouble go hand in hand…
A dangerous spell cast over an unsuspecting village. An enchanted painting locked in a hidden room. A desperate race against time to break the spell before it’s too late…
It should have been a fresh start for the Widdershins. Finally free from the misty gloom of Crowstone and beginning a new life. But all is not as it seems in their postcard-pretty village. Their neighbours are acting strangely, and why do they flinch at the mere mention of magic?
The Widdershins sisters have their own secret: a set of enchanted nesting dolls with the power to render their user invisible. The sisters must use their wits – and their magic – if they’re to break the dark hold over the village, and save one of their own . . . but have they met their match this time?
If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister).
How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT
“Bluebeard” is a classic fairytale — the O.G. tale of domestic violence. Any story in which a fearsome husband murders his young wife is probably a “Bluebeard” descendent. The husband in this tale is monstrous, and related to the archetype of the ogre.
I never encountered the story of “Bluebeard” growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.
There are versions of Bluebeard all over the world:
There is always a forbidden chamber with hidden contents. This is a take on the ancient Pandora story, in which a young woman looks where she should not. (See also: Eve, Lot’s wife and Psyche.) The contents of this forbidden chamber differ from region to region:
The ending also differs: Various characters help the young woman to escape. Occasionally she escapes on her own.
French folklorist Charles Perrault included a “Bluebeard” story in his well-known Stories. Folklorists don’t know where he got his inspiration from, exactly, but there are theories, based on the fact that Perrault was a hagiographer as well as a fairytale enthusiast:
Ballads of maiden kidnappers which went around Europe in the 1500s
The “Mr Fox” tale from England
the St Gilda legend about the 6th C saint who revived Tryphine, who had been beheaded by her husband (Comorre or Cunmar) when he learned she was pregnant.
The historical figure Gilles de Rais (1404-40). This psychopath sexually abused and murdered more than 140 children. He is also remembered as a comrade of Joan of Arc.
As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of “Bluebeard” after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber (1979). Bluebeard re-visionings are deemed feminist when the storyteller removes blame from the young woman (for disobeying her husband) and places blame with the violent murderer himself. Another feminist re-visioning is Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood (1983). In some Bluebeard-type stories, the bloodstain is found on an egg rather than on a key.
The French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue. In the 1500s, ‘barbe bleu’ actually referred to a man with a raven black beard. Men with such beards were thought to be seducer types.
The famous Farnsworth House is a square construction made mostly of windows and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It’s in Plano, Illinois.
In real life, people who build these houses tend to be well-off and have environmental aspirations. When a house has this much glass you’re living ‘at one with nature’. You’re also respecting the environment by refusing to build something garish. From a distance, the house hardly interferes with the natural landscape, with the trees reflecting off the windows, and the lack of a pretentious, gabled roof. (I’m not sure about their energy efficiency rating, though.)
In fiction, however, the glass house generally spells doom for you and your family. If you are a fictional person reading this, I advise against purchasing a house made mainly of glass.
The glass house in the movie Lake House (with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) is based on the Farnsworth architecture. The character who lives in this house is an architect, and in movies, architects can’t live in ordinary houses. Here, the house is ‘at one with the water’.
THE ICE STORM
One of the families in The Ice Storm — The Carver family — live in a very nice house with a lot of glass. They could be enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner, at their beautiful table with lots of food, under the cover of glass but still enjoying the late autumn scenery. But the 14-year-old daughter is far too astute to be fooled by appearances — on the other side of that ‘glass’ people are starving. The meaning of Thanksgiving is built on abuse, she points out.
In the following clip, we hear how Connecticut was the first place to really embrace the glass house, but a lot of the time they weren’t ‘beautiful’ — they simply functioned like fish bowls. In the glass house, the irony is that the family can’t see each other. This glass house juxtaposes with another main house, which is a 1950s colonial house. This was also an archetypal architectural time, but would be a little less cold. The colonial house is the key party house, which makes the key party seem even dirtier.
INTO THE FOREST
Into The Forest (2015) is set somewhere in Canada, but more ‘correctly’ somewhere in fairytale world. Viewers who expected mimesis were utterly disappointed that these young women were able to sustain themselves by finding berries in the woods over a long winter. This is the stuff of fairytales, and I code it as such.
The difficulty is, these girls live in the present, or actually in the near future, probably. The father has purchased a partially finished house with large, glass walls and transplanted his daughters to their forest haven. Then the outside world breaks down — a Doomsday Prepper’s dream.
The girls are suddenly alone and vulnerable. The house which seemed like a haven is now a target for predators. They end up boarding over those massive glass walls, first putting makeshift curtains up, then realising this will never be enough.
This house is an interesting mixture of ‘cold glass house’ and ‘warm, cosy house’. The house itself is a character in the movie, and therefore has its own ‘character arc’. For the house, the film is a tragedy along Gilbert Grape lines.
For a similar film about a family who must survive in a kind of fairytale utopia after calamity hits Earth — or America — see A Quiet Place. One garnered excellent reviews; the other did not. I have my own feminist theories about why.
Wiener-dog (2016) is an indie film which connects four short stories via the travels of a dog who never finds a permanent home. The first household we meet is desperately unhappy. Sure enough, they live in a house with walls made mainly of glass.
The vampires live in a glass house in the middle of the forest. You’d think they’d want a bit more privacy, wouldn’t you? But the forest itself provides the walls and curtains. In contrast to the more homely vibe emitted from Jacob, the Cullens are a cold, stand-offish clan, and so the house made of glass is fitting.
The Cullen House is supposedly located in Forks Washington. But as we have learned, most of the filming for the original Twilight movie was done here in Portland and the surrounding area. For New Moon and Eclipse they used another home in Vancouver BC area. For Breaking Dawn 1 and 2 they broke down the house in Vancouver and loaded it on semi-trucks and transported it to the Louisiana sound stage where those films were made. It’s amazing that it is still so easily accessible for Twilight fans.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
Because a house made of glass is such an ostentatious statement — while ironically seeming to fit into the surrounding landscape unobtrusively — this building, which exists only to house cars, is comedic in itself.
Mad Men is equally dark as House of Cards in many ways, but well-lit rooms are quite usual in this series. Mad Men is an snail under the leaf setting. Don Draper has everything he could possibly want… from the outside looking in.
California is the flip side of New York — New York is wintry and studious while California is light-hearted and beachy.
But even on the East Coast, the light-filled kitchen scene here only highlights how down-and-out Betty Draper seems. Her mood contrasts equally with the upbeat innocence of their children.
DON’T TRUST THE B IN APARTMENT B
Krystin Ritter is actually the perfect fit for dark stories and her look has been utilised thusly in Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones. You won’t find many light-filled homes in those series. But here she is in a light-hearted comedy, bathed in a white, welcoming glow.
Here’s another Pinterest-worthy white kitchen in a light-hearted series.
Though the title of this series suggests a kind of hell, the home is filled with natural light. This is a safe house in some well-off suburbs.
The opening of Gilmore girls shows the main characters drinking coffee inside Luke’s, but at night, with all those fairy lights. In that case, the dark forms a cloak of reassurance and cosiness. During the day, Luke’s is always a place of refuge, even when he goes out of his way to be gruff.
Emily and Richard’s house has no natural light at all — a cold house from another age. What age is that, exactly?
The Centennial encouraged the founding of many so-called patriotic societies, such as the Sons (now defunct) and the Daughters (still active) of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants. This new interest in genealogy was due partly to the Centennial itself, and partly to efforts by the established middle class to distance itself from the increasing number of new, predominantly non-British immigrants. This process of cultural authentification was fortified by furnishing homes in the so-called Colonial style, thus underlining the link to the past. Like most invented traditions, the Colonial revival was also a reflection of its own time–the nineteenth century. Its visual taste was influenced by the then current English architectural fashion–Queen Anne–which had nothing to do with the Pilgrim Fathers, but whose cozy hominess appealed to a public sated by the extravagances of the Gilded Age.
Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski
Emily Gilmore belongs to Daughters of the American Revolution. She herself is clearly racist and her big, cold, Colonial home is an outworking of Emily herself.
In contrast we have Lorelai’s house, which we often see from the outside bathed in sunlight. The contrast between Emily’s house and Lorelai’s house is the archetypal cold colonial vs warm and sunny dichotomy. We are meant to feel at home in one and not in the other. The expectation that warm, cosy houses are full of food is overturned by the writer in (what I believe) to be an attempt at subverting the patriarchal expectation that women must be good at cooking.
In Emily’s house there is plenty of light, but it comes from those Gothic chandeliers and expensive mood lighting, not through the windows. This house is an island unto itself. Nothing’s coming in that Emily hasn’t put there her very self.
What is also striking about these handsome interiors is the absence of so many of the things that characterize modern life. We look in vain for clock-radios, electric hair dryers, or video games. There are pipe racks and humidors in the bedrooms, but no cordless telephones, no televisions. There may be snowshoes banging on the cabin wall, but there are no snowmobile boots by the door.
Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski
CASE STUDY: THE HOUSES OF NASHVILLE
The difference between the ‘cosy, colonial’ house and the cold, inhospitable house made mostly of glass is exemplified beautifully in Nashville, TV series, written by Callie Khouri.
(I’ve only seen the first two seasons, so my commentary is only on that…)
Here’s Juliette’s house from the outside: square, modern, white. Perfectly manicured. Juliette is nouveau riche but she grew up in a trailer with an exploitative mother. This ghost continues to haunt her into the present.
Though these windows are covered in net curtains (probably to diffuse the light for the sake of filming), it’s significant that Juliette lives in a glass house. The whole world is watching her every move. There is no real boundary between Juliette and the public.
Juliette herself is small in stature, but her house is enormous. This juxtaposition emphasises her loneliness.
Juliette is young and so her tastes are modern.
This house is basically a modern castle. Where else do we find castles? In gothic fiction. These traditional castles have dungeons and hidden passages and are surrounded by gloomy forests and this isn’t that kind of castle, but it is still almost part of the female gothic tradition, in which the character inhabiting the space graduates from adolescence to maturity.
The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts. It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute “features of the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture”.
Does that sound like Juliette? Another feature of the female gothic is the threatening control of a male antagonist.
The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore, prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the disability of being female.
Juliette is definitely vilified due to her gender — the way she is set upon by the public when she is implicated in the Wentworth break-up is one example.
Rayna has plenty of money, though it’s clear from the pilot that she is ‘cash poor’. She has married a ‘trust fund boy’ and lives in a house typical of the one percent. Exactly the sort of house we’d expect a middle-aged country singer from Nashville to live in. But this is a warm house compared to the white cube owned by Juliette.
Inside Rayna’s house we see Maddie’s bedroom. Teenage bedrooms are easy for set designers to get wrong — there’s too often an unlikely mixture of fan posters on the wall. But the set designers have avoided that altogether with Maddie by hanging up some artwork — perhaps her own as a child, which has been framed?
The Bluebird Café is another example of the ‘Warm House’, and the café, too, can be warm or terrifying.
DEACON’S SUBURBAN COTTAGE
Deacon is your archetypal difficult man, the silent type with addiction issues but brimming with talent. Deacon, we are led to believe, would rather be living in the woods, just him and his guitar. This personality type — reflected in his niece — explains the backstory of why he never sought fame when he was younger, riding on the coat tails of Rayna.
Okay so two young men lived here too, but I only ever see Scarlett cleaning the kitchen, so I’m calling the sunny, warm and retro-vibe kitchen an outworking of her.
I bought The Collected Stories of John Cheever as a salve to heal my Mad Men withdrawals, and this is one of Cheever’s stories that absolutely reminds me of Mad Men. Stephen Bruce is a Don Draper character; his daughter is a Sally Draper type. Matt Weiner has cited Cheever as one source of inspiration for Mad Men, and in this story we have an early example of the sympathetic antihero.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY
A married man (on his second marriage) has an affair with a woman in his social circle. They are seen out and about, the man’s wife hires a private investigator and eventually the woman’s husband leaves her, taking their children to the country.
The story opens with very specific geographical location:
The bus to St. James’s—a Protestant Episcopal school for boys and girls-started its round at eight o’clock in the morning, from a corner of Park Avenue in the Sixties.
Next we’re given the exact time, and a description of the atmosphere at that time of day:
The earliness of the hour meant that some of the parents who took their children there were sleepy and still without coffee, but with a clear sky the light struck the city at an extreme angle, the air was fresh, and it was an exceptionally cheerful time of day. It was the hour when cooks and doormen walk dogs, and when porters scrub the lobby floor mats with soap and water.
Finally, to round off the introductory paragraph, we’re given a taste of the social class we’re dealing with:
Traces of the night-the parents and children once watched a man whose tuxedo was covered with sawdust wander home-were scarce.
The second paragraph opens with a sentence that lets us know the fall semester is about to begin. Cheever never leaves setting to the imagination — apart from the fact that Shady Hill is a made-up suburb, he is usually very specific about what sort of people we’re reading about and where they live, and what the weather is doing.
This is a time in which black and white education is separate in America. Though some forward-looking individuals are starting to question the status quo, the majority of whites in this story are happy with segregation.
There are five children who board the bus at this story’s bus stop. The way they are introduced — some have given names while others go by non-specific monikers — show us the relationship to the narrator:
Louise and Emily Sheridan
The Pruitt boy
The little Armstrong girl
Mr Pruitt etc.
Mr. Pruitt brought his son to the corner each morning. They had the same tailor and they both tipped their hats to the ladies.
We now know that the narrator is male (though anyone who’s read Cheever will know that a first person narrator of is is more than likely to be male.)
We are then bombarded with the details of people we don’t know and can’t yet visualise. This is to provide verisimilitude — to help us to believe that this world really exists, because any real world situation would be peopled with characters such as these.
Mrs Sheridan’s is the first name to really stick, because the narrator gives us a bit more to hang onto with her. The detail of her repeated and emphatic ‘yes’es places her firmly in the reader’s mind:
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sheridan said, “yes.” She never gave a simple affirmative; she always said, “Oh yes, yes,” or “Oh yes, yes, yes.”
Again, I get the strong feeling that this narrator is writing with a male gaze. But as the paragraph continues, we see that the narrator is closely aligned with Mr Bruce, whose ‘male gaze’ we are privy to:
Mrs. Sheridan dressed plainly and her hair was marked with gray. She was not pretty or provocative, and compared to Mrs. Armstrong, whose hair was golden, she seemed plain; but her features were fine and her body was graceful and slender. She was a well-mannered woman of perhaps thirty-five, Mr. Bruce decided, with a well-ordered house and a perfect emotional digestion of those women who, through their goodness, can absorb anything. A great deal of authority seemed to underlie her mild manner. She would have been raised by solid people, Mr. Bruce thought, and would respect all the boarding-school virtues: courage, good sportsmanship, chastity, and honor. When he heard her say in the morning, “Oh yes, yes!” it seemed to him like a happy combination of manners and spirit.
Mrs Sheridan is probably the most sympathetic character to modern audiences — she has ‘aged’ the best. She is the forward-looking character, wanting to open up the conservative little white school to black students. How would the 1957 audience of The New Yorker have considered this issue? Racial segregation in schools was definitely a talking point, and had been since at least 1951, when Oliver Brown attempted to enrol his African American daughter into an all-white public school in Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that private schools such as St James in this story were required to end segregation.
We are encouraged to become suspicious of Mr Bruce’s intentions from the get-go:
Mr. Bruce, eavesdropping on their conversation, behind his newspaper … he was pleased, one morning, to get to the corner and find that Mrs. Sheridan was there with her two daughters and the dog, and that Pruitt wasn’t.
We soon find out Mr Bruce’s motivations: He is interested in getting to know Mrs Sheridan because he finds her sexually alluring. But he is not really interested in her as a person. He’s interested in her as a ‘catch’. He has already determined that she is recently bereaved due to the drowning of her young son, and that she has an unsatisfactory relationship with her own husband (after having seen them argue in public), and now he’s moving in for the kill:
She was excited at finding someone who seemed interested in her opinions, and she put herself at a disadvantage, as he intended she should, by talking too much. The deep joy we take in the company of people with whom we have just recently fallen in love is undisguisable, even to a purblind waiter, and they both looked wonderful.
We learn that Mr Bruce is the sort of man who is attracted to women in times of shortcoming, which may explain what has attracted him to Mrs Sheridan. The same thing had attracted him to his own wife, and we know that Lois is his second wife because Mrs Sheridan has told him that she had known of his first wife (Martha Chase) at university. We deduce that he is the sort of man who plays with saviour fantasies in his romantic relationships, but once he’s ‘fixed’ a woman, he moves on to the next one:
Lois had been frail when Mr. Bruce first met her. It had been one of her great charms. … “I forgot to tell you that Aunt Helen called on Wednesday. She’s moving from Gray’s Hill to a house nearer the shore.” He tried to find something to say to this item of news and couldn’t. After five years of marriage he seemed to have been left with nothing to say.
We are given an entire, lengthy paragraph about Lois’s shopping on Fifth Avenue, which I think must be designed to bore the reader, in order to encourage the reader to understand why Mr Bruce might find his current wife equally boring. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of representation of women that gave Cheever a reputation for his dismissal attitude towards women in general. His narrator makes sure to say that her extreme interest in shopping applies to a great number of women, underscoring a stereotype about how women just love shopping:
Lois Bruce, like a great many women in New York, spent a formidable amount of time shopping along Fifth Avenue.
To further align the reader with Mr Bruce, Lois Bruce goes on and on about her ailments; first her back, then about how she hasn’t been able to taste anything all week. We feel less than sorry for her because after all she has been able to immerse herself in nothing more frivolous than shopping, buying up all manner of luxury items. When Lois compliments the cook on the soup only after seeing that her husband likes it, this small exchange tells us that she lives via her husband — not only via his bank balance, but via his very experiences. This is a woman who has subsumed herself within marriage.
The strife between them is the classic Mars and Venus stuff (women need attention; men don’t give enough attention), and she deals with this in a passive aggressive manner:
The ghosts of her injured sex thronged to her side when she slammed open the silver drawer and again when she poured his beer. She set the tray elaborately, in order to deepen her displeasure in doing it at all. She heaped cold meat and salad on her husband’s plate as if they were poisoned. Then she fixed her lipstick and carried the heavy tray into the dining room herself, in spite of her lame back.
But then we are let inside Lois Bruce’s head, which makes her into a slightly more sympathetic character. As it turns out she, too, has a bit of a saviour complex. Birds of a feather get together:
DURING the next two months, Lois Bruce heard from a number of sources that her husband had been seen with a Mrs. Sheridan. She confided to her mother that she was losing him and, at her mother’s insistence, employed a private detective. Lois was not vindictive; she didn’t want to trap or intimidate her husband; she had, actually, a feeling that this maneuver would somehow be his salvation.
So, do readers align ourselves with the unfaithful couple, or with Mr Sheridan and Lois? It’s a rule of thumb that readers will empathise with the viewpoint characters. Another rule of thumb is that readers will enjoy reading about characters who are a little mischievous, even devious, as Mr Bruce is when he’s trying to ‘catch’ Mrs Sheridan. (The Trickster Trope is an oldie but a goodie.) And the way Cheever writes Mr Sheridan, of whom we’ve only seen the back of an angry, red neck, and Lois, who is a self-absorbed, privileged whiner of a wife, further encourages audience identification with Mr Bruce and Mrs Sheridan. Perhaps Cheever is testing our alliances here. If we find ourselves empathising with a pair of faithless individuals, what does that say about us, as fallible human beings?
Racial segregation exists in the backdrop to this story. Is Cheever asking readers to pick sides by endowing the romantic leads such different opinions on this matter? Which side are you on, boys? Is the title significant to this part of the story? Unlike when driving a car, when you’re on a bus you have to go where you’re taken, either by the driver or by the culture. The cloistered, white, upper-middle class world of the Sheridans and the Bruces cannot and will not continue as it has these last few decades. Perhaps the end of two marriages symbolise change in the wider world.
That they are aware of their affliction is everywhere made clear. In a story called “The Bus to St. James” a man watches his daughter in dancing school: “… It struck him that he and the company that crowded around him were all cut out of the same cloth. They were bewildered and confused in principle, too selfish or too unlucky to abide by the forms that guarantee the permanence of a society, as their fathers and mothers had done. Instead, they put the burden of order onto their children and filled their days with specious rites and ceremonies.”
Encounters with American Culture: Volume 2 (1973-1985) By Peter S. Prescott
THE APPLE NEVER FALLS FAR FROM THE TREE
I can see the influence on Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, in the following scene from this story:
“Oh, and I forgot to tell youthere’s been some trouble,” she said crossly. “Katherine spent the afternoon with Helen Woodruff and some other children. There were some boys. When the maid went into the playroom to call them for supper, she found them all undressed. Mrs. Woodruff was very upset and I told her you’d call.”
When Sally Draper is caught masturbating by Betty, it follows a scene in which Betty has been doing the same thing, only seemingly without realising it, against the washing machine. When Sally catches her father in flagrante delicto with his neighbour this precedes Sally’s foray into boarding school trouble, and eventually, on a station platform, Don Draper tells his daughter that she is exactly like her parents and will never be able to get away from that fact.
The comparison continues with the symbolism of the rats in a cage, which Mr Bruce smells when he enters his daughter’s room.
This is Cheever’s central theme (as it is Fitzgerald’s in The Great Gatsby): those who are busy climbing ladders, or digging in their heels on the top rungs of those ladders, leave it to others to pick up afterwards — to the maids, for instance, in “The Bus to St. James,” who pick up the peanuts from the rug.
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination By Robert Coles
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
More than in his previous stories, Cheever switches point of view in this story, using a mixture of close-third person (first aligned to Mr Bruce and then to Mrs Sheridan), then moving the camera in and out of their heads, sometimes to view the couple from the edge of a cafe, as a casual observer:
One of her daughters had a mild case of measles, she said, and [INSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD] Mr. Bruce was interested in the symptoms. But he looked [OUTSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD], for a man who claimed to be interested in childhood diseases, bilious and vulpine. His color was bad. He scowled and rubbed his forehead as if he suffered from a headache. He repeatedly wet his lips and crossed and recrossed his legs. Presently, his uneasiness seemed to cross the table. During the rest of the time they sat there, the conversation was about commonplace subjects, but an emotion for which they seemed to have no words colored the talk and darkened and enlarged its shapes. She did not finish her dessert. She let her coffee get cold. For a while, neither of them spoke. [OBSERVING THE COUPLE FROM ACROSS THE CAFE] A stranger, noticing them in the restaurant, might have thought that they were a pair of old friends who had met to discuss a misfortune.
In writing groups, this is often referred to as ‘head-hopping’, and is seen as a bad thing, but it’s not. The reader is perfectly capable of dealing with this shift in point-of-view, providing it’s done seamlessly like this. If there is a dramatic shift in point of view (say from Mrs Sheridan to Mr Bruce) there will be a double carriage return, accompanied by a transitionary phrase such as:
MR. BRUCE returned to a much pleasanter home.
(thereby presenting us with a comparison).
WITHHOLDING SNIPPETS OF INFORMATION TO MAKE THE READER WONDER, BRIEFLY, WHAT’S HAPPENING
When Lois hires the private investigator to track down her husband, we see her leave the house and go around to someone’s apartment. Though we’re fairly sure she’s going to confront her husband, we’re not sure. I wondered briefly if she, herself, had a man on the side when she knocks on the door screaming, ‘Stephen!’ This is because we haven’t been told the given name of Mr Bruce. We soon find out that indeed this is her own husband she’s referring to, but because she yells, ‘Stephen Bruce!’ I’m in no doubt that Cheever knew exactly what he was doing. (He inserted the full name because he knew we’d be wondering who Stephen is.)
[Cheever’s] stories can be read as chronicles of how the struggle between good and evil impulses unfolds in the lives of people of varied temperaments and shortcomings — usually, though not always, amid the complex social rituals of upper middle-class American protestant society. Johnny Hake [sic — it was Francis Weed] in “The Country Husband,” Asa Bascomb in “The World Of Apples,” Mr. Bruce in “The Bus to St. James’s” — all these Cheever creations are involved in prurient escapades or exploitative behaviour, and it is Cheever’s gift to chart with great precision of language their experiences as they try to reconcile their actions and impulses with their consciences. In each of these stories, Cheever explores the tension between what he once referred to as our erotic nature and our social nature.
The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story edited by Blanche H. Gelfant, Lawrence Graver
WRITE YOUR OWN
Vince Gilligan did a similar thing to audiences — new on TV — when he created a morally upright citizen then turned Walt right around to expose him as a thoroughly nasty individual. This tested the audience, possibly even more than Gilligan himself could predict — and I now consider Breaking Bad to be somewhat of a barometer of a viewer’s misogyny. (A large proportion of viewers never lost empathy for Walter White at all, instead wishing the annoying but far more innocent wives dead instead — I met one such viewer in a doctor’s waiting room.)
Cheever has done a similar thing here (consciously or not?), though on a much smaller scale: He uses the usual writer tricks to foster empathy in Stephen Bruce then has him do bad things. He passes no moral judgement. We’ve seeing a lot of stories like this recently — we are now in the era of the antihero, especially in American TV.
When the book is finished I immediately lose interest in the characters. And I never make moral judgments. All I would say is that a person was droll, or gay, or, above all, a bore. Making judgments for or against my characters bores me enormously; it doesn’t interest me at all. The only morality for a novelist is the morality of his esthétique. I write the books, they come to an end, and that’s all that concerns me.
How can the antihero be put to good purpose? How can we create empathy in a morally corrupt character to lead the audience to some sort of empathy about human nature in general? Or about themselves?
In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats. The stars are ordinary heroes, or to use Northrop Frye’s terms, mimetic heroes. Compared to detective stories there are fewer suspects in thriller stories (though the word ‘thriller‘ is used by Hollywood to mean anything that gets the heart racing).
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CURE”
From The New Yorker:
The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.
The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story — theirs is a surface level summary, avoiding spoilers. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true, within the world of the story?
SETTING OF “THE CURE”
Critics like to divide Cheever’s stories into:
New York stories
But “The Cure” fits into none of those categories. It is about a man crossing the boundaries between New York, where he works, and the suburbs, where he lives. Some critics call this an ‘exurban’ story.
I was in a neighborhood where most of the front doors were unlocked, and on a street that is very quiet on a summer night. All the animals are domesticated, and the only night birds that I’ve ever heard are some owls way down by the railroad track. So it was very quiet.
This is also a story about a man who crosses a different kind of border: Not only between urban and suburban life, but between day-life and night-life, and sanity to madness.
It is the early 1950s when this story is published, though the narrator is writing of events long ago. He is reminded of the Depression at one point, so this story probably takes place sometime between about 1930 and 1950.
More than in other Cheever stories, the season is emphasised in this story as if symbolically significant. It is a very summery story — the reader feels the heat, and hears the sounds and smells the smells of the season. Is the season important to the story? Yes, in the sense that it allows for more outdoor living and longer evenings. Just as importantly, The New Yorker published this story in July, at the height of the Northern Hemisphere summer, and probably wanted to publish something seasonally appropriate.
THIS HAPPENED in the summer. I remember that the weather was very hot, both in New York and in the suburb where we live. […] I was glad that the separation took place in the summer because my job is most exacting at that time of year and I’m usually too tired to think of anything else at night, and because I’d noticed that summer was for me the easiest season of the year to live through alone.
Of equal significance: This turns into a story of ‘the night’. The narrator goes from being a day person to a night person.
I had never had anything to do with night people, but I know that they exist […] I was very sleepy the next day, but I got my work done and dozed on the train coming home. […] The sky and the light and everything else seemed dim and remote, as if I saw it all from a great distance. […] It was about two o’clock on a sunny afternoon but it seemed dark to me.
The night becomes a symbol for his descent into darkness/depression/madness. Notice how many times in the following paragraph Cheever uses the phrase ‘I lay in the dark’:
It was after four then, and I lay in the dark, listening to the rain and to the morning trains coming through. They come from Buffalo and Chicago and the Far West, through Albany and down along the river in the early morning, and at one time or another I’ve traveled on most of them, and I lay in the dark thinking about the polar air in the Pullman cars and the smell of nightclothes and the taste of dining-car water and the way it feels to end a day in Cleveland or Chicago and begin another in New York, particularly after you’ve been away for a couple of years, and particularly in the summer. I lay in the dark imagining the dark cars in the rain, and the tables set for breakfast, and the smells.
As I read through the first time, I expected this story to end in suicide. We are encouraged into this reading, first with the obvious clue, then with the narrator’s slightly later realization:
I remember that I took a bath and put on pajamas and lay down. As soon as I shut my eyes, I saw this rope. It had a hangman’s noose at the end of it, but I’d known all along what Grace Harris had been talking about; she’d had a premonition that I would hang myself. The rope seemed to come down slowly into my consciousness.
As readers we’re trained to suspend disbelief when it comes to old women who can predict the future, even if we wouldn’t accept such supernatural stuff in real life. So when Grace Harris tells the narrator that she sees a rope around his neck, I am led to believe his descent will end in suicide. (Much like Mad Men, in fact, which apparently owes a lot to Cheever.) In other words, this is a form of foreshadowing. Why is he cashing a check for such a large amount? Why is he buying a suit?
I went to the Corn Exchange Bank and cashed a check for five hundred dollars. Then I went to Brooks Brothers and bought some neckties and a box of cigars and went upstairs to look at suits.
This is the New York where other people’s children are tangentially suffering from polio. When divorce was a rare and terrible thing. Polio has nothing to do with the plot, but is mentioned, perhaps as a way to place the story in time. Since men don’t cook they must eat steak at a bar if they’re to eat at all. The starkly gendered division of labour means a stable marriage is even more vital to one’s well-being. Instead of watching TV or surfing the net, evenings are spent at the drive-in theatre. Men are drinking martinis in the evenings. Readers might have been enjoying the work of Lin Yutang, as Rachel had done. Lin Yutang is best known for his book The Importance of Living, and I’m guessing this is the book the narrator is meant to have picked up when he couldn’t sleep.
CHARACTERS IN “THE CURE”
The Unnamed Narrator
Why is this narrator unnamed? (Must there be a reason?) If there’s a reason, it’s probably because this man has lost himself. Without his wife and family he is no one, descending slowly into a kind of madness.
The vast majority of Cheever’s stories are written in the third person, but this one is told by a character as narrator. Since this is not Cheever’s modus operandi, we might naturally ask: To what extent is this narrator reliable?
The final sentence turns this short story into a kind of newsy letter, as if to an extended family member:
Mr. Marston has never stood outside our house in the dark, although I’ve seen him often enough on the station platform and at the country club. His daughter Lydia is going to be married next month, and his sallow wife was recently cited by one of the national charities for her good works. Everyone here is well.
His psychological shortcoming is that he is lonely. His moral shortcoming is that he is paranoid, blaming a neighbour for peeping at him through the window with little in the way of evidence. On the other hand, he shows he is capable of compassion when it suits him:
I guessed that he was probably some cracked old man from the row of shanties by the railroad tracks, and perhaps because of my determination, my need, to put a pleasant, or at least a calm, face on everything, I even managed to think compassionately of the old man who was driven, in senescence, to leave his home and wander at night in a strange neighborhood, at the mercy of dogs and policemen […] I thought of the poor prowler and his long walk home through the storm.
Though the New Yorker snippet summarises the surface level goings-on in this story, if you read it, it’s unclear as to whether Peeping Tom even exists, or if the narrator is imagining a face at the window, then telling himself it is the face of one of his neighbours. Perhaps he’s seeing his very own face? There is a phenomenon called “mirrored-self misidentification“. Basically, it’s when you look into the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. You actually think it’s another person. In children’s literature, New Zealand author touches on this phenomenon in her young adult novel The Changeover. Although this delusion is associated with head injury, dementia and mental illnesses, I do think most people can identify with it to some degree. Don’t all of us have a moment where we look into the mirror and we look much older than we feel? Or more tired, or perhaps we’re struck by how good looking we are? Or we catch ourselves at a different angle and realise our nose looks different from how we imagined. Looking at oneself for the first time in one of those three-way mirrors can have a similar effect.
The following writer interprets Tom as an hallucination, as I do:
In “The Cure” we see Rachel already separated from her husband. Twice before they had separated and the second time they had divorced and remarried. Her husband, though agreeing that it was a “carnal and disastrous marriage” is unable to bear loneliness. It starts pulling on him, giving him hallucinations, he even imagines a peeping Tom at nights whom he cannot shoo away. The only cure seems to be to get Rachel back — the errant on the right track. But in “The Country Husband” the protagonist goes off at a tangent since he is unable to communicate properly. He meets death very closely as his plane crashes. He wants to narrate this first to his neighbours then to his wife and children who are all unable to register his extraordinary experience.
from Uncovering Greyness In John Cheever’s Stories
Certainly we are given enough evidence that the narrator is not of entirely sound mind.
Tom didn’t appear-or I wasn’t conscious of him-until they had been gone for about two weeks, but her departure and his arrival seemed connected.
While cats are known to wander, I’m suspicious about the dog — did the pets leave out of neglect?
There were a few minor symptoms of domestic disorder. First the dog and then the cat ran away.
Perhaps sleeplessness is contributing to the narrator’s unsound mind:
But I don’t sleep very well in an empty bed, and presently I had the problem of sleeplessness to cope with. When I got home from the movies, I would fall asleep, but only for a couple of hours. I tried to make the best of insomnia.
without lifting my eyes from the book, I knew not only that I was being watched but that I was being watched from the picture window at the end of the living room, by someone whose intent was to watch me and to violate my privacy.
The narrator may have trampled on his own flower bed the previous night while looking for the ‘mysterious footstepper’:
There is a flower bed under the narrow window. I looked at this with the flashlight, and he had been there, all right. There were footprints in the dirt, and he’d stepped on some of the flowers.
The policeman has never had reports of a prowler, which is not proof that there isn’t one, but nor is it good evidence. If the prowler’s activities have been in the news, the narrator may have read about the prowler, which then fuelled his delusion:
Then [the policeman] said that the village, since its incorporation in 1916, had never had such a complaint registered. He spoke with that understandable pride that we all take in the neighborhood.
The following sentence might be interpreted as symbolic. If only the narrator could work his way out of his madness, then the stranger would disappear:
I thought that if I could disengage the stranger from the night, from the dark, everything would be all right.
And it may not take much to send him over the edge:
I stood beside an old gentleman who was describing to a friend the regularity of his habits, and I had a strong impulse to crown him with a bowl of popcorn
Perhaps the best evidence that there is no stalker — that the man in the darkness is in fact himself — is that we find out on Madison Ave when he follows the housewife that he is capable of stalking in his own right. (He’s ‘stalking’ his wife.)
Like the main character of “The Chaste Clarissa”, and a number of other protagonists in Cheever’s stories, this guy does not see women as fully human. Once past their youth, women are uninteresting to him:
That night, I decided to stay in town and go to a cocktail party. It was in an apartment in one of the tower hotels-way, way, way up. As soon as I got there, I went out onto the terrace, looking around for someone to take to dinner. What I wanted was a pretty girl in new shoes, but it looked as if all the pretty girls had stayed at the shore. There was a gray-haired woman out there, and a woman with a floppy hat, and Grace Harris, this actress I’ve met a couple of times.
What else has he done to women? What might he do? His description of this woman emphasises her fragility, as if he’s sizing her up for an attack:
She had fair hair and the kind of white skin that looks like thin paper. It was a very hot day but she looked cool, as if she had been able to preserve, through the train ride in from Rye or Greenwich, the freshness of her bath. Her arms and her legs were beautiful, but the look on her face was sensible, humorous, even housewifely, and this sensible air seemed to accentuate the beauty of her arms and legs. She walked over and rang for the elevator. I walked over and stood beside her. We rode down together, and I followed her out of the store onto Madison Avenue. The sidewalk was crowded, and I walked beside her. She looked at me once, and she knew that I was following her, but I felt sure she was the kind of woman who would not readily call for help. She waited at the corner for the light to change. I waited beside her. It was all I could do to keep from saying to her, very, very softly, “Madame, will you please let me put my hand around your ankle? That’s all I want to do, madame. It will save my life.” She didn’t look around again, but I could see that she was frightened. She crossed the street and I stayed at her side, and all the time a voice inside my head was pleading, “Please let me put my hand around your ankle. It will save my life. I just want to put my hand around your ankle. I’ll be very happy to pay you.” I took out my wallet and pulled out some bills. Then I heard someone behind me calling my name. I recognized the hearty voice of an advertising salesman who is in and out of our office.
Characters who are not there, or who have been there, are as important in a short story as characters ‘on the stage’. We might call these influential backstories ghosts. (Events and places and pretty much anything can serve as a ghost.) In this case we have Rachel, upon whom our narrator’s happiness seems to depend. Is Rachel — her ‘second coming’ — part of the narrator’s hallucination? If he can imagine peeping Toms at the window and starts reading things into people’s faces that aren’t there, it’s more than possible that he wholly imagines the phone call from Rachel. Making this even more likely, he has earlier presented (from his own made-up examples) some scenarios in which Rachel might call him, which is why he takes the phone off the hook in the first place. Coincidentally (or not) those are the exact reasons she calls him.
[BEGINNING OF STORY] I decided not to answer the telephone, because I knew that Rachel might repent, and I knew, by then, the size and the nature of the things that could bring us together. If it rained for five days, if one of the children had a passing fever, if she got some sad news in a letter-anything like this might be enough to put her on the telephone, and I did not want to be tempted to resume a relationship that had been so miserable.
[END OF STORY] “Oh, my darling!” I shouted when I heard Rachel’s voice. “Oh, my darling! Oh, my darling!” She was crying. She was at Seal Harbor, It had rained for a week, and Tobey had a temperature of a hundred and four.
THEME OF “THE CURE”
Cheever seems to be saying something about happiness in this story, and I suppose it depends on the reader, what exactly that thing is:
Cheever’s stories are stories that make us ask ourselves how happy we are. They are stories that make us confront our demons, our hushed fears, our secret shames. They are stories (like “The Cure” and “Seaside Houses”) full of quiet despair.
Life is full of ups and downs. Descent into despair can just as easily turn for the better, preceding many years of happiness. (With a moral thrown in for good measure: So don’t give up, and hang yourself with a rope.)
Even if you’re terribly unhappy, you can conjure up a completely different life for yourself by imagining your life how you wish it were. Failing that, write about your imagined better life to relatives in an attempt to fool yourself.
What is ‘the cure’, exactly? Reaching such depths of despair that you start having hallucinations to make yourself feel better?
Like the previous story in this collection, and perhaps the previous story that Cheever wrote — “The Chaste Clarissa” — this story delves into the disconnect between appearances and reality, making “The Cure” a kind of evolution on “The Chaste Clarissa”:
The belief that a crooked heart is betrayed by palsies, tics, and other infirmities dies hard. I felt the loss of it that morning when I searched his face for some mark. He looked solvent, rested, and moral-much more so than Chucky Ewing, who was job hunting, or Larry Spencer, whose son had polio, or any of a dozen other men on the platform waiting for the train. Then I looked at his daughter, Lydia. Lydia is one of the prettiest girls in our neighborhood. I’d ridden in on the train with her once or twice and I knew that she was doing voluntary secretarial work for the Red Cross. She had on a blue dress that morning, and her arms were bare, and she looked so fresh and pretty and sweet that I wouldn’t have embarrassed or hurt her for anything in the world. Then I looked at Mrs. Marston, and if the mark was anywhere, it was on her face, although I don’t understand why she should be afflicted for her husband’s waywardness. It was very hot, but Mrs. Marston had on a brown suit and a worn fur piece. Her face was sallow and plain, but it was wreathed, even while she watched for the morning train, in an impermeable smile. It was a face that must have seemed, long ago, cut out for violent, even malevolent, passion. But years of prayer and abstinence had expunged the inclination to violence, I thought, leaving only a few ugly lines at the mouth and the eyes and rewarding Mrs. Marston with an air of adamant and fetid sweetness.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE CURE”
In this short story, Cheever demonstrates the technique of the ‘sentence level surprise’. Surprise in general is essential in any good story. Plot = surprise. And surprise should happen at the macro and at the micro level. When the narrator bends down towards the hand prints his children have left on the wall, we expect him to wipe them off. But he kisses them. This isn’t entirely unexpected — the reader is already aware of his increasing loneliness and desperation, but at a sentence level, that’s not what we expect, especially when it’s hot on the heels of a borderline sociopathic stalking incident.
As soon as I stepped into the living room, I noticed on the wall some dirty handprints that had been made by the children before they went away. They were near the baseboard and I had to get down on my knees to kiss them
At the story level, it comes as a complete surprise (to this reader, anyhow) that the narrator is happy, reunited with his wife and children, living in the suburbs for many years since.
In my edition of collected short stories, the page breaks before the word ‘drunk’, but I’m sure this is just a coincidence of printing and page layout:
Then I came home one night and found Maureen, the maid, dead drunk.
Naturally, I thought he’d found the maid dead.
Here’s the thing about unreliable narrators: The ‘ghost’ is very important. Sure enough, our narrator also has a ghost. (See above.)
Some people tell writers to avoid adjectives like the plague, that they weaken the prose. But adjectives do have their uses, as demonstrated by Cheever in this story. Specifically, his use of ‘fiercely uninvested adjectives’. As Douglas Bauer says in his book on craft, The Stuff Of Fiction:
John Cheever’s story “The Cure” beautifully illustrates the characteristics of narrative precision and restraint. It is one of Cheever’s classic portraits of life in exurban New York, that country of rueful courtesies and decorous longing he made ineffably his own. The story begins with the narrator telling us:
My wife and I had a quarrel, and Rachel took the children and drove off in the station wagon. Tom didn’t appear-or I wasn’t conscious of him-until they had been gone for about two weeks, but her departure and his arrival seemed connected. Rachel’s departure was meant to be final. She had left me twice before-the second time, we divorced and then remarried-and I watched her go each time with a feeling that was far from happy, but also with that renewal of self-respect, of nerve, that seems to be the reward for accepting a painful truth. As I say, it was summer, and I was glad, in a way, that she had picked this time to quarrel. It seemed to spare us both the immediate necessity of legalizing our separation. We had lived together-on and off-for thirteen years: we had three children and some involved finances. I guessed that she was content, as I was, to let things ride until September or October.
We immediately hear in the narrator’s account a tone of extraordinary, even eerie dispassion that is at odds, to say the least, with the circumstances he is describing. He presumes his marriage is ending, that his children will be taken from him, that he will be forced to leave the comfort and history of his house, and yet he offers all this to us in a voice of resoundingly practical detachment. I particularly admire Cheever’s use of the pallid and almost offhand “glad”, with which the narrator twice characterizes his feelings about his wife’s choice of summer as the season for departure. Glad? we think. He may as well be confirming a Sunday morning tee time. Oh, good, I’m glad it’s ten. That’ll leave me time to clean out the garage.
This very mismatch of events and the abandoned husband’s apparent attitude toward them conveys not the absence, but the nearly palpable denial of emotion. In other words, feeling, sentiment, is very much present from the outset, but thoroughly tamped down, creating a mood of disquieting emotional unreliability. We feel sentiment in these sentences not because it is displayed but because it is under such repressive pressure we can sense the struggle required to keep it from escaping. Were the narrator to launch his story with a wail, some high keening of distress, the tone might at first sound more recognizable and seem more understandable to us but would quickly lose its strength and interest simply because it was, in our reflexive predetermination of how these domestic traumas affect those involved so much the sound we assumed we would hear. I do not believe it would produce the same energetic sentiment, the tension and curiosity, as does Cheever’s narrative restraint, which he accomplishes by giving the husband a voice of discordant calm. This voice, perfectly pitched, continues as the narrator explains his rational plan for passing the summer nights alone.
Logical as his decisions may be, affectless as is the tone in which they are explained, we recognize in the motives behind them the emotional turmoil he is so determined to keep dormant. Furthermore we begin to learn that he recognizes it, too. I knew enough to avoid the empty house in summer dusk. In other words, the texture of sentiment in the story is, with masterful subtlety, becoming gradually its surface as well as its substratum.
At this point the story takes a turn as the gathering strength of his loneliness and sorrow competes with his refusal to look directly at it. Waking in the the night and unable to get back to sleep, he goes downstairs to read. “Our living room is comfortable. The book seemed interesting.” (The fiercely uninvested adjectives, the reportorial flatness continues.) And then, after a few minutes,
I heard, very close to me, a footstep and a cough. I felt my flesh get hard — you know the feeling — but didn’t look up from my book, although I felt that I was being watched. … Then a fear, much worse than the fear of the fool outside the window, distracted me. I was afraid that the cough and the step and the feeling I was being watched had come from my imagination. I looked up.
I saw him all right, and I think he meant me to; he was grinning.
For the first time in the story real emotion explicitly appears on the narrative surface. (Being “glad” earlier, or his offering that he “likes” the house he’s about to lose — these hardly count.) Not only does it appear, he labels it for us and in so doing acknowledges that it has. More than that, he confesses that he wonders if he’s hearing and seeing things, a deeper admission that what’s going on inside him is considerably more turbulent than he’s insisted.
This short story reminds me a little of the children’s novel from the exact same year, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (of The Hundred Dresses fame). Though this is a children’s book through and through, it’s also a family drama with the crime subplot of what Estes calls ‘a mysterious footstepper’. This footstepper wears an old, mustard-yellow hat and the children are not sure whether he is even real or not. Their theory is that he is after their new puppy.
Incongruously, this story also reminds me a little of the harrowing short story by Mary Gaitskill that appeared in the New Yorker many years after this one. This time, Gaitskill gets into the mind of a rapist. I’m reminded of that story because of the scene in which Cheever’s narrator follows a woman because he wants to put his hands around her ankle, and continues to follow her down the street knowing that she is unnerved — in fact, he has picked her because she seems to be the type who wouldn’t cause him any grief should he molest her. This is a very uncomfortable scene, but Gaitskill crafted an entire short story out of this kind of ‘discomfort’.
You can listen to Jennifer Egan read Gaitskill’s story The Other Placehere.
Cheever’s brief here might have been ‘to write a newsy letter reassuring a relative that all is well, but give the reader more than enough information to wonder how on earth things can be well.’ This is a story of one man’s descent into madness. Has he resurfaced?
In the short story anthology Certifiable Truths: stories of love and madness, edited by Jane Messer, Messer says in the introduction that so many of the ‘crazy’ stories had to do with love, which explains the subtitle. In Cheever’s story, too, the narrator’s delusional experiences are as a result of lost love. Are there other things in life that can lead to such acts? Or is love/lost love indeed the best desire-line to go with?
In order to paint your narrator as unreliable, make use of surprise at every level, and don’t forget to make use of your folder of ‘fiercely uninvested adjectives’.
Theorists have been interested for a long while in the question: What makes a story? Aristotle noticed in The Poetics that a plot must allow for a significant change in the fortune of a main character.
But you’ve surely read stories in which characters don’t seem to change at all. Perhaps that’s why you’re here, reading this.
Here’s what I’ve noticed: Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.
Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).
This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:
Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.
Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.
The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.
The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.
How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.
If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.
Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.
The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction
While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:
A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth
Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.
—The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer
CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF STORY
Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting
Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.
But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”
The Influence of HBO
Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:
Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.
That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s big struggle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that big struggle—the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]
It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]
“Everything changed” after 9/11.”
“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]
the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behaviour, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.
Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad
CASE STUDY: A CHARACTER WHO DOES NOT CHANGE
To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as cliches. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien.
Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falls in love with – the daughter, whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually, almost casually, shot.
The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront.
That would be the convention and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction of the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.
Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories
CASE STUDY: ONE CHARACTER CHANGES; THE OTHER DOES NOT
Milepost character. A character who is absolutely unchanging throughout a story. A focus character’s different perspectives on him or him show us, in emotional parallax, how the focus character has changed. Examples include Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Bill Ferry in Lord of the Rings.
Another example is Don Draper of Mad Men. As soon as Don Draper starts to show he’s really undergone any sort of epiphany, the series ends. Don’s unwillingness to get with the times serves to underscore the massive changes experienced by Peggy and Joan.
CHARACTER DRIVEN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Stories about character change are called ‘character driven’. The inverse is ‘plot driven’.
There has…been a notable shift in Western children’s fiction, beginning in the 1960s, toward a more profound interest in character, toward psychological, character-oriented children’s novels. In many contemporary novels for children, we observe a disintegration of the plot in its traditional meaning; nothing really “happens.” There is no beginning or end in the usual sense, no logical development toward a climax and denouement; the story may seem to be arbitrarily cut from the character’s life, or is even more often a mosaic of bits arbitrarily glued together.
Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
This isn’t to say plot is no longer of central concern.
Travel time. A component of pacing. Characters don’t reverse important decisions in their personalities overnight. The emotional distance a character travels should generally be proportionate to the amount of travel time — measured in words — the change requires.
When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.
In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time
Robert Penn Warren
When Writing Epics
Humans are actually terrible at predicting and controlling how they will react and feel at some later date, but we keep trying anyway, we keep promising anyway, and loving anyway, and it’s beautiful, really, I love that about us, but it means that people change their minds about important things all the time, especially as we age and our limitless potential is slowly replaced with a series of actions which can be double-checked against our words.
Symmetry matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive.
Next time you’re reading (or writing) something, you might think of character change in the form of a mirror.
Change is the root of all drama.
Some characters have a deficiency of knowledge rather than a ‘flaw’ or a ‘moral shortcoming’. This is particularly true of child characters, whose main ‘flaw’ is being young and inexperienced. It is also true of a character such as Inspector Morse who knows nothing of a killer at the beginning of his journey but everything by the end. Child characters are quite similar to genre fiction characters.
At the midpoint main characters start to really understand the nature of forces against them. This is when the identities of baddies are revealed, usually, if they’ve been hidden at the beginning.
At the midpoint the main character holds the solution to the mission in their hands. If it’s a detective film, this information changes the story completely. If it’s a thriller the midpoint marks the end of the ‘outward’ journey to achieve the goal and marks the beginning of the journey back.
The midpoint of each story is the moment when each main character embraces for the first time the quality they will need to become complete and finish their story. It’s when they discover a truth about themselves. In an archetypal (three dimensional/memorable) story, that truth will be an embodiment of everything that’s the direct opposite of the person they were. The main character will embrace that truth and attempt to assimilate and understand it in the second half of the tale. The character learns what they themselves are capable of.
In what John Yorke calls a ‘two dimensional story’ (that would include ongoing series such as Courage the Cowardly Dog or Seinfeld), the main character learns the truth about the adversary.
All stories at some level are about a search for the truth of the subject they are exploring. Just as the act of perception involves seeking out the ‘truth’ of the thing perceived, so storytelling mimics that process. The ‘truth’ of the story, then, lies at the midpoint. The main character’s action at this point will be to overcome that obstacle, assimilate that truth and begin the journey back — the journey to understand the implications of what that ‘truth’ really means.
If the main character in a story doesn’t change, there’s no story.
It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:
The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
The novelistic, limited series which runs for perhaps 5 or 6 seasons at most.
The storytelling in each looks quite different.
When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.
There are four classic endings to a story:
purely tragic [Breaking Bad, Your Honor]
positive with irony where the character gets what they want but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
tragic with irony where they lose everything but learn something [Big Love]
Those are the classic tonalities of endings.
Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.
All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.
The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.
I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.
Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’:
What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore? That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.
A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.
For months AMC has been beating the drums for the so-called “last” Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln episode. And as it came time to hunker down for Sunday’s “What Comes After,” speculation ran rampant on how our leading man would exit the zombie apocalypse.
Would he remain impaled on that rebar spike and simply bleed out? (Too easy).
Would he become zombie-chow for the two hordes of walkers coming his way? (Too lame).
Would Negan somehow escape and kill him? (Too convenient).
Would he realize his dream of an ideal society was crumbling and simply ride off into the sunset? (Too undramatic).
Or would he, as gamesradar.com had listed among its scenarios, be accidentally killed by little Judith after she somehow got ahold of a gun? (Too horrifying).