Humour In Children’s Stories

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these eleven categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only eleven categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor.

Robert Benchley

Humor is just truth, only faster!

Gilda Radner

So, why analyse humour?

I’m pretty geeky about comedy and am forensic about what makes a joke work, so I’m able to put things in my books that I won’t find funny but can be confident others will. 

Maz Evans via Charlotte Eyre’s publishing newsletter

By age seven, children begin to appreciate language play such as riddles, puns, and jokes as they develop the ability to restructure mentally events and objects in novel ways and begin to understand reversals, double entendre, and the different perspectives of characters.

Playing with Words, “Dav Pilkey’s Literary Success in Humorous Language

1. IRONY

First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. […] In relaxed, friendly talk, speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else, thus maintaining a play frame.

Jennifer Coates

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, though that has recently been revised right down to about 3. This may say something about our heavily ironic culture.

The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here, especially when it comes to ‘hipster irony’ -ie. being mean, but not really being mean, because everyone knows we’re not mean people, right?

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience‘ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is sitting alongside the child.

  • Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.
  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator pointing it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is describes a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. Sometimes the audience knows more than the character. This kind of dramatic irony is called ‘reader superior position’. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself. Then there’s reader inferior dramatic irony. This is less useful in comedy, but is especially common in certain genres such as heist, where the audience is constantly two steps behind the characters and their plans.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does. The younger the reader, the more you should make use of reader superior irony. Young kids are still working out the world and they need to feel smart. I can’t think of an example of reader inferior irony in humorous picture books.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.
spongebob squarepants ironic distance
Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.
ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog
ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog

Less specifically, ironic jokes would include:

  • A character tries to fix something but ends up making it worse. For instance in the We Bare Bears pilot a spider hanging from a tree is dealt with by kicking the tree. Hundreds of other spiders fall down from the tree. Ironic because the character aimed for one result but got the (exaggerated) opposite. (Irony combined with hyperbole.) Oliver Jeffers uses the same combo in Stuck.
  • In teen stories irony is often sarcastic.
This scene from 90210 is ironic because the speaker is saying something nice and awful at the same time. Also an example of juxtaposition.

2. CHARACTER HUMOUR

Comedic character acting on personality traits

In order for this to work, the audience needs to think in terms of stereotypes or, more kindly, in terms of archetypes. Alternatively, the audience has to know (or feel they know) a character so well that they are able to think, “How very typical of [Character].”

  • In the Wimpy Kid books, the older brother Rodrick is set up as a dimwit but every now and then he says or does something really smart. This is both a ‘character’ and an ‘irony’ joke.
  • We feel we know Pig The Pug as soon as we meet him — he is the kid who hogs all the toys. We love it when he gets his just desserts.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers relies on the reader identifying the boy in the story as a self-involved bossy pants.
  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd is an archetypal villain but with a soft side. This relies on irony as well as character humour.
  • Z Is For Moose stars a moose who has a meltdown because he isn’t given the opportunity to be the centre of attention for a minute. The stereotype is familiar — the narcissist stage actor.
  • In The Extraordinary Diary of Pig, character humour comes from a pig doing human-like things with his pig’s body, e.g. crossing his trotters for luck. This kind of humour is common in humorous stories featuring humans in animal bodies, and is one of the reasons animals are so often used instead of people in children’s stories.
This cartoon from Poorly Drawn Lines takes the animal character joke one step further, blending the category of ‘misplaced focus’.
  • Some character humour can tip into plain meanness. In Dog Days (Wimpy Kid series), Greg goes to the local pool and notes in his diary that someone should tell one of the neighbourhood women not to wear a swimsuit at eight months pregnant (due to its being too grotesque). While a kind reader puts this down to Greg’s character flaw — he is on the verge of adolescence and terrified of adult bodies, including the hairy bodies of the men in the changing room — this kind of humour matches (and models) schoolyard body shaming and bullying. I prefer to avoid books with this kind of humour. Which leads to the problem: If you want to write a mean-spirited character, how do you do it without promoting/triggering unpleasant memories of mean-spiritedness? It’s a fine line. Bear in mind that Jeff Kinney originally wrote Wimpy Kid for adults, aiming for a Wonder Years type story. It was his publisher who repurposed it for children. Meanspirited but funny characters are a surefire hit with kids, who see far more insulting interactions in their day at school than any typical adult.
  • In children’s stories as well as in playground chants, teachers and other adult figures of authority are often the butt of the joke. In a picture book such as The Book Without Pictures by B.J. Novak, the joy comes from hearing the adult reader saying ridiculous things.

3. REFERENCE HUMOUR

Common experiences that audiences can relate to

Romantic Rejection. A lot of the Wimpy Kid humour is about rejection from girls that Greg Heffley sees as potential girlfriends.

Parental Wishes Conflicting With Child Wishes. The Wimpy Kid stories are also about the conflict that arises when you want to play on your computer all day in your own room but your mother wants you to do family bonding exercises and force you into ‘fun’ activities that are fun for her but not for you. A lot of adolescents can surely relate to this. Less specifically, kids can really identify with lack of freedom.

Obviously, stories for toddlers and preschoolers must refer to experiences shared by children of that age.

  • Chatterbox is a familiar story about waiting and waiting for a baby to learn to talk, then wishing they’d shut the hell up as soon as they start.
  • Harry The Dirty Dog plays on a childhood dislike of baths.
  • Z Is For Moose is funny because we’re watching a toddler (Moose) having a massive tantrum after being left out of a show.

That said, picture books sometimes appeal to a distinctly adult experience. Mr Chicken Goes To Paris relies on the incongruity of a large chicken doing all the typical touristy things in Paris. Adults will recognise the type of holiday, as well as the tedium of sitting through someone’s photos of it. The story’s interest comes solely from the fact that our tourist is a big chicken. This is hat on the dog type humour and because adults identify with the experience of tourism, Leigh Hobbs appeals to a dual audience.

Another type of reference humour is cultural. In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the brown bear (Grizz) suggests that the panda knows kung-fu, something he has in his favour when it comes to dating. The panda says that actually he does not know kung-fu. We are thus reminded of the Kung-fu Panda franchise of children’s films from DreamWorks. We feel ‘in’ on the joke for getting that cultural reference. Grizz’s comment is also funny because we recognise he is relying on stereotypes. It’s the fictional equivalent of people with Asian faces and glasses always being asked if they’re good at maths.

A similar joke is used repeatedly in the British comedy series Fresh Meat, in which other characters assume Howard is a Lord of the Rings fan because he is a nerdy type who looks like he’d be schooled up on the finer points of high fantasy. As Howard keeps insisting, he’s never even read Lord of the Rings, and has no interest in reading it. He gets increasingly irritated by accusations of having read it. This is a triple layered joke: (cultural) reference + character humour + irony.

When a story makes a cultural reference to itself, it’s now called a ‘callback‘. This relies on the audience having seen earlier episodes of the show. Each Simpsons episode has about 10-20 callback jokes in it, counted separately from other cultural references, which are even more numerous. Groups of friends cement friendships by swapping injokes that only those friends would get. Callback humour is how you get yourself a fanbase.

The converse of reference humour would be the non sequitur, a feature of absurdist/surrealist humour. The audience is exposed to situations they’ve never experienced before themselves. I wonder if this form of humour is not included in The Onion List for the reason that modern audiences don’t find absurdist humour laugh-out-loud funny. This is the humour of Edward Lear, Alice In Wonderland, Waiting for Godot… It’s clever, it can be interesting, it can highlight important political truths, but is it still funny? More recently, works such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and Far Side comics have been described as surrealist, so perhaps surrealism has not died, but evolved.

The humour in children’s literature is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg Heffley is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own shortcomings in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters rather than themselves, but I’ve yet to read research on that.]

4. SHOCK HUMOUR

Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humour and swearing

How to get away with more shocking things in comedy for kids? One popular trick: Make it look terrible at first but the reveal is that it’s benign.

adventure time humour
scene from Adventure Time

Something common in children’s stories but less common in adult stories: Bum jokes and gross-out humour (poo, vomit, snot and other bodily excretions). For adults gross-out humour is sexual.

Kids can also be shocked by post-pubescent bodies. The Greg Heffley (Wimpy Kid) example of Greg being disgusted by grown men in the showers (mentioned above) is also an example of gross-out humour. Greg is terrified of his imminently changing body. For good reason, this particular fear is often explored in coming-of-age comedies. Morphing into an adult is terrifying.

The Disgusting Sandwich is a picture book for young readers and a very mild form of gross-out humour. The humour of this story relies on the shared experience of dropping food on the ground but still sort of wanting to eat it.

The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is another fairly tasteful example of a story about poo, and is made more tasteful by the use of quite literary language and the German language onomatopoeia. The poo itself does not feel disgusting because of the countryside setting. Wholesome poo.

For slightly older kids (pre-adolescence is the golden age of gross-out humour), we have the work of Andy Griffiths, e.g. The Day My Bum Went Psycho and a whole raft of similar stories from the same Australian author.

Most humour has its origins in bad taste. Then, when the joke’s been done enough times, it no longer has shock value. The shocking thing has become part of the culture. This primitive side of humour comes out of aggression and fear, and is a way of dealing with that. This explains why comedians often go beyond the line of acceptability. Perhaps, like me, your favourite comedian offends you sometimes. The comedians don’t know where that line is either, because it’s constantly shifting. The comedian’s job is to find that line. That’s their raison d’etre. They inadvertently cross it from time to time, so we all know where it is.

5. PARODY HUMOUR

Mimic a character, trope, genre as closely as possible

This type of humour relies on your audience having sufficient experience in the original character/trope/genre itself that they recognise the parody. Along with irony, parody might therefore be lost on the youngest readers. In the past I have written about popular ‘children’s films’ which should probably more accurately be described as films for adults or adolescents due to the advanced irony — which ordinarily might float on by younger audiences without consequence, but may convey pretty disturbing messages when taken at face value. Children (and adults) tend to assume that animated film and claymation is for children, but that’s no longer the case.

Genre Parody

The 2012 film ParaNorman relies on the audience’s understanding of the zombie horror genre. Or, we might be expecting a Cinderella story, for instance, but the character ends up even poorer than they were before. Or, as Babette Cole wrote in Princess Smartypants — we might be expecting the princess to find her prince charming, but she decides in the end to remain single, upending the classic romantic fairytale. This joke is a kind of cross between ‘misplaced focus’ (we’re thinking this is a love story) and ‘parody’ (of the archetypal love story).

That Is NOT A Good Idea by Mo Willems defies our expectation of a fable in which the duck gets eaten by a wily fox. It’s a parody of a fable, though also a form of irony — we don’t expect the cute little duck to be so wily. An understanding of Aesop comes in handy here, too. Aesop set up the animal character tropes for us and we’re still using them and subverting them to this day.

parody humour
Spongebob Squarepants speaks to introverts everywhere while also parodying the musical fantasy genre. (The other singer is a literal penny.) We expect this wonderful place to be somewhere like Never-never Land or Oz.
spongebob parody humour
Here we have a parody of fairytales such as The Ugly Duckling.
Character Trope Parody

The Fantastic Mr Fox film relies on the audience’s understanding of a stereotypical 1950s breadwinner father, as well as the dominant culture’s fictional nostalgia associated with that period. The first generation of readers who grew up with Fantastic Mr Fox are now my age — middle aged. The 1980s was The Golden Age of Roald Dahl. This film is mostly for them.

6. INTENSIFICATION AS HUMOUR

Exaggeration to absurd extremes

Unlike irony and parody, this type of humour is safe for the youngest of audiences. Hyperbole is super common in picture books, and almost mandatory in funny carnivalesque picturebooks. Hyperbole is a subcategory of intensification, but intensification goes beyond hyperbole.

  • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers is an excellent example. There’s no way all those things would get stuck in a tree. Jeffers knows how to take a joke to its conclusion. This book is a masterclass in hyperbole.
  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever features a massive sandwich followed by a massive dessert — everything in carnivalesque oversize.
  • The Cat In The Hat by Dr Seuss is perhaps the stand-out example.

Hyperbole or intensification can be achieved using all of the following devices, which are all commonly used across funny middle grade graphic novels in particular:

  • Creation of sounds in exclamations (included as ‘intensifications because they are typically disproportionate to the degree of shock, dismay, or surprise expected from a reaction to an event).
  • General sound play (onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance)
  • Palindromes (words, phrases, or sequences that read the same backwards as forwards e.g. poop)
  • Increased stress on words and meanings (word redundancy, word repetition)
  • Figurative language (idioms, similes, metaphors)
  • Synathroesmus (the piling up of words, usually adjectives e.g. “gigantic, gooey, robotic fingers”)
  • Textual emphasis (capitalization, italicization, extra large font)
  • Exuberant expressions (grandiosity, exaggeration)
  • Logical impossibilities
  • Repeated phrases which function as running gags (e.g. “Truth and Justice and all that is Preshrunk and Cottony!”)
Melodramatic Humour

Melodrama comes under the category of hyperbole. Melodramatic characters are sometimes funny because of their uber-pessimism or optimism. (By the way, I usually mean something different when talking about melodrama.)

Spongebob hyperbole
‘The problem’ = entire life.
  • Similar to the Squadward scene above, a client of the mother from Freaky Friday (Lindsay Lohan version) is particularly needy. “How’s your day been so far?” asks the daughter in her mother’s body. “Fine. Then I got up.”
Litotes

I’m not sure where to put hyperbole’s opposite: understatement, or litotes. I guess it goes in here.

  • The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig “We don’t want to be handbags!” (Not — We don’t want to be slaughtered!)
  • From Spongebob Squarepants: “I don’t want to be peeled! I’m not a banana!” (Ditto)

Understatement often occurs when the main character is near death, but because this is a series we know (and the characters know, in a meta kind of way) that they are not going to actually die. Therefore their reactions to near death are often understated. In the examples above they are unrealistically articulate, for instance, calling to mind the plaintive cry of a toddler who doesn’t want to carry a bag, or doesn’t want to eat a banana.

HYPERBOLIC WORDPLAY

Of course, hyperbole and wordplay often occur together. Hyperbolic language are words or expressions which exceed “the limits of fact in a given context” (Claudia Claridge).

7. WORDPLAY HUMOUR

Puns, rhymes, double entendres, homophones, homographs, nonce formations, portmanteau words, placeholders, baby talk, solecisms, slang and colloquialisms, nominalization, adjectivization, rhyming, ungrammaticality, metathesis etc.

What is a pun?

Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.

What is double entendre?

Both puns and double entendres make use of intentional double meanings. Double entendres are not necessarily puns, though.

What is a homophone?

A homophone refers to two words which have different meanings but which sound the same. (You get a lot of homophonous puns.)

What is a homograph?

Use of the same word with different meanings. “Glued to their seats” (engrossed and also literally stuck to the seat with glue)

What is a nonce word?

“A nonce word (from the sixteenth century phrase for the nonce, meaning ‘for the once’) is a lexeme created for temporary use, to solve an immediate problem of communication”. (David Crystal) In literature, an author purposely coins nonce words for poetic or humorous effect, not to solve a communication problem.

What is a portmanteau word?

A word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel or brunch.

What is a placeholder?

A word which stands in for another word e.g. thingymajig

What is solecism?

A grammatical mistake in speech or writing

What is nominalisation?

The formation of nouns from verbs

What is adjectivization?

A verb turned into an adjective

What is metathesis?

The transposition of sounds or letters in a word

Children take a special delight in odd or pretty sounds. Given the chance to write, they are very playful with the sonic side of language. Experts say their learning of new words is a process of wonder, laughter, and punning. What children may lack is a developed sense of artistic judgment, so that their poems often include startling successes in sound right next to bland or awkward passages. They tend to accept whatever comes into their heads.

The Poetry Foundation

Between the ages of six and ten we begin to riddles and puns and jokes based on the tricks and confusions of language. The attraction of the riddle is that the person who asks it demonstrates her or his mastery of the ambiguity that is built into language. For instance:

What has four legs and can’t walk?
A table.

A riddle can also be a device for proving the other person stupid — in some cases, stupid because he or she takes riddles seriously.

What’s the difference between a mailbox and a hole in the ground?
I don’t know.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t send you to mail a letter.

Eventually children learn that words can be used to excuse misbehaviour, and even as a way of trapping a victim into a  kind of complicity with his or her persecutor — which is something a lot of adults do with children, getting them to agree that they’ve been bad and deserve a to be punished, for instance. This use of language seems to be behind a familiar catch-riddle:

Adam and Eve and Pinchme went out in a boat to swim. Adam and Eve got drowned, and who was left?

The correct answer maneuvers the victim into asking to be hurt. But there is more to this joke. Its three characters, Adam and Eve and Pinchme, suggest primal, innocent man and woman — or boy and girl — and someone who represents evil, violent impulse, knowledge of good and evil: the serpent in the garden.

As children get older they discover other tricks of language. They become fascinated with tongue twisters, with secret languages like Pig Latin, and with simile and metaphor. Some years ago, for instance, there was a whole cycle of jokes about a character called the Little Moron; the point of the joke was always that he misunderstood metaphors and took them for reality:

Why did the Little Moron throw the clock out the window?
Because he wanted to see time fly.

In telling this joke the child asserts that he is not a little moron; he knows what a metaphor is and no longer takes it literally. But the joke also, like a lot of folklore, allows the vicarious expression of forbidden impulses: in this case, the rage children feel when some adult points to the clock as a reason for going to bed, or not having lunch. “No, dear; see, the clock says it’s not time yet.” No wonder the child wants to throw the clock out the window, to make time fly.

Often the mastery of metaphor is used against adults — even against unknown adults. This happens with the telephone jokes that are played by girls and boys when they begin to acquire a more adult voice — or at least the ability to imitate one. They can then spend happy hours calling up numbers at random and saying, for example: “Good afternoon, ma’am. This is the electric company. Would you please check to see if your refrigerator is running?” The hope is that the person on the other end of the line will hurry into their kitchen to check, hurry back, pick up the phone again, and confirm that it is. Then the reply is: “Well, you’d better catch it before it runs away out the door.” If the joke works, the caller has the satisfaction of making the adult follow a child’s directions and look silly.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
  • Jack and the Baked Beanstalk takes a classic tale and gives it a modern twist. Even the title has been modernised — ‘bean’ is universal, but ‘baked bean’ is comically specific, which I’d actually add as another category of humour. (Comic Specificity.) The story itself is not humorous. (The title may therefore be a little misleading.)
  • From A Long Way From Chicago: “The cherry bomb had scared them witless, except for Ernie, who was witless anyway.” More specifically, this is an example of metalepsis — taking an idiomatic expression then turning it into something more literal.
  • The whole book of The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig is written in a naive kind of dialect reminiscent of the speech of Roald Dahl’s BFG (which, it’s worth noting, was based on Patricia Neal’s mixed-up language as she partially recovered from a serious stroke.)
  • Symbolic names might also be considered a type of wordplay — i.e. someone’s name is in itself funny either because it’s so apt or so ironic.
  • Alliteration can make serious things sound funnier due to alliteration’s usual association with light-heartedness. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig Cow is captured. The villain chants “Mince them on Monday, tan them on Tuesday…” (Do you recognise this joke from The Tawny Scrawny Lion, a classic Little Golden Book?)
  • Sometimes the wordplay element forms the entire basis of a plot. In The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place, the children have been raised by wolves. Literally.
  • Wordplay humour presents issues for picture books (in particular) that could otherwise be translated. There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]
  • Mentor Texts for Word Play by Marcie Flinchum Atkins
  • Timmy Failure (Stephan Pastis)
  • Big Nate (Lincoln Pierce),
  • Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey)
  • Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life (James Patterson)
  • The Odd Squad (Michael Fry)
  • The Wayside School (Louis Sachar)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney)
  • Stink (Megan McDonald, Peter H. Reynolds, and Nancy Cartwright)
  • Dork Diaries (Rachel Renee Russell)
  • Some language play characterizes the Amelia Bedelia series for grades one to five written by Peggy Parish and Herman Parish and illustrated by Fritz Siebel, Lynn Sweat, and Wallace Tripp
  • The nonsensical poetry books of Shel Silverstein, John Ciardi, and Steve Attewell.
catdog wordplay humour
This dual audience joke from Catdog is designed so that only those old enough to get it will get it.

The following from Spongebob Squarepants is not only dual audience humour but is also in-group humour, understood only by people from a particular culture. It includes an explanation, for those of us not in the know when it comes to hipster cafes in a particular moment in history and place:

spongebob hipster cafe parody wordplay humour

The following gag from another Cartoon Network series, Ed, Edd n Eddy, is childlike humour but no doubt appealed to young adults who know what it’s like to hang out with stoned people:

from Ed, Edd n Eddy

The following example from Freaky Friday appeals to teenagers who are often stuck with the job of trying to decipher their teachers and parents. The words make no sense at all, so wordplay is layered with recognition and also character humour (the teacher is vindictive and has a vendetta).

freaky friday humour

While it takes on a different form, wordplay is just as popular for a young adult audience.

Wordplay from 90210
Wordplay from 90210

Even within the category of ‘wordplay’, there are many different types of wordplay, and a joke can work on various layers of wordplay at once, just like any other forms of humour.

Language play at a syntactic—or grammatical—level can be found in Roald Dahl’s statement “I is not wishing to know anything” in The BFG (for the Big Friendly Giant). And language play at a semantic—or meaning—level may include the use of an idiom such as “it’s time to hit the road” used by Mr. Rogers in Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping: Amelia hears Mr. Rogers say it, and she literally hits the road with a stick. Or consider the novel word creation such as the use of “clean-a-rella” for the name of a housekeeping robot in 2030: A Day in the Life of Tomorrow’s Kids, playing off Cinderella who also did all the housework in a well-known fairy tale.

Sometimes language play occurs at multiple levels simultaneously. For example, sound substitutions at a phonological level can change meaning at the semantic level, as in Peter Bently and Deborah Melmon’s portmanteau word “pantachute” (word parts from underpants combined with parachute) in Underpants, Wonderpants.

Other examples include use of puns, as when Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures
in Wonderland explains that the turtle was called a tortoise because “he taught
us,” and as when the Mock Turtle describes “seaography” school, saying there
they study “reeling and writhing.”

Playing with Words, “Dav Pilkey’s Literary Success in Humorous Language

Literary devices used most often by Dav Pilkey fall into two categories of language play— hyperbole and linguistic creativity.

8. ANALOGY JUXTAPOSITION

Comparing two disparate things (perhaps by flipping them completely)

Although Scott Dikkers of The Onion talks about ‘analogy’, when it comes to children’s humour, I prefer ‘juxtaposition’. Analogy emphasises what’s similar; juxtaposition emphasises difference. Similarity isn’t that funny; difference is.

gilmore girls humour
Humour comes from recognition (being so bowled over by a kiss you do something unthinking) but also from the juxtaposition between something sweet — a first kiss — and something slightly criminal.

Others — such as Robert Mankoff — have called ‘incongruity’ the basis of humour. There has to be some deviation from the normal. The incongruity can’t be just any old thing — it has to be fitting.

An example: Grandiose titles and language typical of royalty, upper social class, or powerful groups attributed to persons of lower social status or insignificant and inanimate items produce humorous incongruity. (This would also be a type of burlesque humour, because it pokes fun at the upper classes.)

In logic something is either X or not X. In humour, it’s both X and not X.

From an academic paper:

McGhee (1979) proposes that incongruity is a central cause of humor. Indeed, Oring (2010) goes so far as to claim that “humor cannot be appreciated without the perception of an underlying appropriate incongruity” (p. 12). Incongruity humor occurs when an element of a story or situation is established as unexpected, exaggerated, or inappropriate and is then resolved. McGhee (1979) separates incongruity humor into two parts: Discovery of the incongruity and its resolution. In agreement with McGhee (1979), Dean & Allen (2000) state that the two essential elements of a joke are the set-up, which includes the minimum amount of information to establish an initial assumption, and the punch line, a reinterpretation that reverses the initial assumption. Polimeni & Reiss (2006) discuss Veatch’s theory that incongruities in humor must contain one “socially normal” element and one element that violates the “subjective moral order,” or as Veatch defines it, the “rich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world”.

In children’s humour juxtaposition is the ‘hat on the dog’ thing. Putting two unlikely things together. This is why my year three daughter thought it funny when her year three teacher did a cartwheel in the playground — a teacher doing a childhood thing. This was the most newsworthy event of her day.

The Mercy Watson series involves the juxtaposition of a pig in a house — the pig not quite human, but treated as a child. There’s a lot of madcap humour in the Mercy Watson stories, too, since Mercy the Pig loves life. (As you’d expect, there is a juxtaposed character who is dull and no fun at all.)

However, in a lot of stories for a middle grade audience the juxtaposition often involves that old sexist joke of a boy dressing up as/being mistaken for a girl. This is not as benign as the ‘hat on a dog’ joke you’ll more likely see in picture books, as it says something terrible about girls, even when the boy is ostensibly the butt of the joke. At first glance it looks like the boy is the butt of the joke, because he has lost his power owing to behaving/dressing/being mistaken for a girl. But it is girls who lose out here. If being a girl means ‘losing face’, what is that saying about girls? Sometimes it’s not the boy dressed as the girl who is the butt of the joke — sometimes it’s the girly girl getting her comeuppance for being too feminine. Feminine as equivalent for prissy, annoying, swotty and self-absorbed. Too many middle grade novels make use of these jokes.

The Status Flip

First we have the socioeconomic status flip.

Juxtaposing upper class with lower class folk is another source of humour, though only if we’re making fun of the rich people and not the other way around.

In A Long Way From Chicago we have the richest woman in town talking to the most down-to-earth, spade’s-a-spade woman in town:

“What a nice, moist consistency your pie filling has, Mrs Dowdel. I’m sure it will be noted. How much water did you add to the mixture?”

“About a mouthful,” Grandma replied.

This is a nice bit of character humour (the characters have already been established — Grandma is anti-pretention, say-it-like-it-is). It is also funny because of the (possibly intended) image of a hillbilly grandma spitting water into the pie, later meant to be eaten by important people. A similar gag is used in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. In American stories, pies are good for hiding things in because they look delicious and benign. That particular joke is an example of juxtaposition of class combined with character humour and a bit of gross-out humour, too.

The following gag from The Simpsons might be Bart being a smartass, flipping the insult from the bullies, but he may also be oblivious to a classic wind-up line:

bullying flip joke from The Simpsons

This kind of joke works well in stories for teens when it’s being used as a deliberate evasion. Hanna is that smart ass character in Pretty Little Liars.

Is Hanna a smart ass or is she the stupid blonde trope, pitted against the smart brunette? It depends. The writers use Hanna as they see fit.

stupid blonde trope
The Child/Adult Flip

This is the humour utilised in every single carnivalesque picture book ever written. (Okay, only the funny ones — not all carnivalesque stories are comedy genre.)

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the bears with adult male voices turn out to be more enthusiastically childlike than the actual children at the party, who are only wearing their party hats ‘ironically’, so they tell us. In other words, the adult/child relationship has flipped. This is common in children’s stories. Oftentimes it’s the grandparents or the father who is shown to be less responsible and knowing than the child, who is then charged with saving the day. The antics of this older person themselves are designed to be funny, partly because old people are thought by children to be staid and lacking in movement.

Here’s Hanna again, flipping status with her gym teacher. She’s using irony but the irony works because of the status juxtaposition.

Hanna again, from Pretty Little Liars

Boss Baby by Marla Frazee is an excellent example of an adult/child status flip.

The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak is also an example of a status flip.

The Classic Trickster Flip

I don’t know what else to call this gag from Spongebob Squarepants:

trickster flip humour

9. MADCAP

Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical

Madcap is another common feature of the humorous carnivalesque.

As I said, with young kids, ‘putting a hat on a dog’ is enough to tickle their sense of humour.

What if you dress up an animal and put them in a house? Is that still funny? When Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit, that had not been seen before. Potter’s animal stories aren’t overtly humorous, but would have delighted audiences at the time. Do children still see dressed up animals as funny? I will argue that no, they don’t. That’s not to say animals dressed as humans don’t hold their interest, because they obviously do. An animal behaving as a human says to the kid, “Hey, this story is probably for you!” There are many reasons for writers of children’s books using animals as stand-ins for humans. As for ‘humour’, we’re now at a point where there has to be some meta element to the talking animal before it’s funny. As an example, an episode of We Bare Bears sees the optimistic adventurer Grizz leading the other two bears into the forest to survive like natural bears, with no mobile phones and no processed food. Over the course of this jaunt the bears devolve into angry, ferocious, actual bears. Until now, humans in the series have treated the bears as humans without batting an eyelid. Now suddenly they are terrified. By the end of the episode the wild bears have made it through a fast food drive-thru, have refuelled on burgers and shakes and are now behaving like teenage boy humans. The juxtaposition is now funny. They look like animals but don’t act like the real world animals they represent. The viewer holds both versions of ‘animal’ in mind.

Some carnivalesque stories can have a strong plot. Others put plot in the background.

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a great example of the carnivalesque. (The title gives away the plot.)
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman is a carnivalesque tale for slightly older readers, in which the father comes back from the corner shop with a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the father tells the tall tale while the mother has been removed from the story. The tall tale is an historically masculine tradition. At its base, the tall tale is probably used to establish and maintain hierarchy — who is the best storyteller around this campfire, and who is taken in by my story? Boys are especially likely to use humour to establish and maintain hierarchy.
  • Iconic New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy wrote madcap tales for middle grade readers, such as The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage.
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a sort of madcap adventure, though I feel the main interest comes from the wordplay. Alice In Wonderland has a meandering plot, much like Ulysses, and the earlier Wimpy Kid books (before Jeff Kinney started writing with movie script adaptations in mind).
  • The Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans are carnivalesque. Madeline gets herself into some unlikely adventure where the reader has fun along with Madeline herself.

There are many, many examples of madcap humour in children’s literature. A lot of it involves slapstick, physical comedy:

  • Falling down and breaking things
  • Tripping/kicking/punching someone else by accident
  • Landing in something disgusting (puddles, poo, mud)
  • Landing on top of other creatures in pile-ups
  • Falling over cliffs, down hills, into bodies of water
  • Accidentally starting machinery, which springs into action and does something unexpected
  • Provoking a wild creature by accident
  • The list is endless

There is a trick writers often use to make madcap/slapstick/absurd behaviour even funnier:

Give funny characters an audience within the setting itself.

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, we are shown that the bears get around by two of the hopping onto the bottom bear’s back. “I’ll drive,” says the bottom bear. Next we see them on a commuter train, still on top of each other. The bears are largely ignored, because these creatures are accepted as part of the world of the story, but an old lady looks at them with interest. “Wassup?” says the top bear nonchalantly, and the scene ends. There is also something meta about this. The audience wonders, are these bears really a part of the setting, or are these strangers on the train the same audience as we are? The audience on the train exists not only for humorous purposes, but also to establish the ‘rules’ of the setting — humans accept these bears (so long as they behave like humans with a few animal quirks).

The audience effect is also used a lot for important monologues. I have noticed American audiences/writers really like to include an audience within a story. This must say something interesting about American culture, and is possibly related to the American Culture of Celebrity. A post for another time.

Perhaps in the category of Madcap Humour we can include any kind of surrealist/absurdist humour. Grandiosity, exaggeration, logical impossibilities, silliness, and comedy of chaos are other similar concepts. All of these increase any intensification/hyperbolic comedy.

10. META-HUMOUR

Jokes about jokes, or about the idea of comedy

Meta-humour is a subcategory of metafiction: What is metafiction, anyway?

  • This Book Just Ate My Dog! This picture book by Richard Byrne combines irony (dogs eat books, not usually the other way around) and metafiction. The dog disappears into the gutter of the book. Readers are not normally meant to regard a book’s gutter as part of the reading experience.
  • Press Here by Herve Tullet makes fun of digital books by turning an actual book into a fake book app.
  • In Powerpuff Girls the main characters are often called ‘bug-eyed freaks’, ‘pumpkin heads’ and other insults which actually make accurate reference to the way they have been character designed — drawing attention to the fact that these are cartoon people.
  • Wolves by Emily Gravett is another excellent picture book example.
  • Dogman: Lord of the Fleas has a running gag about humour itself. What is it with you and POOP? Look, you can’t just tell the same joke… over and over… and expect it to still be funny! You can’t do the same things… again and again… and expect to get a laugh! Ya gotta avoid repetition…shun redundancy…eschew reiteration… resist recapitulation… and also, stop telling the same joke over and over! […] Why do you keep telling these stupid jokes? Because it’s distracting. Distracting from what? […] Ya just gotta switch expectations! The story itself includes many jokes about poop, repeated over and over. The story itself is metafictive, supposedly written by the two boys from Captain Underpants. This gag seems to poke fun at adults and teachers who would call this kind of humour facile.

There’s another type of joke which can probably fit in here: When the writer very specifically names something which would not be called that in the real-world, because it is far too on-the-nose.

  • The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place gets a nanny from an institution called ‘the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females’. This not only harks back to a time when things were more often called exactly what they were ‘orphanage, sugar diabetes’, ‘crippled’, but is a wink and a nod to the reader — this is what the place is called because it is fictional, and I, the writer, am giving you everything you need to know about this nanny up front.

The following from Pretty Little Liars is slightly meta because the audience has been pulled into this supernatural world where anything is possible. Then, we’re reminded sarcastically that not everything in this supernatural world is necessarily magical and evil.

meta humour from Pretty Little Liars

11. MISPLACED FOCUS

Attention is focused on the wrong thing

This category of humour is often a subcategory of irony. In picture books there is almost always some ironic distance between the text and the illustrations. This allows for dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something before the main characters do.

spongebob squarepants humour
misplaced focus humour from Spongebob Squarepants
  • The stand-out example of this joke, sustained throughout the course of the entire story is Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? A hapless goose and pig think they’ve been invited to a wolf’s mansion to share a feast but they are in fact intended as dinner. These delicious dinner guests are so focused on gorging themselves that they miss the numerous clues (conveyed only in the pictures) that the reader is picking up. They avoid death only by pure chance.
  • Wolf Comes To Town is funny because the people of the town don’t realise there’s a wolf among them, dressed as a human. Wolves are commonly this kind of trickster in children’s literature — this too comes from Aesop. Foxes are also cunning tricksters.

At a line level, this sort of joke can often be expressed as ‘metalepsis’. Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from an idiomatic expression is used in a new context.

Related to metalepsis (or perhaps a subset of it?), a commonly understood concept or phrase is interpreted over-literally. This is why it’s so handy to have a stoopid character in the ensemble of a comedy cast. In Spongebob Squarepants it’s Patrick. In The Simpsons it’s Homer. In We Bare Bears it’s Grizz. In Seinfeld it’s Kramer. Seriously, there’s one in every comedy series. (As a side note, every stupid character needs a smart counterpart to bounce off.) 

Avoiding mean-spiritedness, the stupid character also often comes up trumps precisely because of their stupids. For instance, their stupid remark will come across like a witty comeback. Or, the baddie will attempt to eat them, but because they’re stupid they end up escaping their fate entirely by accident. The stupid/naive trickster is beloved of young audiences.

stupid character humour taking something literally
  • In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp, our main character (Pig) is more naive than the reader. Commenting on his owners’ decision to grow ‘organik’ vegetables, he says, “Duck says the Sandals now grows a special kind of veggie what is called organik. He says this means they is super expensive so the Sandals gets lots more money when they sells them. Why would anyone wants money more than they wants veggies? Money doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as veggies.”
  • Later, when Duck says they’ve only just got back into the Sandals’ ‘good book’, Pig takes Duck literally, imagining an actual book with ‘Good Book’ as its title. Taking things literally is one common way of getting a laugh in children’s books and is, coincidentally, also the origin of most Dad jokes, in which the Dad deliberately misinterprets what has been said in order to raise ire.

CONCLUSION SO FAR?

When you’re a parent or a librarian or a teacher or a bookseller who reads a lot of children’s books, you sometimes wish for fun. Children’s books are often by their very nature “fun”. But there’s fun that’s strained and trying to appeal to everyone and then there’s fun that appears to be effortless. You read a book, are transported elsewhere, lose track of time, and never want the story to end.

Betsy Bird, from her review of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place
  • You can indeed shove almost everything into these 11 categories if you use your imagination.
  • As Scott Dikkers says in his book expanding on this topic, jokes can be ‘layered’ by using more than one of these categories at a time. This is also very much true for the humour in children’s stories. The cleverest of the jokes fit three or four categories at once.
  • As I suspected, irony is a common catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit the other categories. Irony blends with all and any of the others.
  • Certain types of humour such as wordplay, madcap and hyperbole are very common in books for young readers.
  • As children get older they are expected to recognise more subtle character humour, irony and eventually parodies. However, even the youngest of readers are able to pick when the picture says something different from the words. This in itself is a kind of ironic distance.
  • Also, writers of children’s comedies don’t avoid, say, parody jokes just because the youngest members of the audience wouldn’t understand it, yet. They’ll most often include jokes for the older co-audience.
  • Even if a children’s story isn’t comedy, almost all popular children’s fiction is funny in places. Even something like Pretty Little Liars, which might be mistaken for taking itself too seriously.
  • Stories for and about girls are in general more earnest. The stars of funny stories are most often boys. (This is why Betsy Bird created the book Funny Girl — a collection of the moment’s funniest female writers.) While it’s perfectly possible to line your daughter’s bookshelves with funny stories for and about girls, the big-name most dominant funny stories in our culture are about boys.
  • This is particularly noticeable in the cinema. Feisty princesses don’t need to improve the world in serious fashion a la Brave. There’s no reason, Pixar et al, why you can’t make a film starring a girl who is genuinely, consistently funny. Where are the stories starring girls in which humour is the main point? Frozen is a big name movie for/about girls but it is not all that funny. The funniest bits involve the male characters. The girls get a bit of slapstick. (NPR explained that Frozen is a bit different from most similar films in that the jokes are not all jammed into the start — the film does in fact become more funny as the film progresses. However, it’s interesting to note that the men on that podcast didn’t think it was sufficiently funny.) Inside Out, likewise, does not give preference to humour. Maybe this is the real reason why boys apparently don’t want to watch films starring girls? (So it’s said.) If you go to a popular TV show for and about girls (take Pretty Little Liars as an example again) you’ll find that the fandom does a great job of inserting their own humour by sharing memes with their own one-liners.
  • Because The Onion is all about verbal humour — if we exclude the stock photography that accompanies the text — funny mainly because it looks so normal and serious — the categories above don’t do justice to the visual humour found in picture books, cartoon shows and illustrated books for children.
  • The bestselling books for children contain humour aimed at adults (bookbuyers). David Walliams’ books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. Walliams is the contemporary Roald Dahl.
  • Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously? In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards. Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but is a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing and shows that this story is taken seriously despite being funny. Pippi Longstocking is one of the few books that challenges authority. This is a rare example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about deeper issues. Wait a generation or two and funny books are then taken seriously.

EXTRA CATEGORIES SPECIFIC TO CHILDREN

12. VISUAL HUMOUR

What category is it when a polar bear crashes a child’s birthday party and ends up with jelly all over its fur, making it look like it just murdered one of the children? (From the pilot of We Bare Bears.) It’s not shock exactly, because it is funny rather than shocking — there’s no real taboo that’s being broken, and the reader knows the bear is harmless. Shared symbolism is important here. The audience interprets this humour with the understanding that red equals blood. This is visual humour.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) monster sale
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). A visual-language combo, reliant upon a literal interpretation of ‘monster sale’.

13. EDUCATIONAL HUMOUR

People in children’s literature world like educational texts and that even applies to jokes. Educational value is not something adults look for when we seek our own comedy.

And like a lot of my favourite children’s fiction, [York] has jokes that are going to lead to kids looking up further information, just so that they can stay in the know. For example, at one point a kindly therapist asks why Tess draws crows over her heads when she sketches and her reply is, “That’s not a crown… That’s a nimbus of outrage.” My favourite, however, may be Theo’s shirt that says “Schrodinger’s cat is dead” on the front and then a zombie cat on the back with the line, “Schrodinger’s cat is ALIIIIIIVE.” I will be seeking this t-shirt out to buy presently. And for the record, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of references in this book I wasn’t getting.

from a review of York by Betsy Bird

14. KID LOGIC JOKES

Is there such a thing as kid logic jokes?

[Louis] Sachar builds kid-logic jokes into his stories—in 1989, he published a book of absurdist math problems called “Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School,” in which, for example, a girl named Sue proves that her dog Fangs is a good dog by the equation “good” + “dog” = “fangs.” The letters correspond to numbers, and all the equations work—though I’ve yet to solve one.

The New Yorker

I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t find these funny. Kids do, which is why you’ll see the same old 1980s playground jokes still doing the rounds in 2017.

As [psychoanalyst] Martha Wolfenstein says, the joke that seems funny to a child may not seem funny to adults, or to children of different ages. The general rule seems to be that as you grow older the forbidden wish or emotion is gradually more disguised, and the joke that allows it expression becomes more complicated.

For examples, take the natural interest that children have in their own and other people’s bodies. Preschoolers will often spontaneously pulls their skirts up or their jeans down to show you their tummies, or lie on their backs waving their legs about and giggling. By the time they start school, this sort of activity has mostly been given up. Instead, children of six or so tease others by trying to pull down their pants; they now know they are not supposed to exposed themselves, so they try to expose someone else.

At about seven, actual physical assault is replaced by rhymes about exposure. There are literally dozens of those, most along the lines of

I see England
I see France
I see [Mary’s] underpants.

To the adult such verses seem stupid and, if one has to hear them very often, annoying. But to the child, as Wolfenstein points out, they represent a giant step toward growing up. The conflict between id and superego, between the wish to see and show off nakedness and the knowledge that this is naughty and forbidden, has been sublimated into art. It is a very low form of art, but art nevertheless.

A year or two later, at about age eight, we begin to get verses about the nakedness of absent or fictional persons — another level of sophistication. Children this age recite rhymes like:

Hi-ho Silver everywhere
Tonto lost his underwhere.

At nine or ten children get to the point where simply announcing the physical exposure of someone doesn’t feel right; there has to be an excuse for the event. So we get a new sort of rhyme. Here, for instance, is a taunt that uses the name of the victim’s mother:

[Mrs Smith] went to town
To buy a pair of britches,
When she came home she tried them on
And bang went all the stitches.

Another charm of this one, no doubt, is that the person exposed is a parent, an authority figure. [It is also a fatphobic joke, still very common in 2017.]

By eleven or twelve most children have given up reciting such verses, but they still enjoy jokes and stories about physical exposure, especially if it happens as a result of an accident. Sometimes they will tell a story in which one of the characters is a younger child who doesn’t know something about the world that they have recently learned. Such a tale has a double payoff: it works, a psychologist might say, both in Freudian and in Adlerian terms (sexual release — superiority). For example:

Once there was a little girl walking home from school and she met a man on the street and he said to her, “Little girl, can you stand on your head?” So she said yes, and he said, “If you’ll stand on your head now, I’ll give you ten cents.” So she did, and he did. But when she got home she told her mother, and her mother was indignant. “You shouldn’t have done that,” her mother said. “All he wanted was to see your underpants.” Well, the next day when the little girl got home from school, her mother asked if she met the nasty man who wanted to see her underpants. So the little girl said, “Yes, and he gave me ten cents today, too. But I fooled him. I didn’t wear any.”

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

RESOURCES FOR INVESTIGATING HUMOUR AND COMEDY

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

A Lonely Coast by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

A LONELY COAST ANNIE PROULX

The first thing that feels different about “A Lonely Coast” in the Close Range collection by Annie Proulx is the voice. This short story is written in second person, then switches to first in the second paragraph. The previous stories of this collection were all written by a third-person unseen narrator with an intimate knowledge of the milieu and deep understanding of character.

Immediately I am wondering: Why has Proulx chosen (mainly) first-person for this one? Also: do we have an unreliable narrator on our hands? Of course, all first person narration is on the ‘unreliable continuum’. But since Proulx normally writes in third, I suggest a good reason for the switch up.

SETTING OF “A LONELY COAST”

  • A rented junk trailer in the Crazy Woman Creek drainage, Buffalo, Wyoming. I expected this creek to be one of Proulx’s fabrications but it is real.
  • The Wig-Wag lodge, where the narrator waitresses
  • The Gold Buckle, where the narrator tends bar at the weekends

This trailer is very small. Annie Proulx takes the idiomatic expression “Not big enough to swing a cat” and changes it to “So small you couldn’t cuss the cat without getting fur in your mouth”. Whether this is Proulx’s invention or a regionalism she utilises in this story for comedic effect, this is an example of sentence-level metalepsis. This technique allows the writer to avoid cliché, swapping a worn expression out for colour and humour. 

Think of this setting and you’re liable to wonder, what has it got to do with any coast? It’s almost as far inland as you can get.

The season of the main event is spring.

At this time in this state it’s legal to drink and drive. Drivers are trusted to use their own judgement.

This is an almost-magical-realist story, as the matter of the mysterious fireball left to explode outside the pub is never resolved. This event foregrounds the uncanny and unbelievable aspects of the real world.

GEOGRAPHICAL DETERMINISM IN “A LONELY COAST”

“A Lonely Coast” unambiguously illustrates Proulx’s geographical determinism and induces our “spiritual shudder”, because the odds are bad in this game of five-card draw. Given the setting’s volatility, in which wind or stoney surface or lightning and hail “can still tear apart” at any time, characters never achieve lasting stability, instead “yield[ing] up to the dark impulse.” The fact that landscape “isn’t finished” suggests that people are not either and won’t become so. It is more likely that the roughed-in structures of self we build will suddenly, through an act of shortcoming or carelessness, catch fire, the combustion perhaps caused by “the endlessly repeated floor of morning light.” In this bleak view, characters lack the ability to become the architects of their lives. Proulx’s topography eclipses the characters who try to survive, let alone flourish, within it.

The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism

The following is observed by a British writer, about connotations around the word ‘coast’.

… ‘coastal’. Such an innocuous term, redolent on the one hand of seaside resorts, safe beaches, holidays; on the other of nature reserves, wild life sanctuaries, untroubled bird life. But the coastal, we might say, is becoming the very site of danger, in fantasy but also in reality. In some parts of the UK — East Anglia or Dorset, for example — we are used to a continuing process of erosion, and in Dorset it is hardly accidental that we have named part of the coastline ‘Jurassic’, exposing under geological morphing, as it so frequently does, the fragments and relics of reptilian monsters from another, ab-human era.

David Punter, Fantastika Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2, December 2017

WHAT HAPPENS IN “A LONELY COAST”

The narrator asks the reader if we’ve ever seen a burning house, with detail sufficient to suggest the narrator definitely has.

The second paragraph suggests the fire is simply a metaphor, with ‘grass fires’ standing in for short-lived love affairs. This isn’t an original metaphor but I bet Annie Proulx will turn it into something — an extended metaphor with original turns of phrase, at the least. In this second paragraph, Josanna Skiles is compared to a fire in the night that you can only watch.

The narrator’s ‘old boy’ is Riley, who is sick. (I can’t at this stage work out what is meant by ‘old boy’. Is it the father, the horse?)

Oakal Roy owns the narrator’s trailer. He used to be a stunt man in Hollywood.

I have assumed the narrator is male until now, when a freshly femme coded narrator says she has a junior college certificate in craft supply merchandising. Now I realise Riley is the narrator’s husband. This is the first female main character of the collection, but written in the same tough, remote Wyoming voice. Our narrator can’t work in the craft supply business living way out here, so she gets by doing the few other jobs open to women — she works as a waitress and barmaid.

The story switches to Josanna Skiles, who we learn is a cook at the same eatery where our narrator works during the week. We also hear about Jimmy, the owner, and his backstory. Nobody messes with Josanna, not even Jimmy these days. Foreshadowing. What is intimidating about Josanna?

Josanna’s two woman friends are Palma Gratt and Ruth Wolfe. The fire imagery is continued: they’re ‘burning slower’ but will still ‘disintegrate into drifts of ash’. They  have regular ‘girls’ nights out’ where they eat a lot of meat. Palma has a kid. These women are rough — Palma isn’t an attentive parent. They’re racist. They do drugs, think having a good time is getting shit faced. Josanna goes home regularly with a guy called Elk.

Josanna has a teenage son called Clayton at her family’s ranch who’s in and out of the detention home. Josanna’s natal family have been trying, without success, to breed dwarfism out of their herd for several generations. I feel this dwarfism is significant somehow. I’m keeping my eye out for symbolism.

Josanna once bought the narrator some honey from her home farm. (They keep bees.)

The narrator’s husband slept with someone else. Says he couldn’t help it. Why are we launching into this vignette? The positioning of anecdotes makes us think it was Josanna he slept with. The narrator describes the one holiday she went on with her husband. It was to Oregon where her brother lives. She was enchanted by a lighthouse at the coast and thinks it would be nice to have some lighthouses where they are in Wyoming. Her partner Riley disagrees, saying what they really need in Wyoming is a wall to keep people out, not invite them in with their blinking lights. This puts me in mind of the archetype of the modern rural Trump voter. Proulx has already made sure to tell us these characters are employed by the tourist industry largely, so this a population probably quite reliant on the tourist industry, which is a sure fire way to make them also despise tourists.

One day Josanna gave the narrator a ride and the narrator notices a big gun in the truck. The narrator thinks it’s Josanna’s brother’s gun, since it’s the brother’s truck, but Josanna says it’s her gun. Now we have Chekhov’s gun.

A description of Palma’s hairstyle seems to place this story in the 80s. Next, a description of Palma’s older and younger daughters. The older girl is hairy and masculine. Next Josanna is described. Both she and the brother have a strong aroma, reminiscent of horse. The brother is called Woody — a crude childhood nickname which has stuck.

Wyoming people are touchers, and this friendly custom ‘extends to anger’. Palma, Ruth and Josanna have all been in violent marriages before and managed to get out of them. Josanna is well-known to have shot her husband in the shoulder when he wouldn’t leave her alone. As a consequence, this latest bloke, Elk Nelson, has hidden all her bullets, ‘as if she couldn’t go to the store and buy some more’. “But Josanna got buried somewhere when Elk came round.” We are led to believe at this point that Elk has killed Josanna.

A description of Elk, and how Josanna found him in the newspaper classified ads. This is like Tindr for the 80s. Elk is handsome and dangerous looking in a cowboy kind of way. The narrator ‘watched the fire take hold’ of Josanna as she fell in love with Elk.

The narrator watches Josanna fall in love with Elk but realises he doesn’t care about her. One night at the bar he propositions the narrator. Ash Weeter is introduced. He’s right there as Elk propositions the narrator. He manages a farm for rich people who live in Pennsylvania but half of the cattle on that farm are actually his. (Presumably this is not a formal arrangement.) He doesn’t like Elk. Elk prepares to drive to another bar 130 miles away. The narrator is cynical about what counts for ‘living life to the full’. With these people it’s about getting drunk, turning bar visits into events. Elk tells a story about when Josanna got so drunk she wet the bed. The narrator talks about her ‘last night on the ranch with Riley’, so now we know she is no longer with him. We don’t know why not.

Palma dirty dances with Elk. Before they leave to go to that other bar a hail storm breaks, making the lights inside the Buckle bar flicker.  More fire imagery: “It is that kind of life that torches your life for a few hours, makes it seem something is happening.”

The narrator explains her mixed feelings about the bar — a love-hate relationship. One night Josanna came in waiting for Elk. The narrator didn’t bother telling her he’d already been in and picked up a  young woman because it wouldn’t have done any good.

A handful of men come into the bar soaking wet from this hail storm. They’re going to a rodeo later on. Then Josanna comes in, soaking wet, transparent clothing. She got fired by Jimmy Shimazo from her job as a cook and subsequently had a minor car accident. After a drink she’s going to drive the 130 miles to Casper to try and find some work there instead. Elk is feeling her up. He’s just been feeling up Palma. These women are used to this treatment, we deduce. Ruth Wolfe comes up behind her and offers condolences. Josanna doesn’t know why she’s been laid off but the narrator hears she got caught doing a line of cocaine at work.

The narrator doesn’t see the group of them leave but maybe it was before ‘the fireball’. This has us wonder what she means by ‘the fireball’. It’s explained immediately — a fire right outside the Buckle. It’s some sort of homemade pyrotechnics which have been left on a shelf out the front. The narrator reminds us that even though it sounds like a shotgun, it’s just the explosive heat making that noise, because she knows a shot when she hears one.

A description of the road from the Buckle to Casper, which is pitch black and pretty deserted except for trucks. The narrator wonders what the car journey was like. She’s heard several versions of what went on inside the car. This journey is now foreshadowed as ‘fateful’. Suspense is increased. What happens to these druggos once they hit Casper? The narrator compares this drive, with the mountain looming in the background of the town as ‘the lonely coast’. It seems the town itself driving into it from afar stands in for the lighthouse she wishes for out here.

To delay telling us, the narrator has a flashback about calving. In contrast with the dwarf calves of Josanna’s family, there has been some inadvertent breeding with neighbouring Saler bulls leading to massive calves which almost tear the mothers ‘in half’. By this point it’s clear this is a story with dual plot lines. One is the narrator’s story, the other Josanna’s. There is a guy who usually helps out with calving but he gets pneumonia so his wife sends their 15-year-old daughter, who is good at calving. But when the narrator bakes them some biscuits and takes them some coffee out to the barn she catches him raping her. The relationship breaks up over this. The narrator doesn’t think anything good about the girl but she acknowledges that she’s only 15, and the power imbalance of the fact Riley employs her father.

There was a car accident on the way to Caspar. The narrator thinks Josanna might have accident-suicided.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A LONELY COAST”

The main plot is that of Josanna and events leading up to the night she got killed. This framed by events from the narrator’s own life. This is not an unreliable narrator. She is careful to distinguish between that which she’s heard, that which she was therefore and that which is speculation. However, her interpretation of events, and her reason for them, is influenced by events in her own life, which she also includes.

Does this dual plot line count as an example of mise-en-abîme (story within a story)?

A common sense of the phrase is the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, then seeing as a result an infinite reproduction of one’s image. Another is the Droste effect, in which a picture appears within itself, in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear.

Wikipedia

“A Lonely Coast” fits that description, because the terrible decisions Riley makes in the narrator’s own life is reflected in the terrible decision Josanna and her friends make on the night they are killed. Both stories together create a world view in the narrator which leads her to the final conclusion — that ‘it’s easier than you think to yield up to impulse.’

SHORTCOMING

Who is the ‘main character’ of this story? Like most of Proulx’s stories, this is a portrait of a small community rather than of an individual, but for the sake of analysis, Josanna is the main character. The unnamed storyteller is an intradiegetic narrator, meaning that she is part of the setting. But her story is secondary.

Josanna’s shortcoming is mistaking ‘fake fun’ for real happiness. By going out drinking, doing drugs, sleeping with the wrong men, she is forfeiting any chance of contentment. That said, the narrator suggests she isn’t entirely disenfranchised. She comes from a farming family, and could perhaps have found a place within the farming community had she chosen differently.

DESIRE

The desireline is generally two-fold for a character in a story. First we have their deep, overarching desires. That’d be something like ‘desires happiness’, and this describes Josanna.

But Josanna’s very problem is that there is no immediate desire. She lurches from short-term fix to the next short-term fix. This particular desire line will be common to almost all fictional drug addicts. She wants to have a good time tonight. This impetuous mindset is in line with the final scene, as well as the narrator’s conclusion about how she ended her own life and why. (Impetuously.)

OPPONENT

Josanna’s life journey, painted scene by scene throughout the narrative, has resembled the mythic life journey. She’s had a string of bad men come and go — at least one tried to kill her. This latest one is also horrible.

Then there’s Jimmy Shimazo, who has taken away her livelihood. She has little prospect of finding another job.

The reader is encouraged to ask whether the narrator herself is complicit in her doing nothing e.g. when she has information about Josanna’s love interest that she doesn’t pass on.

PLAN

The ‘main story’ as it happens ‘in the moment’ (taking away all the flashbacks) is simple: Josanna loses her job, has a minor car crash, plans on going to the pub to get drunk. Plans are modified when others turn up and they decide to drive to a bar in Casper.

BIG STRUGGLE

The battle scene is — deliberately? — hard to follow but describes what happened or what might have happened to lead to the fatal highway crash on the way to Casper. The reason for the fire metaphor becomes clear. In the narrator’s mind, imagining this crash, the entire vehicle is engulfed in flame.

Abiding by Chekhov’s golden rule that the mere mention of a gun in a short story must necessarily pave the way for it being triggered, the tragic ending of “A Lonely Coast” suggests that drunk, doped up Josanna has used her (appropriately named) 44 Blackhawk against herself, committing suicide in the midst of a road accident involving drunk, “methed out,” “coked and smoked” drivers and an accident which turns into a deadly gunfight. The neologisms “coked and smoked” participate in the creative, vernacular language Proulx works into her short stories.

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

ANAGNORISIS

Annie Proulx often puts the self-revelation in the very last line and that’s what she does here, too.

NEW SITUATION

Constructed like the idiomatic past participle “baked” which is commonly used for “drunk,” these passive forms underline the characters’ lack of free will, suggesting that they are pretty much done for. This self-destructive escalation of violence seems brought about at first when Josanne loses her job as a cook in a Japanese restaurant, after the manager “[catches] her int he meat cooler snorting a line.” An additional factor may be the lack of choice in partners to. Hence Josanne’s doomed pick, Elk Nelson, “one step this side of restless drift.”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World Short Story Analysis

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story
Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the setting seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

SHORTCOMING

The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”

[…]

Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far to anything. Someone had to come for her. There was not even the solace of television, for old Red dominated the controls, always choosing Westerns, calling out to the film horses in his broken voice, “Buck him off, kick his brains out!”

We naturally settle on Ottaline as the main character of this story, even though it’s really about an entire family. She’s the last to be introduced for starters, and there’s a certain power which comes with being the ultimate.

There aren’t many women in the Close Range collection — Annie Proulx was mainly writing about men at this time. Ottaline is the third and most hard-working child of this ranch family — in true fairytale style the last of three (usually sons) is rewarded. But first she is put through the mill:

Most of the women depicted by Proulx […] have low self-esteem and very few illusions about life, being used to isolation, abuse, heavy drinking, cheating, domestic violence, taboos, and unwanted pregancies. […] However, Proulx’s stories also bring to the foreground a few strong-willed women getting out of marriages gone sour, suggesting that if you can’t leave Wyoming, you can always leave an ill-suited husband. […] Ottaline’s mother also provides an example of resistance as she warns her father in law: “Keep your dirty old prong from my girls or I’ll pour boilin water on it.”

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline’s problem is that she is heavy set and for both self-driven and culturally-driven reasons this puts her on the sidelines as far as the marriage market is concerned. This body weight acts in a modern story as a disfigurement or magic spell might in a fairytale — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are unconscious; Cinderella and the heroine of Beauty and the Beast are poor (but their beauty eventually redeems them); Rapunzel is hidden away; witches are old and ugly. There’s always some reason in a fairytale why women can’t just go forth and find a man if they want one. Ottaline’s weight is presented as a kind of grotesque, represented in other narratives by gargoyles and chimeras. The grotesque is a feature of gothic literature.

As miserable Ottaline turns for company to her scanner, which allows her to capture disjointed bits of other people’s cell phone conversations, her eavesdropping similarly may point to Annie Proulx’s ventriloquist tales. As the writer explains, she herself is “a good eavesdropper,” who likes to “listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats,” to “catch fragments of conversations and fill in the blanks. Indeed, her highly heteroglossic short stories feed on recuperated sociolects, myths, and discourses in a way that brings her readers to reflect upon the polyphony and intertextuality worked into her texts, and wonder at the artful recycling in her poetic yet violent and crude stories.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

 

DESIRE

Annie Proulx doesn’t even want fairytale happy endings for her female characters and this has been foreshadowed earlier with Ottaline’s treatment of the tractor.

While crafting female characters nearly systematically doomed to a tragic downfall, Proulx deconstructs traditional fairy tales so as to pinpoint the noxious power of the Prince Charming and happy ending archetypes. Indeed, many of her short narratives may read as subversive rewriting of old folktales and fairy tales, showing awareness of the potency of storytelling. […] Like Ottaline conversing with the enamored talking tractor, Proulx’s fiction implies that one should be wary of false expectations inherited from stories passed on to little girls: “‘Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty old toad sleep in her shoe and in the morning the toad’s a good-looking dude making omelettes?'” The ironic, self-referential metalepsis draws attention to the patrimony of fairy tales and folktales which Proulx’s stories often tap into.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Metalepsis = a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. This is an example metalepsis because the reader knows how things go in fairytales — the girl isn’t meant to expect a handsome prince. She’s meant to be disgusted by the frog and be utterly surprised later.

So Ottaline doesn’t want a fairytale romance. What does she want? Satisfying sex (not with the off-again, on-again farmhand), and a stable life.

Her only chance seemed the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man, Hal Bloom, tall legs like chopsticks, T-shirt emblazoned Aggressive by Nature, Cowboy by Choice. He worked for Aladdin in short bursts between rodeo roping, could not often be pried off his horse (for he cherished a vision of himself as an 1870s cowboy just in from an Oregon cattle drive). Ottaline had gone with him down into the willow a dozen times, to the damp soil and nests of stinging nettles, where he pulled a pale condom over his small, hard penis and crawled silently into her. His warm neck smelled of soap and horse.

Being a woman, she’s liable to be turfed out at some point if the handling of the farm turns to her wayward brother.

OPPONENT

The natural order of society stands in Ottaline’s way. Patrimony, societal (and internalised) rejection of her heft. But these things don’t make for interesting opponents in a fleshed out narrative.

Her father keeps her locked up in the rural equivalent of a castle:

It is implied that her father, only too happy that one of his two daughters should fill in for the son who has deserted the ranch, treacherously keeps her from going to town to get a job and fires Hal Bloom, “the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man” whom desperate Ottaline, in spite of her obvious lack of attraction to him, had perceived as her “only chance” to ever get away from the family ranch.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

We have the farmhand who is an example of a man she could easily end up with — someone who coerces her into unsatisfying sex and who has no prospects.

Then we have the ‘monster’ (in the Courage The Cowardly Dog sense) who arrives suddenly from outside this established community — here it comes in the form of a talking tractor, though I read this tractor as Ottaline’s own awakening, perhaps provoked by her hobby of listening in on other people’s conversations on her scanner.

PLAN

Ottaline has an anti-plan in this ironic, subversive story. She will plant herself right where she is, thanks. There is a narrative reason for her heft. She is grounded to this land. Instead, when things happen to go her way, it’s luck. If she had any hand in things at all, it’s because she learned to put her foot down and not accept any crap from ‘the tractor’ (ie. men who treat her badly).

Luck is the thing. Proulx introduces the stochastic nature of things in the very first paragraph, a paragraph which looks at first glance like a simple description of setting:

The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.

Ottaline’s plan thus far has been to shun feminine skills in favour of masculine ones, hoping to stay on the farm I guess:

With a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank,” grotesquely obese Ottaline in “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World” quickly shuns feminine attires and house chores, opting instead for ranch work with her father, “manure-caked roper boots” and “big jeans”. As a result, she is tragically even more cut off from the rest of the world. 

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

BIG STRUGGLE

Ottaline’s internal big struggle with the patriarchy takes place astride the tractor:

Ottaline turns out to be one of Proulx’s subversive tools, as her rebellion against the wannabe prince turns the tables on gender stereotypes. Indeed, the scene in which Ottaline fixes the tractor contains innuendos pointing to the implicit subtext of sexual empowerment:

She had bought a can of penetrating oil with her and began to squirt it on studs, bolts and screws, to rap on the rested colts with a heavy wrench.

“You make a wrong move I might hurt you.”

“You know what? I was you I’d lay back and enjoy it.” Something Hal Bloom had said.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Ottaline is brought to her knees in terms of bad fortune when her father gets her to bring a buyer in for the cattle.

ANAGNORISIS

The ‘twist’ (revelation) for the reader comes when the cattle buyer’s son comes instead. There’s an instant connection (a ‘love at first sight’ fairytale trope?) and Ottaline marries the son, thereby keeping the cattle.

What’s the revelation? Luck can turn on a dime, but in both directions.

It turned the other way for Aladdin, who is killed instantly in his new plane.

NEW SITUATION

They ‘plant’ (bury) Aladdin on the farm and Ottaline runs the ranch with her new husband.

Like Charles Perrault did with his fairytales, Annie Proulx offers an extra bit to make sure the reader gets the point of the telling. Though unlike in those misogynistic, didactic tales, Proulx has a much less romanticised view on life:

That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

“Tits Up In A Ditch” is another story by Annie Proulx conveying a deep disregard for fairy-tale romance. It starts a bit like a fairy tale but events for Dakotah turn tragic.

There are also strong parallels with “The Mud Below”:

Ottaline grows up on her parents’ ranch, “adrift on the high plain” where “the wind isolate[s] them from the rest of the world.” As she starts having conversations with an amorous talking John Deere tractor, the story suggests that pathetic Ottaline has gradually  been driven insane, out of line, by the “raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh”: “Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far for anything. Someone had to come for her.” For some of Proulx’s characters, marriage is definitely presented as the least worse off option, the only way to rise from “the mud below” as one of the short story titles has it.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

Tractors must be a very real worry to farmers. Here in Australia, some groups are wanting the law to change around four-wheeler use in children. In fiction, too the tractor or farm vehicle is quite regularly used as a means of death. Reese Witherspoon’s debut film featured a death by tractor.

John Cheever wrote a magical realist story about someone listening in on other people’s conversations — “The Enormous Radio” — though this lead to a family’s downfall, not to a woman’s awakening.

Ottaline reminds me a little of Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s best-known short stories (“Prelude”, “At The Bay”), but she really describes any unmarried woman from late 19th, early 20th century literature, enjoying fantasies in her own bedroom but due to failure in finding a marriage partner, can never become a fully-fledged member of society.

“The Bunchgrass End Of The World” reminded me at times of a documentary I watched once about men who fall in love, romantically and sexually, with cars. Because I’d seen that, I wondered if that’s where the story was going.