“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008 edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.
But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that?
Also, Steinbeck is making wonderful use of a technique all writers can use: The miniature in storytelling. In fact, this is your archetypal example of it.
SETTING OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Set on a farm.
High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch cup.
White pigeons, a cypress tree, haystacks full of mice, barbed wire fences, surrounded by mountains. Dogs, squirrels, road runners and at night, large moths throw themselves at the windows. In the daytime, the heavy smell of sage. Ants and flies.
Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed. For eight months the had lived and multiplied in the haystack. they had been immune from cats, from traps, from poison and from Jody.
This is a bifurcated setting — the mountains seem ominous. Billy glances towards them as if there may be trouble. This juxtaposes against the utopian description of the side-hill:
Jody turned back and looked at the side-hill where the road from the outside world came down. the hill was washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushed.
Nearby we have the Horseshoe Club in Pacific Grove, which tells us this is in California. (East of where the father-in-law has settled.) By climbing the little cleft where the road comes through, Jody can see the huge green Salinas Valley.
Inside, the mother prepares beans, they eat steak and beans at a white oilcloth table, the room lit by a lamp with a tin reflector. Mother rings a triangle to alert the farmworkers when their meals are ready. They eat sugared mush for breakfast.
The parents are harsh on Jody by modern standards. Jody expresses excitement that his father has arrived home carrying a letter, so he runs inside to spread that excitement to his mother. But he is chastised and humiliated for failing to mind his own business. A modern parent would encourage the kid’s enthusiasm — after all, this is his own grandfather coming to stay. This is his business. Are these parents typical of the era, or are these especially harsh characters? In any case, they’re training him into a certain variety of masculinity, in which a boy expresses no emotion apart from anger and disapproval.
This is a time when kids are supposed to be kept busy, or else they’ll turn out lazy or get themselves into trouble. The mother admonishes the father for not giving him enough jobs to do. Today, we consider play the main job of children. And that is shown here — only by trying to engage the grandfather in play does Jody have the Anagnorisis and grow up a little.
THE MINIATURE IN STORYTELLING
It becomes clear that Steinbeck is using a tried and tested writing technique — he’s playing with our perception of scale to encourage us to consider what’s really important in life. First he gave us the mountains juxtaposed against the much smaller (and pleasant) side-hill. The small boy’s enthusiasm juxtaposes against the solemn, grim demeanour of his parents, and when the boy meets his grandfather the mice are coming in handy, symbolically:
Jody explained, “The dogs eat them, sir. It wouldn’t be much like hunting Indians I guess.”
“No, not much-but then later, when the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning tepees, it wasn’t much different from you mouse hunt.”
Later, when Jody is lying in bed, Steinbeck expands upon the idea that the Wild West, with heroic Cowboys and warring Indians looms large in contemporary (1930s) minds:
Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.
Later, after Jody’s father dismisses the grandfather, the old man looks literally smaller in Jody’s young eyes:
Jody turned disconsolately away, and walked down toward the old haystack. He tried to whip up his enthusiasm with thoughts of the fat juicy mice. He beat the ground with his flail. the dogs coaxed and whined about him, but he could not go. Back at the house he could see Grandfather sitting on the porch, looking small and thin and black.
Notice also how Steinbeck has listed the animal life all the way through the story, starting with the large animals (the horses, the dogs, the squirrels) and working his way down to the moths (last night) and now he describes the flies, then the ants. Everything is shrinking in Jody’s eyes as Jody grows more mature, by observing the interaction between the men, especially.
CHARACTERS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Billy Buck — The middle-aged ranch-hand. Black hat. His father was called Muletail Buck because he packed mules. Though a ranch hand wouldn’t normally shave mid week, he has shaved to meet the Grandfather, because the Grandfather holds him in high esteem. The Grandfather admires that he’s one of the few men who has not ‘gone soft’. (This feels like an accusation every older generation levels against every younger generation of men.)
Jody Tiflin— A spirited, enthusiastic little boy who finds excitement in small things. He tries to do the right thing.
Carl Tiflin — Jody’s father. At the start of the story he is away riding up the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains. Left after dinner (probably the midday meal).
Mrs. Tiflin — Jody’s mother. Inside shelling or chopping beans into a pan. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a first name. She is important to the story only as the mother, daughter and wife.
Mrs. Tiflin’s father — Steinbeck makes us curious about this old man by showing characters talking about him before he arrives on the scene. We learn that he talks only of Indians, and crossing the plains. He repeats the same stories about how the horses got driven off. Earlier in his life he led a wagon train across the plains to the coast. That was his life’s achievement. He was born for that job. But once he got to the ocean there was no more West left. So he settled by the ocean in Monterey.
Then he does turn up and we get the following description:
The grandfather was dressed in a black broad cloth suit and he wore kid congress gaiters and a black tie on a short, hard collar. He carried his black slouch hat in his hand. His white beard was cropped close and his white eyebrows overhung his eyes like moustaches. the blue eyes were sternly merry. About the whole face and figure there was a granite dignity, so that every motion seemed an impossible thing. Once at rest, it seemed the old man would be stone, would never move again. His steps wee slow and certain. Once made, not step could ever be traced; once headed in a direction, the path would never ben nor the pace increase nor slow.
Double-tree Mutt — the black dog. Likes to dig in squirrel holes. Doesn’t realise that dogs don’t catch squirrels by digging holes. There’s another dog as well. They have fleas.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
A little boy is excited to learn that his grandfather is coming to say. His father, not so much. The old man goes on and on about the short time in his life when he was in his element — leading a band across the prairie to California.
The old man turns up, and sure enough, tells the same old stories. Only the little boy is interested, though he, too, has heard all these stories before. Steinbeck doesn’t bother telling us much of the stories, on the understanding that everyone coming to this short story in 1933 knows the basics of Western expansion. So he summarises:
Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. the story droned on, speeded up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials and the great plains.
At breakfast, the old man overhears his son-in-law complaining about him telling the same old stories, so he takes a moment outside to reflect. He talks to the grandson, and explains the reason for telling the stories — to underscore the importance of collective spirit, not to revel in the glory of it.
The shifting third-person narration does the rounds, but settles most often on the highly empathetic young Jody. Much of the story is filtered through his point of view. Even when it isn’t, directly, the narrator describes things Jody would notice. In this way, “The Leader of the People” is a bit like “What Maisie Knew”, a novel by Henry James first published 1897. I suspect Steinbeck was influenced by James.
It seems Jody is quite isolated on that farm — there are no other kids to join him in his games, so his best hope is persuading an old man to join him.
Jody isn’t especially empathetic, either. He sees the mice purely as opponents to be conquered. Though is father has a more nuanced and grim view of the wars between the whites and the native peoples, Jody is yet to learn any of it. He’s all about the sticks and the guns. By the end of the story he’ll have a slightly more nuanced view on American history.
Jody wants to listen to his grandfather tell exciting stories about cowboys and Indians. then he wants to engage him in his own farm-sized Battle between himself and the mice, though the mice are only into haystacks that are no longer any use, and hurting no one.
This is an interesting technique I’m noticing a lot—the Battle promised is not the Battle we get. In this story, Jody is all about the big fight between himself, the dogs and the mice in the haystacks. Ostensibly, Steinbeck leads the story towards that. First the cast members turn up, then Jody finds a stick… we see the dogs on a mission for squirrels, so we know the actors involved.
But there is no mouse catching scene. That Battle is purely symbolic. Instead we get the awkward scene at the breakfast table, where the old man overhears his son-in-law. (The exact same plot point is used in “Old Man Minick” by Edna Ferber). We know this is the real, structural Battle because the Anagnorisiss follow swiftly after.
Both the old man and the little boy have their own Anagnorisis, in keeping with the gigantic/miniatures theme Steinbeck’s got going on.
The old man overhears his son-in-law and realises the time for those stories is gone, or rather, people mistake his reason for telling those stories. He doesn’t mean to turn himself into a hero. He means to convey the idea that ‘It was a whole bunch of people make into one big crawling beast.’
Here’s Jody’s more naive Anagnorisis:
Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his fail against the steps. “That’s to drive the mice out,” he said. “I’ll bet they’re fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.”
“No, nor you either,” Billy remarked philosophically, “nor me, nor anyone.”
Jody was staggered by this thought. He knew it was true. His imagination twitched away from the mouse hunt. Then his mother came out on the back porch and struck the triangle and all thoughts fell in a heap.
The Anagnorisis for the reader is that Western expansion was expansion for the sake of expansion. Pretty much every ‘Western’ since WW2 has been ‘anti-Western’ rather than Western — highlighting the fruitlessness and misery of American expansionism rather than the glory. So Steinbeck is slightly ahead of his time in writing a Western story (story within a story) in which an old man looks back on his life as a pioneer and sees it in a deterministic, pessimistic way:
But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering.
Then, in case we missed it, Steinbeck gives us some dialogue which directly compares the futility of human expansionism to the industry of ants.
We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs.
I’ll argue the mother and father have their own minor revelations as well: Carl learns that he’s better off letting the old man speak; the mother learns that her little boy has matured somewhat overnight, asking for a lemon for Grandfather’s lemonade, when previously he used the excuse of Grandfather to get away with doing things he might not ordinarily be allowed to do.
“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. This is Mansfield’s most accessible story, and a good introduction to her work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature as well. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps by interpreting imagery. Readers are told exactly what happens.
(It always bothers me that the apostrophe doesn’t come after the ‘s’ in dolls’ house, since more than one doll always lives there…)
Schools looked like this around the time Katherine Mansfield was growing up in New Zealand — the New Zealand of her memory.
New Zealanders have long loved to tell ourselves the myth that New Zealand is without social class. “When Europeans settled in New Zealand, everyone was equal. Everyone started from scratch, and everybody drank at the same pubs, attended the same schools…”
That was never true. My earliest ancestor to New Zealand emigrated as a bannister maker. He went to New Zealand to make bannisters for rich people, who took their servants, their wealth and their attitudes with them. Nothing magical happened on that boat to wipe those slates clean.
It is true that for hard-working early settlers, climbing the economic hierarchy became a genuine possibility, given good luck, white skin and valuable skills. One line of my working-class ancestry managed to secure swathes of farmland, some of it in an area which is now central Christchurch. That land was stolen by a lawyer who duped a new widow and ran off to Australia with the late husband’s fortune. (Women weren’t taught much about money in those days.) My family’s newly acquired immigrant fortune was thereby lost, even more quickly than it was gained. (Back then, Australia might as well have been the other side of the world.) My own family’s example demonstrates the ebb and flow of fortune in a young, new land, but classist attitudes are slower to change.
Do they ever change? Mansfield encourages us to mull that one over.
SYMBOLISM OF THE DOLL’S HOUSE
Doll house stories inevitably utilise one of two literary effects (or even both at once):
The miniature effect, in which a story set in a particular time and place represents times and places everywhere. (Click that link, because there are many other uses for it.)
The mise-en-abyme effect, which I cover in detail in an Angela Carter short story. In Mansfield’s story, imagine a doll house inside a doll house inside a doll house and so on. This conveys the idea of a never-ending pattern. What’s the never-ending pattern? Classism. Each new generation learns the same old classism from the one before, transmitting it later to their own children. A dolls’ house is therefore the perfect symbol to convey how classist attitudes transmit across generations.
For other examples of dolls’ houses in literature, see this post. (Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903 — was this a favourite of Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield was a teenager by that stage, but Potter’s stories found very wide appeal.)
The central image of “The Doll’s House” is the little lamp, often interpreted as a symbol of light and therefore of knowing. But the lamp is a symbol of tricks, shams and illusions:
It was even filled already for lighting, though, of course you couldn’t light it.
… you couldn’t tell it from a real one’.
This is very similar to how Beatrix Potter uses the doll house in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice“. Potter’s story would therefore make an excellent companion text to this one. Unlike the Burnell children, the two ‘bad’ mice are outraged to learn that the miniature food is fake. They have a tantrum and make a complete mess of the dollhouse. But I find “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” the most affecting of all Potter’s tales — we feel genuine sorrow for the mice, who looked forward to a wonderful treat, only to have their hopes dashed.
Let’s look more closely at the imagistic pattern described in “The Doll’s House”, focusing on the dollhouse itself:
the door was like a slab of toffee very big, awful smell, big lumps of paint, the hook was stuck fast as if they had fainted [describing the very stiff dolls]
These details reenforce the basic theme: the gradual revelation to a child of social discrimination and injustice.
Significantly, only Else seems to realise that the rich people’s ‘little teeny lamp’ is a sham.
This is the story of a community rather than of an individual. This narrative choice fits the theme, because social strata requires an entire community in order to exist. As in “Sun and Moon”, it makes more sense to divide the cast into two ‘main characters’ — adults versus children.
Whenever rich and poor people interact in a story, you get immediate, ready-made conflict. The adults of this rural town resemble rural towns dotted throughout New Zealand today, with the stark division between landed farmers and the service industry workers who work for them, alongside the unemployed. Rural towns are the perfect arena for rich and poor to mingle together. Although some of the rich farmers’ children are sent away to high school, they do still tend to attend the local primary school together. Katherine Mansfield herself was sent away to ‘finishing school’. (My father always used to threaten to send me away to finishing school if I didn’t behave like a proper little lady, though but the 1980s such institutions no longer existed, and I never really understood the empty threat. Even in England, Princess Diana was the very last of the finishing school class of lady, alongside Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born.)
The moral shortcoming of the adults: They have no empathy for people they consider beneath themselves.
The moral shortcoming of the children: The children are emulating their adults, and this story is a snippet of indoctrination. The little girls mimic their mothers exactly, and the in-group, out-group bias is evident in the playground, where niceties are extended in return for social favours. You could even draw parallels between the doll’s house and the housing market, which is even more of a social issue than it was back then, when even the servant class were able to afford their own small cottage. In contemporary New Zealand there is an ever-increasing class divide between those who can own their own homes (and rental properties), and those who will never afford the payments on a the most modest of mortgages. This year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created legislation preventing offshore ownership of New Zealand real estate, in an attempt to put a lid on this problem.
Anthony Browne covered similar issues in his picture book Voices In The Park. Before children learn who they may and may not talk to, they are inclined to talk to everyone. Browne’s book would make a good companion text to “The Doll’s House”.
Another short story master who tends to write communities rather than individuals is Annie Proulx. If you want to create a story with community themes, it’s all in your choice of narration:
Imagine a camera, attached to a silent drone. This drone follows Mrs Hay, who leaves a doll’s house with the Burnells, then flies over to the Burnell children, goes with them to school, flies up to pan out and include the Kelvey girls, who wait in the wings. For the big struggle scene it follows Aunt Beryl, but we accept this change in point of view because Mansfield never settles in on any single individual. Finally, it rests with the Kelvey girls, who are given the final word. This moment of sweetness makes the rest of the story all the worse.
The Burnell children scheme between themselves how to milk this doll’s house for all the social capital it’s worth. They decide who’s going to pick friends to come home and view it, how to create momentum. (If the era were different, Isabel would have found great success in a marketing career.)
Little Kezia eventually gets sick of her big sister taking all the glory, and she makes her own plan: To invite the Kelveys to see it. (I imagine everyone else has seen the doll’s house by this point.)
When Aunt Beryl finds the Kelveys in the yard she shoos them out as if they are chickens, later described as rats.
There may have been another reason, apart from the father in gaol/servant reason given, that the Burnell adults refused to allow poor children into their yard, treating them as disease-spreading rodents. The following is a fairly new theory, to do with the discovery that Harold Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield’s father) probably moved the family out to the ‘country’ (now pretty central Wellington) to escape a bacterial plague affecting the old central Wellington:
What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?
Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.
I doubt Kezia had any sort of epiphany regarding social class and exclusion and untouchable culture. She most likely learned that the Kelvey girls are too disgusting to enter the yard, and she won’t dare associate with them again.
In this story, the revelation is for the reader rather than for the characters, who are victims of the cogs of the local social hierarchy.
Apart from being asked to offer critique of classism, the paragraph with Aunt Beryl offers an insight into human psychology: Adults get mad at children when their own personal lives aren’t working out. This has nothing to do with the children, but children (similar to the adult servant class) bear the brunt. Or, ‘shit travels down’, as corporate workers well know. (I believe Americans say ‘shit rolls downhill’.)
The ending serves to underscore this: The underclass are learning their place. This isn’t just one-sided, with the upper class learning their place at the top. The Kelvey girls are meek. They don’t complain.
Else is satisfied that she’s seen the little lamp. She’s ‘forgotten the cross lady’. As time goes by, she’ll not necessarily remember the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl at all, and she may barely remember that little lamp. But all of these micro-aggressions add up, and by the time she’s grown, Else will know her place in the social hierarchy: firmly at the bottom.
This ending is similar to that of “Her First Ball” in which an underdog character has an unpleasant interaction then apparently forgets all about it.
Because the Kelvey sisters are so socially and materially deprived, the opportunity to view a fancy doll’s house makes their day, despite the inevitable (to them) ostracisation which follows.
There are subcategories of relative deprivation. It can work the other way, in which a disenfranchised group or individual looks at far more privileged others around them and this maximises their dissatisfaction. Mansfield covered this variety of relative deprivation in “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.
Header painting: Benjamin Leader – A Relic of the Past. I chose this painting not because it is set in New Zealand but because of the children playing, and because the angle makes the foregrounded house look so much bigger than the cottage.
Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC
Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s often because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.
Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.
Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?
Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is a symbol.
Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.
Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:
The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them, and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.
Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:
The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing… mise en abyme.)
Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
The narrator is encouraged at the end to wonder what it all means.
Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picture book. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.
This kid (I assumed it is a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer. She feels she knows her own world very well. But her Shortcoming is that she can’t possibly know her own world until she experiences someone else’s.
Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore. She never predicted these questions. She didn’t realise there was anything odd about things which are, to her, banal.
Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.
Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:
I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excursions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.
Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. This reminds me of the parable The Blind Men And The Elephant.
“The Blind Men And The Elephant” was published in 1873 as part of a collection of rhymes and poems by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe (1816-87) baed his moral tale — more of a parable in the guise of a rhyme — upon a story of Indian origin that he called a ‘Hindoo Fable’. It is probably quite ancient in origin, as similar tales are told in other religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam and Jainism. In each, the number of blind men varies and sometimes they are not blind at all, but men in a darkened room with an elephant (clearly the only elephant in a room not to be ignored). The Hindu version of the tale goes something like this:
One day three blind men met, as usual, and sat under their favourite tree, talking about many things. All of a sudden, one of them said, ‘I have heard that an elephant is a strange creature.’ Another replied, ‘Yes, it is too bad we are blind and do not have the good fortune to see this strange beast.’ But the third said, ‘Why do we need to see? Just to feel it would be wonderful.’ At that moment a passing merchant with a group of elephants came conveniently along and overheard their conversation. ‘You fellows,’ he called, ‘if you really want to feel an elephant then come with me.’ The three blind men were surprised but very happy. Taking each other by the hand, they quickly followed the merchant and began to speak excitedly about how the animal would feel and how they would form an image of it in their minds.
When they reached the elephants, the merchant told two of them to sit on the ground and wait while he led the first man to one of the beasts. With an outstretched arm, the man touched one of the elephant’s front legs and then the other, stroking each from top to bottom. ‘So’, he said, ‘the strange animal is just like that.’ Then the second man was led to the elephant. With an outstretched arm, he touched the creature on the trunk, stroking it up and down and from side to side. ‘Ah! So now I know, I truly know!’ he cried. The third man encountered the elephant’s tail and wagged it from side to side. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘now I know too.’
The three blind men thanked the merchant and returned to their spot under the tree, each one excited about what he had learned. The first man said, ‘This strange animal is just like two big trees, without any branches.’ Luckily, he was unable to see the expressions on his friends’ faces, for they were horrified. ‘No, no!’ they cried in disbelief at what they had just heard. The second man then said, ‘This animal is like a snake, long, strong and flexible.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed the third man. ‘You are both quite wrong. the elephant resembles a fly whisk, swishing from side to side.’
They argued about this for days, each insisting that he alone was correct, and of course, as Saxe points out in the conclusion to his rhyme — all three of them were partly in the right / and all of them were wrong. The moral is that nobody can claim to fully understand a subject until they have grasped — in this case, quite literally — the whole thing. Even then, it is never possible to know the full truth about something, simply because everyone, however knowledgeable or experienced will view it in a different way. Hence, on a deeper level, the elephant can be seen as reality, and we are all the blind men, each of us able to perceive only a tiny part of a much greater whole.
Pop Goes The Weasel: The secret meaning of nursery rhymes by Albert Jack
In short, I believe Shaun Tan has chosen the detail of the elephant’s foot in reference to this ancient parable, turning Tan’s contemporary story of Eric into a parable as well, though its moral is less clearly spelt out: Our own countries are our own separate pieces of the elephant.
This intertextual detail is followed by ordinary, more relatable ones: At the casino Eric gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.
In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.
It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.
The window, however, comes before the Battle scene.
So in this case we have a door: the pantry door functioning as symbolic anagnorisis. Always look at whether a door is open or shut, because the meaning is highly dependent upon that.
Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again. They’ve seen another piece of the elephant.
This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.
Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.
Another story with fetching illustrations of a very small character living in a human-scale world is Little Tom (1922).