The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy Young Adult Novel Study

The Tricksters Margaret Mahy dark cover

The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.

A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.

These three iterations of the tricksters line up with Matt Bird’s head/heart/gut theory:

Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.)
Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love.
Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.

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Jane Campion’s The Piano Film Study

The Piano Film Landscape

The Piano (1993) is a lyrical, fairytale film written and directed by Jane Campion, set and filmed in New Zealand near the beginning of white colonisation.

SETTING OF THE PIANO

Like many creative New Zealanders, Campion comes from Wellington. I don’t know why so much creativity comes out of the Wellington region, but I suspect it has something to do with the dramatic landscape and its harsh climate. I don’t dismissively mean that the weather is so terrible that people have nothing else to do but stay inside and make their own fun. I mean, when you immerse yourself in New Zealand’s most outdoors settings, you can occasionally be struck by a sense of awe, and that awe carries over into your work.

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How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

George Vicat Cole - Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1912. At its heart, “Pearl Button” is a story about a clash of two cultures seen through a child’s eyes.

This story plays out as a duality of restriction and freedom. The European settlers are restricted while the Māori people enjoy freedom. “Pearl Button” is the only story in which Mansfield wrote about Māori. Her treatment of Māori from a white perspective was typical for the era — a romanticized opposition between Western and non-Western cultures. Mansfield came back to the idea of colonial constriction in later stories but focused on white New Zealanders.

SETTING OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

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The Māori of New Zealand lived in a more communal way than New Zealand’s Pākehā immigrants. Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa and immediately started sectioning up the space — from land down to living quarters. While European settlers lived in little houses, Māori people did not live like this. The pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, and is the centre of a Māori community, extending the concept of family out beyond the traditional nuclear family by European concept. Mansfield grew up alongside Māori pā culture and would have noted the differences.

The story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” juxtaposes two ways of living — the European way of living in segmented ‘little boxes’ versus the freer, more sensual Māori way of life, closer to nature. Pearl Button herself prefers the Māori way of life. Since Pearl is the focalising character, the reader is encouraged to share in her view.

There’s another kind of juxtaposition in this story as well, a really interesting one, and it was the first time Mansfield had used it. “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” was the first time Mansfield used narrative parallax.

Mansfield’s ironic use of parallax to suggest that the man’s experience of the world is multifaceted also marks the particular modulation into a selective, restricted perspective, which is Impressionistic in concept. She employs this technique haphazardly, beginning with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1910) and ending with “Miss Brill” (1920).

There is no consistent development. The method depends on a single device: the restricting of the perspective and knowledge of a focaliser-character into a broadening, more objective narrator’s one. He is not emotionally detached from the scene, but capable of perceiving it from a great distance. It often involves an initiation, a sudden awareness or enlightenment (epiphany) of some profound significance.

The imposition of narrative distance on a scene of intense emotional concern on the part of the participant(s) creates an irony of perspective which often suggests the isolation of individual human beings, their lack of consequence in the universal flux of life, their diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point and their defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround them.

One of the best examples of this method can be found in “The Little Governess“, where the nameless, inexperienced young governess is made aware of her fellow-travellers, of herself, and reality outside her. At the end of the story she is isolated from everyone because of her own inconsistent behaviour. She feels hopelessly insignificant and deflated by events.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is basically a carnivalesque story. If this were a children’s picture book, the kidnappers might be an animal — let’s say a cat in a hat — and there would be no police officers bringing the child back — the parents wouldn’t notice she’d gone. In a carnivalesque story the child escapes into fun.

Of course, Mansfield’s story has that very dark layer because Pearl Button really is kidnapped within the world of the story. Pearl has an Unexpected Emotional Reaction. We expect children to be distraught when taken away from their natal homes. But what if a child is so young and so detached from their family that one family could easily be switched out for another? Isn’t this the horror that gave rise to an entire category of changeling stories around the world?

Throughout her ‘kidnapping’, Pearl experiences positive emotions that burgeon out of bodily experience. The women first see her in the joyful, childlike act of swinging on a front gate. They reciprocate her motions by ‘waving their arms and clapping their hands together’. Pearl’s responsive laughter reveals that her primary means of experiencing the world is through reactive and embodied emotion. Later, she will cry when tired and confused, laugh when entertained by funny faces, and scream when she sees the ocean. She learns to enjoy the sea by entering it with the trusted woman, whom she is hugging and kissing at the moment she sees the ‘little blue men’ coming to carry her back home.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She's ready for adventure. She doesn't know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Eight Fairy Tales edited by Watty Piper, Platt & Munk Co., Inc. 1934. Little Red Riding Hood. A girl swinging on her front gate is similar to the image of a girl looking out of her front window. She’s ready for adventure. She doesn’t know what kind of adventure, but she has a deep-seated desire to leave the confines of home.
Carlton Alfred Smith - "At the Garden Gate". In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.
Carlton Alfred Smith – “At the Garden Gate”. In a different country, an older girl waits at a different gate for something to happen.

SHORTCOMING

Pearl’s problem is that she’s a little girl severely constricted by her European life. The story opens with her symbolic swinging on the gate.

Pearl clearly goes willingly with the women and never complains. We assume she wants to be there the whole time, though we might read the story a slightly different way — Pearl would have been taught not to complain. This is part of the restriction of being a girl in white society in that era. When she sat in the dust while eating a peach she might have complained when she spilled the juice on her petticoat. But she doesn’t complain — she instead just tells the women what has happened, and only because she is frightened of what comes next. Ruining pretty clothes is clearly a terrible misdemeanour where Pearl Button comes from.

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the main character (usually a child or child stand-in) only desires to have fun.

Pearl is itching to get out of that gate, out into the world where she can be closer to nature and run around with fewer clothes hampering her movements. Pearl doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know what she’s missing until she’s taken out of her European life, full of boundaries and restrictions.

Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster,  c. 1935
Percy Trompf, The Seaside Calls, Take a Kodak, Vintage Poster, c. 1935

OPPONENT

For plotting purposes, the opposition is the cadre of policemen who come to ‘save’ Pearl from her fun. The reader will likely feel the opponents are the abductors because popular ideology would have it that children should stay with their natal families at all costs. This feeling is even more true today than it was in 1912 when first peoples’ children around the colonised world were regularly abducted from their families by white people (especially in Australia).

The story works with long-established tropes about the colonised racial other who experiences the world as a body rather than as a mind. The two women who encounter Pearl and bring her away with them are ‘big’ and walk slowly ‘because they [are] so fat’. These large feminine bodies are, like that of the grandmother in “The Little Girl”, extremely comforting for the young protagonist. Pearl ‘nestles’ into one woman’s lap, where her physical sensations bleed into a contented emotional state: ‘The woman was warm as a cat and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring […] Pearl had never been happy like this before.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

The intrigue of this story rests upon the reader feeling worried for Pearl. A long history of storytelling has taught us this much: A taken child is in danger. Think of the Greek myths, with those terrible women who eat other people’s babies because they can’t have children of their own. They wreak havoc by eating other people’s babies instead. Lamia is a standout example.

So the reader expects Pearl to come to harm, but Katherine Mansfield’s kidnapper is more of a nymph than an ogre; rather than devour the child, these proxy nymphs taker her away to look after her. Mythological nymphs are especially drawn to looking after children who have been abandoned by their mothers. Pearl Button hasn’t been abandoned, but when the Māori women find her, she is on her own, with no whanau in sight. An unusual situation for a child, according to a Māori worldview at the time.

To further the analogy of the Greek nymphs, the Māori end up by the sea. The seaside could be coded as a New Zealand equivalent of the river Ilissos, where nymphs like to frolic in the water and enjoy the shade. Importantly, Greek nymphs are not evil. They don’t even have any backstories of their own — they are about potential (young women waiting to be married).

PLAN

Pearl is too young to be a ‘planner’ as such. The adults have the plan — they let Pearl move about freely by stripping her of most of her constricting Edwardian clothing. They let her frolic on the beach and have the new experience of playing in waves. Through the focalised viewpoint of Pearl, it seems these abductors exist only to have fun themselves. We never learn why they’ve taken Pearl or if they ever intended to return her. I doubt the Māori characters who took Pearl didn’t see it as abduction, but rather a casual sharing of the parenting load, fully intending to return her at the end of the day.

BIG STRUGGLE

When the Māori mother undresses Pearl she is preparing Pearl for a metaphorical Battle. In a carnivalesque story there’s no Battle as such — instead the fun gets funner and funner, culminating in peak fun before something or someone intervenes to bring everything to an end. The child returns to their normal life in a home-away-home structure.

But there’s a structural difference between “Pearl Button” (a lyrical short story) and, say, The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea — carnivalesque picture books for preschoolers. “Pearl Button” stars a preschooler, but is clearly not for a preschool audience.

The difference is that Pearl has some sort of revelation. She doesn’t understand it, but she feels it at a sensory level. Mansfield makes use of the sea…

ANAGNORISIS

She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands.

Throughout the story, Mansfield has mentioned colour over and over — Pearl notices the different colours of things. When witnessed as a whole, the ocean looks blue but not when she tries to hold a tiny portion of it in her hands. This detail stands in for a Anagnorisis — no doubt unformed and preverbal — after all Pearl is still a young child. What is the nascent revelation? That things look lovely from this distance (as a temporary visitor) but as soon as she gets right into it the illusion disintegrates. Her day of fun with the Māori families is about to come to an end.

It is in fact the sensory experience of the ocean that provokes the most feeling from Pearl. Its warmth, wetness and unique visual properties — ‘it stopped being blue in her hands’ — get her to shriek, exclaim and throw ‘her thin little arms round the woman’s neck’. During this time away from the restrictive civilisation of the ‘House of Boxes’, Pearl, unlike young Kass, does not have to fight a natural order in which feeling comes first.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the police will charge the abductors and Pearl will be returned to her family. I doubt she’ll suffer trauma because her big day out has been a lovely experience. But her freedom will probably be curtailed from now on. I doubt her mother will let her swing on the front gate without close supervision. She’ll be cautioned against talking to strangers. Pearl will be more fearful from now on. Her days of childlike bliss and innocence are over.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

  • Another story in which Mansfield explores how affectionate physical contact plays into the emotional relationships between children and adults is “The Little Girl“.
  • “The Representation Of The Maori By European Artists In New Zealand, Ca 1890-1914″ by Leonard Bell elaborates on how native New Zealanders were fictionalised by colonial settlers.
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Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

Body Swap Stories

Your Name movie poster

Body swap stories are as ancient as story itself. Take the British folk tale The Witch-hare of Cleveland. A local witch tells some farmers where to find a hare they can hunt, but warns them not to set a black dog on it. They set a black dog on it, of course. That’s how fairytales work. (Someone tells you not to something, you gotta do it. In fairytale language, this warning is called the ‘interdiction’.) Anyway, the farmers go to apologise and find the poor old witch writhing around with a chunk out of her leg… right where the black dog bit the hare.

Is that a body swap story, or is it a simple transmogrification story? Not clear. The story doesn’t tell us if the farmers still have themselves a juicy hare for dinner.

Whether we’re talking about body swap or transmogrification, why are these tales so popular? Body swap stories are high concept stories, and their popularity endures. Freaky Friday, for example, started in 1976. We keep seeing new versions.

The mother-daughter body swap is relatively ‘safe’ and the moral lesson is clear: When we literally put ourselves in cross-generational shoes, we understand the other’s point of view.

However, when the body swap is cross gender, pitfalls soon reveal themselves. Likewise, as I am finding out, middle grade human-to-pet body swap narratives are also likely to convey problematic gender ideologies.

FREAKY FRIDAY AND ME

When I was ten years old I was a massive writer of fan fiction, though it wasn’t called that then. I rarely finished any story but I was struck by one idea after another. The joy was in the writing, not in the finished product. Sometimes I’d simply write book blurbs with no intention of going any further. One day my teacher found me reading (which was fine — he ran the classroom according to Montessori philosophy), and picked up the little note I’d written to myself. I was using it as a bookmark. The note was mostly written to try out the new green, felt-tipped calligraphy marker I’d gotten for my birthday but I’d written something like: “Write a story about a girl who swaps bodies with her mother.”

“Hmm,” said my teacher, who had read this note despite me wanting to snatch it right back out of his hands. “Have you seen the film Freaky Friday?”

I had not. I told him I had not. This was the late 80s, a long time after the first adaptation (1976) and even longer before the next (1995, 2003). He looked at me suspiciously though, and I felt terrible, as if he had caught me plagiarising someone else’s idea. Perhaps all those times he’d praised my original writing were based on a lie, in his mind.

There’s nothing wrong with letting 10 year olds write fan fiction anyway, imo. Let 10 year olds write whatever they want, even if it’s derivative and unoriginal. The job of a 10-year-old is to revel in the joy of reading and writing.

I think of that shameful interaction each time I come across another body swap story, because they’re so common, no one can really be said to be plagiarising anyone else. The body swap story can be good for conveying all sorts of ‘walk-in-another-person’s-shoes’ didacticism in the most literal of plot lines, so no wonder.

Was Freaky Friday the first major story to do the body swap plot? No — take for example P.G. Wodehouse who wrote a book called Laughing Gas, published 1936.  Characters Reggie and Joey inhale laughing gas at a dentist’s office.

Wodehouse may have been inspired by the 1928 story The Master Mind of Mars by  Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring the plot line of brain transplants. At that point in history researchers were experimenting with  organ transplantation — and had been doing so, both on animals and humans, in the 18th century. (The first successful transplants didn’t happen until the 1950s.)

Although Freaky Friday was not the first popular story to introduce this plot line but is almost certainly the best known to modern culture because of the film adaptations. The original novel was by Mary Rodgers, published 1972. Rodgers also wrote Freaky Monday and Summer Switch. Due to the success of Rodgers’ first body swap novel, at  TV Tropes the body swap plot line is known as the “Freaky Friday Flip”.

A number of the hugely popular series writers for children have utilised the Freaky Friday flip at some point:

  • The Barking Ghost, Switched and Why I’m Afraid Of Bees by R.L. Stine
  • Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Parts 1 and 2 by Dav Pilkey
  • Airhead by Meg Cabot, of Princess Diaries fame
  • Freaked Out, a Lizzie McGuire story by Alice Alfonsi
  • etc

Features Of The Freaky Friday Flip

From TV Tropes:

  • Typically, the main character achieves a deeper appreciation for the other person’s life.
  • The Flip often involves characters of different ages, genders, races, or social classes.
  • Another variation is a protagonist and antagonist switching, which usually involves each trying to undermine the other’s organisation while simultaneously trying to switch back. (See Barking Mad, below.)
  • The switch may lead to a Heel–Face Turn. That’s when the villain turns good. An inverse Breaking Bad character arc.
  • If one or both of the characters have superpowers or other special abilities, they’ll have a lot of trouble figuring their new powers out.
  • In the more traditional applications of the trope, the reason for the switch is never explained in-universe. However, the Doylist (real-life, not ‘in-universe’) reason for any application is often to force the age-old moral: To better understand others, you must experience life in their shoes.

Below I take a look at some recent body swap stories, specifically how they excel versus some more problematic tropes.

Barking Mad by Tom E. Moffatt (2015)

In 1997 Scholastic published a few body swap stories for middle grade readers by Todd Strasser and one of those is called Help! I’m Trapped In My Sister’s Body!

Barking Mad is a New Zealand publication by Tom Moffatt, and winner of The Tom Fitzgibbon Award. This story is a body swap story, human swapping with dog.

I never read Strasser’s book in the 1990s but a Goodreads review confirms that I’m right to expect a fraught relationship between brother and sister. I am able to extrapolate the moral lesson as well, because it’s standard in body-swap stories for our main character to ‘find someone’s strengths and use them for good’:

Everything is going well for Jake and his pen pal, until he realizes she is coming to visit. Now he must switch bodies with his big sister, Jessica, who does not like him at all, so that he can cover up a lie that he told his pen pal. Learn what the lie is, how they covered it up, and how the siblings worked together, ending with them actually getting along. This book is a great way to encourage teamwork and finding people’s strengths and using them for good.

Goodreads review

Presumably the main character of Strasser’s story continues to do good even after being returned to his own body.

Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying for my dog-loving middle-grade daughter.

Come Back Gizmo by Paul Jennings (1996)

Barking Mad is basically a 2015 retelling of a hi-lo short novel by Paul Jennings, written almost 20 years earlier.

Come Back Gizmo is one long humiliation gag. And for true humiliation, a (cishet) boy needs a female romantic opponent. The (literal) girl next door is a highly unsympathetic archetype. Jennings uses this exact description in any story with a sexually attractive girl. She is always a white girl and she always looks like this:

Oh, just look at her. Golden hair. Blue eyes. White, white teeth.

Jennings describes Samantha’s cat, though he is also describing Samantha herself, because he has demonstrated in other stories that girls are in one of two categories: classy and cheap:

Samantha is carrying her cat, Doddles. It’s one of those expensive ones with green eyes. It is a classy cat. There is nothing cheap about it.

The reader is given no reason to like this girl, and we don’t know why the boy likes her either. The truth is, he doesn’t like her at all. He is annoyingly drawn towards her because… hormones. And because boys are not encouraged (in fiction as in real life) to see pretty girls as people.

The situation of a boy hopelessly attracted to a girl he wouldn’t otherwise like as a friend draws upon a universal feeling of youthful attraction… perhaps. This might explain the popularity of the trope, in which a boy keeps making a buffoon of himself, especially in front of the girl he likes. (In a warped version of gender equality, there are stories now where girls are also the buffoons in front of hot boys.)

But there’s another side to this trope, as used in this story, which presents another ‘universal truth’: That women (and girls) are manipulative liars.

  • Jimmy assumes (as a universal truth) that Samantha would be interested in him because he ‘doesn’t have a dollar to his name’. The universal truth as presented: Girls like boys who have money. Girls are gold-diggers.
  • Samantha forges a bargain with Jimmy in exchange for a kiss. The implies a universal ‘truth’ that girls fully understand their own sexual appeal, and will manipulate hapless boys into doing exactly what they want. A secondary universal ‘truth’ is that girls are the natural gatekeepers of sex.
  • Later, Samantha lies to the ‘little man’ from the SPCA when she insists she had nothing to do with locking the dog in the boot. Implied universal truth: That girls are liars. We might code this as ‘Samantha, this particular character, is a liar’, except this plot point follows on the back of Samantha as sexually manipulative, and the attributes go hand-in-hand. Also, the trope of the manipulative, self-centred, beautiful, sexually alluring and wholly unlikeable girl is a trope we see time and again throughout history.

The most disappointing aspect of Paul Jennings’ body swap dog story: It didn’t even need the romantic subplot bookending each end. The girl exists in the story purely to heighten the humiliation aspect of Jimmy running around naked, scratching fleas, cocking a leg on lampposts.

In response to this argument I’ve heard ‘both sides’ rebuttals: Sure, the girl is a manipulative liar, but the boy really is made to look stupid in this. Surely that’s not sexist now? I mean, the girl AND the boy are presented in a bad light. In fact, if anything, it’s reverse sexism!

That’s how the argument goes. But it doesn’t hold water, because

  1. If you flipped the genders the gag in this story wouldn’t work (ie. it would just be weird and uncomfortable, seeing a girl run around naked in front of the entire neighbourhood)
  2. For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
  3. Therefore a girl’s naked body cannot be funny; her body is always viewed through a sexual lens. Only boys have the privilege of running around naked without being viewed via a sexual gaze.

And I suppose this is why we don’t get many body swap stories in which girls swap bodies with their dogs. Girls sometimes get werewolf stories instead, which is etymologically interesting: ‘Were’ means ‘man’. The female ‘werewolf’ is a very recent development in storytelling. The etymologically correct term for a female werewolf would be wifwolf, but that means ‘wife wolf’. It’s not exactly liberating to be described only in relation to a man, especially since the entire genre of werewolf stories are about ‘breaking free of constraints’, which explains why werewolf is now coded as a gender free term.

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap was a 1980s American TV show. In each episode, main character Sam Beckett finds himself in someone else’s body. He is there to solve a crisis in their lives. This is a surprisingly earnest show, and oftentimes Sam dresses as a woman without playing it for laughs. Despite regular lighthearted moments, nothing about the tone of an episode suggests we should laugh at Sam when he dresses his masculine actor’s body in a woman’s one-piece bathing costume, for instance.

Despite the earnestness, Quantum Leap again exemplifies why it is nigh on impossible to write a gender-swap body swap story without relying on sexist stereotypes. In the clip below, the male chauvinist boss who comes onto his much younger secretary gets his comeuppance. On the surface, this is a send up of what we now call toxic masculinity.

But when proving to this guy that he’s ‘really’ a man, Sam ‘proves’ it by offering to demonstrate how he can throw a baseball. This doesn’t work as ‘proof’ unless the audience believes girls can’t throw baseballs.

Your Name (2016)

Gender Stereotyping

Your Name avoids much of the ickiness of a brother-sister body swap that we saw in Barking Mad. (Insofar as the characters know) they don’t know each other. Writers nevertheless rely on some stereotyped ideas about how boys and girls are different:

  • When transplanted into the girl’s body, the teenage boy develops a bit of an obsession with feeling her boobs. (Stereotype: Boys are obsessed with sex and will take any opportunity to be sexual with a girl.)
  • When transplanted into the boy’s body, the teenage girl is absolutely terrified at the thought of dealing with someone’s penis. (Stereotype: Girls are terrified of the penis/sex with boys. At least, sympathetic girls are. Bad girls are driven by it.)

I occasionally agree with Germaine Greer, and I agree when she writes:

The truth is … that female fearfulness [of the penis] is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The myth of female victimhood is emphasized in order to keep women under control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home. The myth of female victimhood keeps women ‘off the streets’ and at home, in the place of most danger.

The atmosphere of threat that women feel surrounded by is mostly fraudulent. The sight of a man exposing his genitals causes fear; the man who exposes ‘himself’ is almost always rewarded by the sight of submissive behaviour as women passing by avert their eyes and hasten their steps. Submissive behaviour may be what such a man can exact by no other means. In the case of flashing, the proper response would seem to be hilarity and ridicule, to deny the flasher his kick. A middle-aged woman used to enjoy trotting around Cambridgeshire villages naked under an army great-coat. ‘What do you think of that then?’ she would say to surprised shoppers, as she held the coat open. ‘Very nice, dear,’ they would say. In [some] law women are deemed incapable of indecent exposure. A woman’s body signifies nothing; a man’s body, or rather the attachment to a man’s body, signifies power over life and death.

To complain to police is to reinforce the flasher’s belief in his penis’s magical power to amaze and appal. In truth the man standing with his pants down is extremely vulnerable, not least through the thin-skinned genitalia themselves.

The Whole Woman
The Anime Advantage

Anime is a particularly good medium for the body swap trope because of the following advantage:

When this plot is done in animation, usually the voices also switch as narrative cheat to help younger viewers keep track of who’s who.

TV Tropes

Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.

It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.

Beyond The Multiplex

A RELATED STORYTELLING TRICK

Sometimes, there is no supernatural/fantasy body-swapping that takes place but rather a psychological one.

This technique can be seen in the following short stories:

  • Who’s-Dead McCarthy” — the narrator starts to become obsessed with death after lampooning an old man for being obsessed with same.
  • Sucker” by Carson McCullers — a teenage boy is rejected by a girl and in retaliation, rejects his younger cousin. This upends the psychologies of the characters completely.

When storytellers steer clear of body swaps which focus on a reversal of (binary) gender, body swap stories can be very funny. Check out these comical illustrations below, in which a cat and a whale swap places. In Russian, the word for whale is “Kit”.

And here is a black and white version to read online.

RELATED TROPES

A similar idea, with less learning and more evil, is Grand Theft Me.

  • Personality Swap — the characters’ personalities are swapped but their minds stay where they are meant to be. It will often involve similar tropes to transformation stories (such as Gender Bender) as this is essentially two of these in one, with the addition of confusion resulting from the transformations being into other known characters.
  • Body Swap Stories, a Wikipedia list
  • Freaky Friday Body Switching Stories, a Goodreads list

SEE ALSO

Gender Inversion as Gags in Children’s Literature

When a black teenager prays to be white and her wish comes true, her journey of self-discovery takes shocking–and often hilarious–twists and turns in this debut that people are sure to talk about.

LaToya Williams lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and attends a mostly white high school. She’s so low on the social ladder that even the other black kids disrespect her. Only her older brother, Alex, believes in her. At least, until a higher power answers her only prayer–to be “anything but black.” And voila! She wakes up with blond hair, blue eyes, and lily white skin. And then the real fun begins . . .

Randi Pink’s debut dares to explore provocative territory. One thing’s for sure–people will talk about this book.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

When Everyone Else Is A Ghost

Sergeant Maaka stands outside a ghost house in Wellington Paranormal

You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.

Ghost stories have plenty of other functions, too.



There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.

What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?

Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.

I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.

The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.

This is the general tone of the show. The show is a spoofy blend of The X-files and reality cop shows which are popular in New Zealand and in Australia, such as Police Ten 7.

There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.

Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.

Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)

THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES

  • In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
  • Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
  • Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
  • We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
  • Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
  • The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.

WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY

Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.

Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.

This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.

  1. SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
  2. SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
  3. DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
  4. ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
  5. ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
  6. OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
  7. DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
  8. DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
  9. AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
  10. CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
  11. PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
  12. REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
  13. BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
  14. ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
  15. BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
  16. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
  17. POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
  18. NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.

Those last three steps function as a unit, as a kind of epilogue and you may get a simple Self-Revelation phase right after the Battle instead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”

‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.

Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.

SHORTCOMING

Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:

“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.

In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.

In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)

The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?

Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop.  At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

UNSURPRISED GHOSTS

The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.

This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.

The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.

This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:

The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:

VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS

Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.

Everything is on repeat

“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.

Rule of Three in Storytelling

“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.

It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.

ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.

CHASE SCENE

The guy who has been playing the record comes after them.

BACK TO SAFETY

But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.

They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.

Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.

JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT

The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.

CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS

Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.

The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.

NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT

The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”

The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.

SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD

The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.

SHORTCOMING

Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.

So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.

ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD

Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.

Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.

ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG

Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:

Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.

In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.

Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.

A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.

DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS

Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.

DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT

In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.

AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS

“It’s a seventies ghost!”

Minogue

This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.

CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION

Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.

PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD

Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.

Now he attempts to understand the situation by:

  • Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
  • Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie

They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.

AM I GOING CRAZY?

At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).

REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD

The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.

When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.

BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.

The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”

However, they’ve still lost the medium.

“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”

It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”

Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.

Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstory of one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.

Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.

The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.

REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS

This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.

Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.

O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.

But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.

Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.

ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD

O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.

BACK TO SAFETY

The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.

POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED

At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.

As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.

As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.

The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

The Woman At The Store text

“The Woman At The Store” (1912) is one of Mansfield’s earlier stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work.

This short story has been criticised for its foreshadowing, considered ‘telegraphing’ (foreshadowing which is far too blatant).

When Mansfield writes ‘It sounded a ridiculous arrangement’ (in regards to the sleeping set-up), this sounds like a contrivance to fit the story — a writing hack otherwise known as ‘lampshading‘.

Continue reading “The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis”

At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Mirror 1914

At the Bay” (1921) is considered one of Mansfield’s best short stories, by a writer at the height of her powers. This is one of the three about the Burnell family, who also star in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House“.

At The Bay” is an interesting case study for writers, for so many reasons. Notably:

CHARACTERISATION

The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.

ANTI-EPIPHANIES

This is an example of a story in which no one has any big self revelation. Like Mad Men famously achieved, the characters go about their own lives, continuing to make mistakes, learning little, and that is how life really is. This is the ultimate realism, though it can feel to the reader like ‘nothing happens’. We tend to say of these stories, ‘It’s not got any plot’. Or, it’s an ‘anti-plot’.

A GREAT EXAMPLE OF A LYRICAL SHORT STORY

But apart from the lack of growth, “At The Bay” does conform to classic story structure, and even the lack of Anagnorisis is replaced by characters who suddenly change their emotional valence, either because they are practising ‘opposite action’ or because they suddenly become scared or whatever.

MASTERFUL CHANGES IN EMOTIONAL VALENCE

Mansfield’s scenes each feel complete in their own right because the emotional valence changes from beginning to end. Linda starts off with no emotional affect, but ends the scene beaming at her baby boy. Beryl starts off scared with Mrs Kember than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first. He is immediately irritated to find he is not first after all. Mansfield’s emotions swing from one extreme to the other. If we find our own scenes emotionally flat, a read of “At The Bay” should set us back on the right track.

DEPICTION OF A CHILD’S POINT OF VIEW

Mansfield also has a real affinity for children. She recreates play scenes and child interactions so authentically, without glossing over the fact that the hierarchy between children can be brutal. There’s nothing mawkish about these children.

THE ARCHETYPAL EXAMPLE OF ‘ENCLOSURE TECHNIQUE’

The story divides into twelve sections. Mansfield is using the ‘enclosure technique’.

The prototype of the enclosure technique is in “At The Bay”, where themes, characters and settings of the 12 sections are structurally enclosed, presenting the different characters in their activities, thoughts, fears, fantasies and dreams, from dawn to dusk. The enclosure -technique functions structurally and thematically.

Each of the sections in “At the Bay” are juxtaposed, by different points of view, imagistic patterns and all the sections co-exist, not in subordination but in juxtaposition. All the various sections, with all the different perceptions of life, like pieces of coloured glass pierced by various shafts of light, form the episodes in the lives of the Burnells and Trouts. Life is just as random as that. The enclosure-technique is used as a unifying force.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Mansfield illustrates her own attitude towards the events that shape a life. Life comprises a series of moments just like these. This montage of scenes is therefore a recreation of the haphazardness in life. Or in other words, the structure of the story works symbolically. That interaction between form and meaning is a feature of modernist writing.

Continue reading “At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis”

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Quiet Hour

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although Mansfield also populates “The Doll’s House” with the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” align so closely to “Prelude” that we might consider these two stories a diptych. High school teachers commonly teach “The Doll’s House” as an introduction to other (Mansfield) short stories, as it has a very clear plot and symbol web.

Then there’s a lesser known Mansfield short story called “New Dresses“. This seems to be Mansfield’s practice story for the Burnells.

Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:

THE EMPHASIS-ON-PRELUDES READING

Over multiple viewpoints Mansfield shows that Kezia still has the future before her. (Some commentators believe Beryl has the future before her as well.)

In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is a warm and encouraging grandmother.

These commentators point to numerous examples of preludes:

  • The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living.
  • There’s the children’s prelude to adolescence.
  • Beryl experiences the prelude to spinsterhood.
  • Mrs Fairfield experiences the prelude to death.

Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.

THE female-entrapment READING

In a dominant feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but experiencing an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.

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Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield Short Story Analysis

Louis Haghe - The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856

“Her First Ball” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921. Though this story is nigh on 100 years old, it’s a tale of pick up artist culture, and reminds of the ‘toolies’ who attend Schoolies Week here in Australia.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Too Early
James Jacques Joseph Tissot – Too Early

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HER FIRST BALL”

Leila has turned 18, so must now attend balls in order to find a husband. Her city cousins, The Sheridans, introduce country-girl Leila to this exciting, dream-like world.

The story opens like this…

Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.

… which reminds me of a classic writer’s problem: Where does this story begin? This is a problem faced by anyone who’s ever recounted an incident. What was the inciting incident? Peter Selgin writes about that here.

Mansfield decides to open “Her First Ball” in the cab on the way to the ball, which Leila shares with her cousins Meg, Jose, Laura and Laurie. Later she’ll include a flashback to Leila’s anxiety, as she sits on the bed pleading with her mother not to go at all.

SHORTCOMING

Leila is at a social disadvantage because she lives in the country, and the fact that she lives in the country in itself speaks to a naivety below her years.

Another iconic New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, didn’t think much of this story. He didn’t accept the overarching shortcoming of Leila:

… the title by itself almost tells the story. A young country girl is staying with her town cousins who take her to a drill-hall ball. It is all very much indeed in the feminine tradition. Dresses, gloves, powder, flowers — and all the similes come tumbling out: A girl’s dark head pushes above her white fur like a flower through snow … little satin shoes chase each other like birds…. But later on we come to the point of the story. The girl, Leila, bewildered and enchanted by it all, is breathless with excitement. How heavily, how simply heavenly! she thinks. She dances with young men with glossy hair—and then with an older man who is both bald and fat. He perceive stat it is her first dance and tells her that he has been doing this sort of thing for thirty years. Then he goes on and pictures Leila herself in years to come. Her pretty arms will have turned into short fat ones, he says. And she will be sitting up on the stage with the chaperones while her daughter dances down below. And his words destroy her happiness. The music suddenly sounds sad. And she asks herself an agonising question: Why doesn’t happiness last forever? ‘Deep inside her’ we read, ‘a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed.’ And of course she hates the bald fat man.

Now I don’t know how my listeners will feel about this story, but for me it just doesn’t come off. It is, no doubt, tru e enough of many young girls, but for my part I’m afraid I can’t help making some comparisons. For instance, had any of Shakespeare’s young heroines (wonderful ones, say, like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Marina in Pericles)—had they encountered that elderly bald fat man, and had he told them that shocking truth—well, I don’t know, but I fancy they would have just laughed and asked him why he wanted to say anything so obvious. In other words, young female character can be made of somewhat sterner stuff, and there is something in my make-up which refuses to accept the suggestion that that particular trying moment in the girl’s life was really so important and significant as it is intended to be.

Frank Sargeson, Conversation in a Train and Other Critical Writings

Sargeson seems to have forgotten the final paragraph of this story, in which Leila forgets all about it, but he taps into something that’s been a more recent conversation among bookish and film-loving types: Why do female characters always have to be so kick ass and confident? Lack of diversity among female characters is a big part of the problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’. Why do girls always have to be so damn strong? This is the problem boys have faced since forever… Is it girls’ turn now?

I can’t say I’ve had the exact experience Leila had. But I can give you two personal examples which resonate:

The first is from watching TV. Most of TV is forgettable, and the vast majority of TV dating show interactions are equally forgettable, but a few years ago I was watching that Chinese dating show on SBS when one bachelor rejected an interested young woman by telling her, “I can imagine what you’ll look like when you’re old.” She seemed taken aback and replied with something like, “I can see what you’ll look like when you’re old, too.”

I took a close look at this young woman and I really couldn’t see what he was seeing. Of all the insults hurled on that show, the accusation that she already, as a young woman in her prime, masked the shadows of ageing, seemed to me about the worst thing someone could say to another person in a dating context. (My take on it: She reminded him vaguely of someone he knows in real life who is actually old, and he blurted it out awkwardly.)

When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy who worked as an artist in the shed attached to my rented converted barn (long story) turned up one night when I was making a funny video starring my workmates. I was doing some last minute editing because I had to show it to my audience the following day. But I had run out of storage space on my laptop and I showed him what I was doing. He volunteered to pop down to the supermarket and pick up a spool of CDs.

First, I showed him what I was doing. I’d taken a video of my boss — an experienced, capable and very kind French teacher, who was speaking to her class at the time of filming, in what I assume was a fairly boring vocabulary exercise — one she’d done a thousand times. She wasn’t exactly animated. She sat hunched on her stool, with a look of middle-aged concentration.

I was the other languages teacher in our department, about 25 years younger than my head of department. Alistair next door was a young looking 39, but 39 nevertheless. Whereas women consider ourselves old around the time of our 30th birthday, he considered himself well-and-truly in his prime. “Oh. You’re hot,” he mused, looking at the video I’d made, “but I guess you’re gonna look like her one day. Such a damn shame.”

It’s worth pointing out, though Frank Sargeson was not your stereotypical privileged macho man owing to his being gay in an anti-gay era, he did not experience life as a woman, either. He wasn’t a product of a culture which tells young women that the most important thing about us is the beauty which comes only with healthy, fulsome youth, and that when our beauty is gone, there’ll be nothing at all left to replace it. (In fact, Frank was well-known for his lack of attention to aesthetics. His house was a hovel — he cared only about his vege patch.)

Having been on the receiving end of comments like that, I have more empathy for Leila than Frank did.

What about you?

DESIRE

By today’s standards, Laurie’s a little weird with his sister Laura, calling her ‘Darling’ and possessively telling her he’ll dance the usual two dances with her. Meanwhile, country-cousin Leila is noticing every detail, wanting to keep the rubbish tissue paper out of Laurie’s new gloves as keepsake.

Leila doesn’t know what to do, so she follows her cousins. Once at the ball, the girls go straight to the toilet/dressing area, where young women crowd around the mirror. This is exactly what it’s like:

And everybody was pressing forward trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.

I once wrote a short story in which this happens at a school ball, and a male critique partner expressed his skepticism, not believing that women’s toilets are like that at all. I’ve since concluded that “Her First Ball” is a particularly feminine story, more generally relatable to woman readers.

Mansfield herself sees the ridiculousness of the dressing room situation:

“How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hair-pin.”

OPPONENT

Henry Gillard Glindoni - Title Unknown
Henry Gillard Glindoni – Title Unknown

Meg introduces Leila to her friends in a rather condescending way, turning herself into a mother hen. The girls respond with etiquette but are obviously more interested in the men, standing on the other side of the room. The men are the romantic opposition, and one man in particular.

PLAN

Though Leila hasn’t got a clue what the formal proceedings are, the men all cross the parquet floor at once and fill up the girls’ dance cards. Failure to fill up a dance card felt like a serious rejection. The dance card culture lasted in New Zealand until about the 1950s, when dating started to become more informal. The wars changed culture a lot — women would have fun dancing with each other when there weren’t enough men to go round.

In 1921, the girls don’t have much say in who they get to dance with. If they don’t want to dance with someone, they’re unable to decline:

“Let me see, let me see!” And he was a long time comparing his programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. “Oh, please don’t bother,” she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man wrote something, glanced at her again. “Do I remember this bright little face?” he said softly.

Because in this social milieu, it is men who do all of the choosing. It’s not up to Leila to make any plans. Instead she is swept along with the proceedings, on a treadmill (the first step on the moving walkway towards boring middle age). The ‘whirlpool’ sensation we get from Mansfield’s imagery, with ribbons flying and streamers and elongation describes most literally the sensation of being spun around during a dance, but it also symbolises being swept up into a culture of matrimony which begins with one’s first ball and ends with the women dressed in black (as the chaperones are — as a clear sign they’re not ‘on the market’ — but this is of course symbolic of death). By going to your first ball, you’re now on that inevitable decline. For Mansfield, beginnings are reminiscent of endings. She can’t enjoy a beginning without also thinking of its ending.

There’s a flashback to Leila’s boarding school, where she learned to dance but under completely different conditions — staid and without the sexual tension Leila had not anticipated.

In the brief moment where her designated partner doesn’t come to collect her, Leila thinks melodramatically that she’s going to ‘die’. But then he does come and they make small talk as they dance. This hooks into the ‘treadmill towards death’ idea.

The second dance partner also opens with a comment on the floor. Leila wonders if this is customary. Like the previous one, this young man asks if Leila had attended a certain party the week before. The conversation with the second young man is revealed to be exactly the same as that with the first. This is significant. The night now has a fatalistic feel to it — as if everything is playing out according to some supernatural rulebook — the characters might be automatons, and there’s something creepy about robotic behaviour. (That’s why they’re used so often in horror.) Within the world of the story, these boys attend many balls, saying basically the same thing to most of the girls, and are bored by it. This juxtaposes with Leila’s excitement at the novelty, serving to emphasise it. (This boy takes her to eat an ‘ice’ — a novelty people had fridges and freezers in their homes. Such products had to be delivered right before they were consumed.)

Now that Leila has experienced two identical interactions, she’s expecting the same again. So are we, due to the Rule of Three in Storytelling, but at the same time, we know our expectation of sameness will be subverted.

BIG STRUGGLE

Leila’s third dance does not go as the first two did. The old fat man turns out to be even older than she thought.

As reader, I am annoyed with this man. What the hell is he doing, inserting himself into a social event designed for young people? He reminds me of the 29-year-old men who insist on attending Schoolies Week year after year after year. (Here in Australia these men, mostly men, often in their 40s, are known as ‘Toolies’.)

This guy seems to get off on shit-talking to young women — the younger and more naive she seems, the more he enjoys it. These days there’s a word for it: Negging. In its most basic form, a man insults a woman hoping to elicit a strong reaction, because a strong reaction is — for him — better than no reaction. He then has something to ‘work with’, and his next task is to simply flip that negative strong emotion into a positive one, which according to pick up artists, actually sometimes works.

Because Leila has been culturally conditioned to be nice to men, she looks at his bald head and feels ‘quite sorry for him’.

Sensing this, the middle-aged man negs Leila by pointing out that the rules are different for women, who must modify their behaviour as they hit middle age, unlike himself, who continues to dance, since he feels like it:

“Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache.”

The middle-aged man has been doing this for so long, he knows the exact kind of scripted small talk Leila has already been exposed to. He mentions the floor, but points out her feelings will have changed towards it, almost as if he’d been listening intently to Leila’s first two conversations:

And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.

The man’s omniscience almost turns him into a kind of evil fairy godfather — a ghostly figure whose only purpose at the ball is to ruin Leila’s night.

I’m also reminded of a scene from Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The first person main character, a faithful butler, embarks upon a mythic journey and encounters a fellow traveller.

“I’m telling you sir, you’ll be sorry if you don’t take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late” — he gave a rather vulgar laugh — “Better go on up while you still can.”

It occurs to me now that the man might just possibly have meant this in a humorous sort of way; that is to say, he intended it as a bantering remark. But this morning, I must say, I found it quite offensive and it may well have been the urge to demonstrate just how foolish his insinuation had been that caused me to set off up the footpath.

Remains of the Day

No one appreciates anyone else reminding them of how old they’re getting, no matter how young they are at the time. It strikes me that women absorb the message that they are getting too old too fast before men feel it. (This has been studied. Women first start to feel old at the age of 29, men at 58.

ANAGNORISIS

Leila takes him at his word, and laments:

Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.

Leila has had one of those epiphanies like Sun of “Sun and Moon”, in which the much younger Sun also realises that perfect evenings can never last forever.

Leila continues to smile, because that’s what you’re required to do at a designated ‘happy’ occasion, but her feelings on the inside are quite different:

But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?

Then the middle-aged man pulls out a classic pick up artist (and also a classic schoolyard bullying) technique — he tells, “you mustn’t take me seriously, little lady.” He was just joking, see! JOKES! If Leila took him seriously it’s all on her! Why can’t young ladies grow a sense of humour? Sheesh.

NEW SITUATION

The ending is similar to that of “The Doll’s House“, in which the underdog girl has something horrible happen to her, but almost with determination, she’s resolved not to let it bother her. Like Else Kelvey, Leila forgets all about her dance with the horrible, middle-aged man, but the reader knows that even if she’s ‘forgotten’ the incident, the epiphany remains with her.

I expect one day, when Leila sits up on the stage watching her daughter, she will recall her first dance and she will recall that man.

What do you make of endings in which the character ‘forgets’ the bad thing and moves on?

We now know that the brain can go back in time and change how an event is perceived. Psychologists call it ‘postdiction’ (riffing on PREdiction). There is also a Latin term for it:  vaticinium ex eventu (foretelling after the event).

This is probably an adaptation to help us get on in life after horrible things happen.

Lucien Davis The Washington Post 1898
Lucien Davis The Washington Post 1898
Henri Lucien Doucet - After The Ball 1889
Henri Lucien Doucet – After The Ball 1889

FURTHER READING

In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is a much more modern story but the underlying structure is the same.

I use the same epiphany sequence in “Midnight Feast“. Roya sees the impact of climate change when she finally takes a peek out of her own kitchen window, but she’s unable to sleep until she forgets she’s ever seen it.

Header painting: Louis Haghe – The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856

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