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.
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:
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.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
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.
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.
“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.
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 she’d 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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.
Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance
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
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.)
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.
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.)
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
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)
For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
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 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
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
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!”
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 backstoryof 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” (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‘.
What Happens In “The Woman At The Store”?
Three people make a journey on horseback through the rough New Zealand country. The narrator, her husband and a brother. (Not sure from which side.) They come across a house where a woman is living with her five-year-old daughter.
The travellers stop for the night. One of the party — Jo — wants to have sex with the woman who runs the store. Despite her haggard appearance, he makes arrangements to spend the night with her.
The daughter is sent to sleep in the store with the narrator and her husband. Later, the daughter reveals through a drawing that the mother has killed her husband.
The next morning the narrator and Jim leave. Jo, left behind, shouts to them that he will catch up.
Setting of “The Woman At The Store”
The woman at the store remains unnamed — she remains ‘other’ to them — and the worst kind of other to Jo, who does not acknowledge her as attractive in any meaningful way, yet still wants to do sex to her. (Not necessarily ‘with’.) Despite living in a whare, she has blue eyes and yellow hair. (Was her former husband Maori?) Her front teeth are ‘knocked out’ (rather than rotted out). Her former husband was almost certainly abusive.
There’s plenty of bird imagery running throughout this story — Mansfield did love a good bit of bird symbolism. And the child is described as a ‘rat’, same as The Kelvey Girls in “The Doll’s House“.
The season is midsummer — I’d guess January, which is the only time New Zealand is really oppressively hot. (It’s more the humidity which makes a bit of heat unbearable.) Throughout this story Mansfield makes the most of extreme weather conditions:
Rain whipped in our faces, the land was light as though a bush fire was raging.
Some have said this is melodramatic, and blatant pathetic fallacy to boot. I figure that’s what this is — a melodramatic ghost story pastiche. The wild weather is a form of magical realism.
Narration of “The Woman At The Store”
Much has been said about the ‘naturalistic technique’ of this story. The syntax and word choice (especially the strong verbs) do create an oppressive atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the narrator intrudes, and breaks the spell. Details are not left to speak for themselves. Mansfield gives us a bit too much help.
Hundreds of larks shrilled; the sky was slate colour, and the sound of the larks reminded me of slate pencils scraping over its surface.
POINT OF VIEW
Alongside ‘The Young Girl’, some critics think that both stories would have been better if cast in another point of view. In “The Woman At The Store”, some have said there is no argument to justify use of first person. We are not even clear of her sex until the feminine pronoun is used much later in the story. Unlike Mansfield’s other female protagonists, who tend to be feminine and narcissistic, this one seems like one of the boys.
However, I’m guessing Mansfield had a good reason to write in first person. I think she’s writing a New Zealand ghost story. In that case, first person lends the verisimilitude of eyewitness account.
DIALECT AND SPELLING
It is no longer considered acceptable to change the spelling of words to mimic lower-class speech. This is generally considered condescending. Any sort of dialect comes only from syntax.
GLOSSARY OF “THE WOMAN AT THE STORE”
a blue galatea shirt — a white cotton fabric with blue stripes
wideawake — a type of hat, resembling that worn by a Quaker in colonial America, with a broad brim and black or brown felt
jaeger —Jaeger is a United Kingdom based high-end fashion brand and retailer of menswear and womenswear formed in 1884
duck trousers —The duck trousers get their name from the material from which they are made, a linen or cotton fabric that is finer and lighter than canvas. While occasionally used for men’s clothing, generally, the fabric is used for the lighter sails of vessels and the sacking of beds.
fly biscuits — I’m guessing here, but the fly biscuits I grew up with in New Zealand (in the 1980s) were named so due to the sultanas, which look like dead flies.
whare — a Marae, Maori meeting house
bluchers — ankle-length, front-laced shoes. (Your bog standard lace up. Your ‘holotypic‘ men’s lace up.)
embrocation — an old-fashioned word for liniment, which is also quite old. What do the young folks say now? Ointment? Lotion? Rub? Fudge?
Pawa — is now spelt paua, after standadisation of Maori spelling. The paua is a large, edible abalone, native to New Zealand.
Richard Seddon — the Prime Minister of New Zealand 1893-1906. (He took strong measures to try and stop New Zealand women from winning the right to vote. He refused to retire despite strong encouragement, then died in office age 60. All this aside, he remains much revered, and the woman at the store obviously revered him, too. She would’ve had affinity with a man who himself ran a pub before he became a full-time politician.)
Sundowner — now the breed of a popular Australian breed of apple, in Mansfield’s time, in New Zealand, it referred to a tramp who habitually seeks out accommodation each day around sundown.
Beano — short for bean-feast, a British colloquial term (1875-1940?) for an excursion or celebration with food and drink
Rook rifle — an obsolete English single-shot small calibre rifle intended for shooting small game e.g. rooks and rabbits. Rooks are a gregarious Eurasian crow with black plumage and a bare face. (Rabbits were brought to New Zealand from the 1830s onwards, for food, sport… and total decimation of the landscape. Rooks were introduced in the 1860s to make European immigrants feel more at home, and later had to be brought under control because they were doing too well.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WOMAN AT THE STORE”
There’s a whole category of ghost stories about travellers who stumble upon an eerie place, interact with characters, then leave, never to find that same place again.
This story structure of “The Woman At The Store” is similar to that of a ghost story. The ‘whole place disappears’ as two of the party round the bend. We might take that literally, as in, the store no longer exists because there’s no one there to see it. (Jo could have been a ghost already, when he waved goodbye.)
There’s plenty of ominous detail.
the twilight which ‘frightens — as though a savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw’.
The image of the bottles and pickles in a room all lined up has a horror feeling to it — as if the pickles might actually be body parts or something.
“She’s the dead spit of me!”
The landscape is described as alive: ‘I went to the end of the paddock where the willows grew and bathed in the creek. The water was clear and soft as oil. Along the edges held by the grass and rushes, white foam tumbled and bubbled.’
The woman at the store has everything they need, but isn’t willing to give it easily.
The child doesn’t want to sleep with two strangers, which is completely fair enough. How many parents would let their five-year-old bed down with strangers? The child ends up an ally, really, for telling them the truth of the situation, but for the duration of the story, this is the Creepy Child with the Nightmare Fuel Colouring Book.
In lieu of a anagnorisis, there is a plot revelation (that the woman killed the man).
In the best short stories, a plot revelation is accompanied by a anagnorisis. That doesn’t happen in this one. As a bit of entertainment, “The Woman At The Store” is serviceable, but as a great work of literature… no. There’s only one layer to this one.
There’s the Inn of No Return trope, in which those who check-in can never leave, then there’s this kind of story. In “The Woman At The Store”, two of the travellers do get out of there, but are forever changed by what they have learned. The other, who went right into the house and stayed the night with the woman, may be stuck there forever.
“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:
The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.
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’.
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.
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 Kembers than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first and 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.
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.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “AT THE BAY”
The story divides into twelve sections. Mansfield is using what’s known as 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 is made up 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.
Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), ‘At the Bay’ covers just one day from different points of view. Modernist writers followed the example of cubist artists, who used multiple perspectives to delineate their subjects.
Beryl Fairfield has become friendly with a controversial figure, Mrs Harry Kember: ‘the only woman at the Bay who smoked’. The other ladies consider her ‘very, very fast. Her lack of vanity, her slang, the way she treated men as though she was one of them, and the fact that she didn’t care twopence about her house and called the servant Gladys “Glad-eyes”, was disgraceful’. It is widely assumed that her husband must have married her for her money.
Linda Burnell, Beryl’s sister, is married, with children; Beryl is single and childless; neither woman has found fulfilment. Beryl indulges in fantasies about a lover, and in the final scene she is propositioned by a man. Although she recognises him, the reader is kept waiting. Her feelings fluctuate: initially, she senses the possibility of achieving her desire for ‘a new, wonderful, far more thrilling and exciting world than the daylight one’. When Beryl reaches the gate, she becomes terrified: ‘The moonlight stared and glittered; the shadows were like bars of iron’. Harry Kember urges her on; yet she fears the ‘little pit of darkness’ beyond the fence. Ultimately, Beryl faces a moment of understanding and, again, the reader wonders what her prospects will be subsequently.
Each of the characters have their own shortcoming (described below). If there’s a ‘main’ character it’s Beryl, the unmarried sister. She longs for freedom, but at the same time is scared of that. (Considering whether a main character achieves freedom or increased slavery is one interesting way of looking at story arc.)
Beryl has no Anagnorisis at the end when her friend’s husband comes to her bedroom window to seduce her — instead she retreats into herself, which is ostensibly the opposite of what she longs for. Her desire to be admired and her longing for freedom remains hampered by her fear of danger.
SETTING OF “AT THE BAY”
This is the story of an upper-middle-class household near Wellington, colonial New Zealand. It is a constricted social environment where gossip can run rife.
At the Bay opens with a panoramic description of the bay. A camera-like eye follows the shepherd, his sheep and the dog. The eye switches to Stanley Burnell. In Prelude, the house and garden are surrounded by the dark bush. In At the Bay, the story moves in and out of the house to the sea and shore. But the characters seek answers to the same questions. The setting illuminates the world of childhood, where nobody knows the answers to certain, fundamental questions.
This time, The Burnell Family go to the beach, finding a new environment in which to explore their interactions and their philosophies on life and death.
IMAGERY IN “AT THE BAY”
This is Mansfield’s attempt to demonstrate in art the triumph of
beauty over ugliness
mystery over simplicity
artistic knowledge over nature’s baseness
The themes and imagery are all set up in the first section, when the microcosm of the bay is described in detail. Sea and earth merge together: a metaphorical statement of the mutability of time and life.
The sheep are heard by the little children in their dreams. Later in the day they will face fear.
The dog’s natural impulse is to frolic but trots beside its master because it has been trained to do so. The characters, too, must maintain control over their impulses and natural inclinations. When the dog runs from the path onto a rocky ledge and ventures too far, it retreats hurriedly, just as the characters will do during the day that follows.
Also, the Trouts’ dog (Snooker) sleeps on the steps of one of the bungalows but looks as though he’s dead. This suggestion of mortality sets the tone for the conversation to follow between Kezia and her grandmother. (If it influenced plot we’d call it ‘foreshadowing‘.)
The eucalyptus tree
Mansfield does a lot with trees and plants, whether it’s the aloe in “Prelude”, the beech tree in “The Escape“, the pear tree in “Bliss“, and a vast selection of drooping and bowing personifiedflowers, which to Mansfield have psychological meaning for her characters.
Something immense,’ like an ‘enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out.
A meeting will take place there – Alice hurries towards it when she is frightened of being on the road alone. Alice will duck inside to see Mrs Stubbs who is going to have a photograph of a giant fern tree enlarged – a continuation of the phallic imagery. (Alice dwells on size.)
Like the aloe in “Prelude“, the gum tree serves as a symbol of sex (birth) and death. This is part of what makes “Prelude” and “At The Bay” feel like a diptych (a single image across two separate canvases).
The manuka tree
Its blossoms will fall and scatter and be brushed aside as ‘horrid little things’. The blossoms symbolise Linda’s questions about the meaning of life. Linda sees herself as a leaf blowing about. She feels there’s no escape. But unlike the scattered blossoms of a tree, life offers Linda sensual pleasures; her question is partially answered when she sees her baby smile. As in “Prelude“, Linda is presented as an earth-goddess in her connection with nature and the tree.
On this point, the Japanese manga (and also animated film) 5 Centimeters per Secondwould make a good compare and contrast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdM7athAem0
As you probably guessed, cherry blossoms are highly symbolic in Japan.
The encounter between the dog and the cat
This foreshadows the encounter between Beryl and Harry Kember.
There has been some time lapse since the readers met these characters in “Prelude” but there have been no significant changes in their relationships and routines. This is in line with Mansfield’s underlying thesis:
People are essentially unchanging
Time is constant
People and time continue on an unbroken line that extends from the past into the future, crossing the present.
Here’s the thing about beaches — this is where the land meets the sea. Seems obvious, but worth pointing out because when there’s a beach in a story, this points out attention towards something else merging. The significance of water in “At The Bay” is apparent from the opening passage, with mention of the sea, the dew.
What’s merging here, in this story?
Well first, life and death are unified.
There’s this Jungian idea that water is an ever-moving, feminine flow and Katherine Mansfield utilised that. The bay, as a body of water, bears a heavy weight of historical, mythical and psychological meaning. For more on that, see The Symbolism of The Ocean. In “At The Bay”, the ocean symbolically rises to meet the characters — in the first scene, two of the characters are literally in the water. Later, Beryl and Mrs Kembers enter the water, but at other times as well, the characters feel the ocean meets the bungalow. These characters are living in a kind of liminal space, symbolised at that point ‘where the ocean meets land’, but also in terms of freedom vs. liberation, and in terms of their sexuality, both exciting and scary at once.
The illusion of freedom is central to “At the Bay”.
Linda gave up a life of travelling to marry a man she loves only sometimes. She has conformed to society’s expectations by having children and tending to her husband, though there are many times she doesn’t feel great love towards any of them.
Then Linda is seduced by the sight of her baby boy lying on the grass beside her. She experiences joy, another form of motherhood’s entrapment.
When Jonathan tells her he feels like an insect trapped in a room, he is explaining a variation on the same theme: ‘something infinitely joyful and loving’.
Likewise, Jonathan Trout imprisons himself in an office for all but three weeks of every year. Unable to find a way to escape, he thinks he would rather be a prisoner in a jail.
Even the sheep are controlled by the dog, but the dog is inhibited by the cat on the fence. As Bob Dylan said, ‘You have to serve somebody.’
Freedom is symbolised by the water and each character’s attitude towards it:
Linda wants to escape ‘up a river in China’ but, ironically, is the only character who doesn’t go to the water at the bay during the day.
Jonathan Trout is a ‘trout’ in the water with a comically symbolic name. He gives himself to life easily and wholeheartedly yet is inhibited by his job.
Life and Death
Kezia asks her grandmother about death, but neither of them understands the nature of it. The grandmother’s way of dealing with grief is to think on it for a short time then put it out of her mind. The uncomfortable conversation Kezia tries to initiate about the dead relation turns into a game of love and affection. The meaning of life and death ultimately escapes them.
The grandmother, and Kezia, under her influence, are practising what today is known as ‘opposite action’. This is a skill learned as part of dialectical behaviour therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1990s as a modified version of cognitive behaviour therapy. This is probably an evolution on the work of vitalist psychologists such as William James, who Mansfield definitely read and was very interested in. A main idea (radical at the time) is that actions and emotions are more of an interacting cycle, whereas beforehand it was thought that we behave a certain way because we feel a certain way, and that’s all that was to it. When the grandmother decides to do something fun with her granddaughter rather than continue to think sad thoughts, she is practising ‘opposite action’.
When Lottie sees the face at the window and screams it’s not simply that the children have overactive imaginations, but also that they understand something about death: an intuitive understanding, symbolised by Jonathan’s bearded face.
Life and death merge on some other plane which transcends human experience. The characters see them merge at points throughout the story: The rock pool becomes a microcosm of the universe. Beneath the water there is a glimpse of the unknown.
The theme of mortality is also felt by Linda as she sits under the bush. The flowers fell as soon as they flowered. And when Mrs Fairchild and Kezia take a nap, the peaceful rest itself is a prelude to death.
Connected to this is the theme of…
Darkness and Light
A pattern throughout the story is contentment and joy followed by disappointment and disillusionment. This is like the natural cycles of the earth: night, day, night, day. This is evident as the story takes place over the course of a day, in itself measured by darkness and light.
The story does end on a positive note; we know that the next day will follow.
CHARACTERS OF “AT THE BAY”
The activities of the characters are seen against the background of ocean tides, much as the waxing and waning of the moon is significant in “Prelude“.
The group of characters in the story correspond very closely to the extended family in which Mansfield, as Kathleen Beauchamp, grew up. Kezia Burnell; her older sister, Isabel; and the younger Lottie correspond respectively to Kathleen, Vera (or Charlotte), and Jeanne Beauchamp. “The boy” (as the baby in the story is called) occupies Leslie’s position in the family and bears his nickname. The Burnell parents, Stanley and Linda, closely resemble Harold and Annie Beauchamp. Linda’s unmarried sister, Beryl, and their mother, Mrs. Fairfield (a bilingual pun on “Beauchamp”), live with the family, as did Annie’s sister (Belle) and mother (Mrs. Dyer). Sharing the Burnells’s holiday at the beach are Linda’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout, and his two boys (Pip and Rags). Their surname mocks that of Kathleen’s uncle, Valentine Waters, and his sons, Barrie and Eric. The Crescent Bay of the story corresponds to Muritai Beach (across the harbor from Wellington city), where the Beauchamps and the Waterses spent their summer holidays.
Stanley fancies himself in a class of his own. If he fails to be first in the water his morning is ruined. He plays games of substitution to make his life seem more smooth, but is constantly involved in competitive big struggles. Life is a zero sum game, a business to be negotiated profitably without unnecessary human interaction and time wastage.
He engages the entire household in a race against time to find his cane. When Linda breaks a rule she is penalised – he does not say goodbye. But he has to wave to avoid losing face in public.
Stanley recoups his losses by bringing home gloves. He feels guilty, and his ‘love language’ is to buy a present in lieu of saying sorry.
Stanley’s brother-in-law also plays games but of a completely different sort. He role-plays in a game of masquerade to hide his overall dissatisfaction with his lot. He is a smart man in a menial job (as a clerk) and probably consoles himself with the knowledge that deep down he’s smarter than most other people, including people who out-earn him. Case in point, his ridiculous brother-in-law, who he likes nonetheless.
His older son Pip resembles him in looks — dark hair and eyes with pale skin, tall and lanky.
His surname — that of a fish — makes him seem a little ridiculous to the reader, especially as we first meet him in the sea.
Beryl is an unusual character because on the one hand she lives in a dream-world, hoping that one day her prince will come to rescue her, and on the other hand, is not naive to the ways of the world. She understands the dynamic between the Kembers couple, for instance.
Beryl’s play-acting, like Jonathan’s, allows her to escape her unsatisfactory life but she is her own audience. She plays games to evade knowledge of the meaning of life. Beryl is childlike. The children are capable of seeing a piece of green glass as a beautiful emerald as big as a star. This is how Beryl is able to imagine herself.
All of these games, played by the adults, are juxtaposed with the innocent games played by the children. All of life is make-believe, with rules, penalties and rewards.
Beryl’s attempts to ‘discover herself’ are juxtaposed with Lottie’s efforts to compete with her older sisters. Lottie is always left behind, sometimes literally — unable to navigate a stile — sometimes because she can’t grasp the rules of a game. Similarly, Beryl fears she will be left behind as an unmarried spinster. When Lottie screams at the whiskered face in the window this foreshadows Beryl freezing in horror when a man appears outside her bedroom window later.
For Beryl, the day at the bay is a frustrated attempt to find a life and lover. Stanley can see there is something wrong with her humour; Beryl is mindful of Stanley and cross with Kezia over breakfast. Beryl’s humour changes when she stops the coach and has a chance to socialise with one of the passengers. She is also happy when Stanley leaves – a feeling shared by all the women in the Burnell household. “Their very voices were changed as they called to one another…’
Is Beryl bisexual? I don’t think so, necessarily. I think she enjoys any kind of sexual attention from anyone, but my guess is that sex with any gender scares her to death. As we are shown in “Prelude”, her fantasies stop before any actual physical interaction, stopping at the romantic ‘prelude’ in which lovers first meet and the man declares his infatuation.
Linda Burnell is one of three daughters (one of whom is Beryl; the other is the unnamed mother of Rags and Pip). Linda is half-way between youth and age. She has three daughters of her own, replicating the structure of her own natal family. Isabel, the eldest, remains an undeveloped character — the caricature of a bossy big sister. Linda is aligned most closely to Kezia, as they share the same concerns. (In the same vein, Lottie’s concerns reflect those of Beryl.)
This kind of juxtaposition of characters affords a sense of continuity to the story; a sense that time exists beyond the single day spent “At the Bay”, that time stretches over generations and beyond. Mansfield does the same in “Prelude”, using various symbols.
The themes of identity and sexual conflicts are explored through the character of Linda. Her father once promised that they would both run away together. That didn’t happen; Linda found Stanley instead, as a substitute for her father. Her baby boy holds a hope for Linda’s expression of her masculine side.
Today we attach words to psychological conditions and we might say Linda Burnell is dealing with postpartum depression. She has no strong feelings for her baby. We now know how common perinatal depression is, so it’s hardly a radical reading of the text. There’s the added information we get from “Prelude”, that Linda has been told she has a weak heart, and child bearing may kill her.
The Stanley Josephs Family
The Josephs Family provides a neat contrast to the Burnells. In comparison, the Josephs family is vulgar and bad-mannered. (Their lady-help blasts on a whistle and hands out dirty parcels. The basin of fruit-salad has turned brown. The children play ‘like savages’.) Meanwhile, Mrs Fairchild sits genteel in her lilac cotton dress and black hat. The Burnell children no longer play with the Samuel Josephs children, nor do they attend their parties. A similar white class snobbery comes fully to the fore in “The Doll’s House“.
Depicted as sinister. Notorious locally because she refuses to conform to societal conventions, including what it means to be a woman. This nebulous way of living is reflected in the landscape; the shoreline itself blurs the boundary between sea and land.
Although Mrs Kembers has money, she breaks social conventions in her relationships with men and with her servants. She smokes, which makes her a ‘fast’ woman for the era. She cares nothing for her house. She does not have children in an era when contraceptives were a futuristic invention. She behaves with men as if she is one of them.
Beryl is hardly a forward looking woman herself. Why is she drawn to Mrs Kembers when those other ‘ninnies’ are scared of her? That may be because she is fascinated by the freedom Mrs Kembers represents. Beryl has a longing for freedom. Her curiosity thereby outweighs her disapproval. Beryl is seductive with and seduced by Mrs Kember. She becomes shy then reckless, defiant of other women on the beach. She undresses boldly and joins Mrs Kember in the water.
With her ‘black waterproof bathing cap’, Mrs Kembers is the image of Satan and like Satan she is constantly shifting forms. Later that night, Beryl puts Mrs Kembers’ words ‘You are a little beauty’ into the mouth of an imagined suitor.
Outrageous, like his wife. Later, scary.
How did he live? Of course there were stories, but such stories! They simply couldn’t be told…
That night, Mr Kembers appears outside Beryl’s window. Because the reader is used to Beryl’s habit of fantasising (especially if you’ve already read “Prelude”) we are not sure at first if she’s imagined him. But he’s not an apparition at all. Beryl goes outside to him but she is (quite legitimately) frightened. Mr Kembers makes fun of her fear, not understanding the social and physical consequences of a tryst, or the very real possibility that he’s not going to take no for an answer.
Naturally, Beryl is frightened. Mr Kembers calls her a ‘cold little devil’ and Beryl disappears back into her bedroom. Mr Kembers has become an awful inverse of a fantasy lover.
Alice the Servant Girl
Alice is constricted in this place. Like Beryl, she has nowhere to go in the evenings. Her predicament mirrors Beryl’s, who we might expect to have more personal freedom as she is not a ‘servant’ but a member of the white upper-middle-class. But socially, Beryl is just as restricted as Alice.
When Alice visits Mrs Stubbs, their encounter mirrors Beryl’s encounter with Mrs Kembers on the beach. This visit emphasises the role of women as guardians of tradition. If women act like men, tradition is threatened. Mrs Stubbs says that ‘freedom’s best’ and Alice laughs but she longs for the security of the Burnell kitchen, safe from the dangers of sex, life and freedom. Both Beryl and Alice end up retreating back inside the safety of the home.
Sex again loses its boundaries when the oedema of the dead man and the oedema of pregnancy become one in Alice’s mind. (Oedema is a condition characterised by an excess of watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body.) Alice ends up linking death with sex, which ruins the idea of sex for her, naturally. (Roberta Seelinger Trites has theorised that sex is taboo because death is taboo.)
Alice is Beryl’s counterpoint in age. Just as Beryl seeks knowledge from Mrs Kembers, Alice visits an older woman, seeking wisdom. But neither Alice nor Beryl have any luck. Neither woman is any the wiser at the end of the story. Both Alice and Beryl are puzzled when the three younger girls meet the boys at the beach, digging for treasure. “At The Bay” is therefore an example of a story in which there is no Anagnorisis, and that is the entire point.
Header painting: Albert Chevallier Tayler – The Mirror 1914
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 “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.
Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:
Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
In the 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 going through 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
“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.