The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield

the voyage katherine mansfield

“The Voyage” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921.

Katherine Mansfield always disliked intellectualism and aestheticism (one thing she had in common with her husband John Middleton Murray). She strove to combine a realist way of writing with personal and relatable symbols.

“The Voyage” is a good example of her philosophy on that. This is one of Katherine Mansfield’s later stories and was published only after her death, in her 1923 collection The Garden Party. (She died in January of that year.)



Mansfield’s technique can be called impressionist, a term borrowed from art world. (“Impressionist” generally describes the way  19th century painters depicted sensory impressions.) Mansfield mainly aimed to offer the reader a series of interconnected experiences. It’s often said there’s no ‘point’ to her stories other than that. It’s true that Mansfield’s stories were without didacticism (morals). We’re used to that now. It was unusual at the time.

It’s easy to forget how avant garde Mansfield was. You’ll have seen a lot of modernist, impressionist work since Mansfield’s time, and in fact, series of montages with none of the 19th century padding is now the storytelling norm. So I’d like to really emphasise that Mansfield’s impressionistic way of writing was a very new technique back in the 1920s. Katherine Mansfield was part of a movement, and made an important contribution to the development of the short story genre in particular.

Scholars are sometimes keen to point out that Mansfield’s short stories had ‘no plot’, either, comprising nothing but a series of quotidian snippets. Think of the montage technique in film and you’ve got the idea.

I disagree with the view that Mansfield’s short stories are without plot. Her stories are lyrical, but still adhere to conventional storytelling structure, which I’ll show you below.

What Happens In “The Voyage”

A girl of about five (Fenella) travels from Wellington with her grandmother by boat to her grandparents’ home in Picton, where she will live with the grandmother and grandfather. Her mother has passed away and her grandmother now takes care of her as her guardian. It is only halfway through the story when we discover Fenella’s mother is dead, hence the grandmother as new guardian. This information is revealed via imagery rather than via the narration, which emulates the way we learn things as children, before language and explanations even make much sense. It’s likely that Fenella has already been told in words exactly what’s happening, but she cannot really understand her new situation — or her mother’s death — until she feels it.

Setting of “The Voyage”

In the opening sentence we know where this story is set. Picton is a small town at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. If you want to travel between the North and South Islands, that’s where you catch the ferry, which takes you to the capital of Wellington, where Mansfield grew up. Historians and Mansfield’s contemporary readers would know the characters on the Picton side of the trip because of the landing stage:

‘And now the landing stage came out to meet them.  Slowly it swam towards the Picton boat.’

Mansfield was very familiar with the Picton Boat. As a child she visited her Picton relatives many times with her family, and the Picton relatives came often to visit her.

It’s difficult to imagine now, just how dark it was before street lighting. The buildings ‘all seemed carved out of solid darkness’. The area around the Old Wharf is brought to life, with words like ‘quivering’, and the description of how it ‘burns softly, as if for itself’.

Why? Candles are used not only to light spaces but also as meditations. We have a tradition of lighting candles to remember dead loved ones. This is Fenella burning a candle for her early childhood life. We don’t know this yet — this is all foreshadowing.

This was an era when it was believed fathers were incapable of bringing up their own children. I’m sure a few did, but it was just as acceptable to give children to other female relatives if the children’s mother had died. The father walks in ‘quick, nervous’ strides. We’re not encouraged to take a good look into the father’s psychology, but it must have been terrible to lose a wife and then to lose your child, via nothing other than social circumstance.

A Brief History Of The Picton Boat

These days it’s common to take a flight between islands, but of course back in Mansfield’s era, the ferry was your only choice.

Now, a large proportion of the passengers will be travelling by ferry mainly for the tourist experience. The view of the mountains as you sail close to land is magnificent. And if you’re not sick to the stomach from choppy waters, it’s even more magnificent! The Cook Strait is a strip of water above a major network of fault lines — hence New Zealand is chopped in two in the first place!

The ‘Picton Boat’ known in my childhood as the ‘Picton Ferry’ is now called The Interislander, and the journey takes between 3-3/5 hours. But in the early 1900s, this boat trip between islands lasted an entire day. Back then, a trip between islands (a strip of water known as The Cook Strait) was more drama than a trip to Australia is today. Apart from the boat trip itself, you had to make it to the Old Wharf in Wellington, probably by horse and cart, and you couldn’t pay to just leave your horse there. You had to be dropped off. Today, travelling between islands is simple. To call it a ‘voyage’ would be hyperbole. But not for young Fenella, and not back then.

The Voyage Old Wharf
A view of Old Wharf around 1910

Other Setting Details

Without knowing anything else about the story, the reader can deduce the early 1900s setting of “The Voyage”:

  • They use the old British style currency (shilling, tuppence). New Zealand switched to dollars and cents in 1967.
  • Fenella’s grandmother wears restrictive clothing such as stays and bodice. Adults are wearing bonnets and caps in public. Even my mother, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, was required to wear a hat in public. Straw hats were part of her public school uniform. The social revolution of the late 1960s meant people no longer regarded it ‘improper’ to leave the house without wearing a hat. ‘To her surprise Fenella saw her father take off his hat.’
  • The language used by the characters feels dated at times e.g. ‘what wickedness’.
  • Bananas were a luxury product in this era. You couldn’t get them just anywhere, but Picton wharf was one place known for bananas. Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s climate has never been able to support its own banana growing industry. Even so, bananas are cheaply available now. They’re grown in the Phillipines and imported. New Zealand’s cheap bananas have huge ethical implications because the people who grow them are working under slave conditions. When I lived in London in 2006, I noticed Londoners had the option of buying ‘regular’ bananas or ‘fair trade’ bananas. There was never that option in New Zealand and I’d never given much thought to where bananas came from. Ethical bananas have since become an option for New Zealanders who still want to eat bananas.
  • We know the grandmother doesn’t drink alcohol because the staff know her and therefore now it’s hopeless offering. Then she eats wine biscuits, and I realised that’s a word I haven’t heard in a very long time. I grew up in the 1980s with Griffins biscuits, and wine biscuits describe a sweet, plain biscuit with a complicated imprint of grapes on one side. I must have eaten thousands of those. Did they originally have something to do with wine? Probably, given the grapes. Griffins has rebranded them as ‘Superwine’ biscuits. I don’t know what the Picton Boat offerings looked like, and I can’t find a single image of a single Superwine biscuit on the entire Internet! In any case, Grandma was eating a plain, sweet biscuit, probably to settle her stomach.

  • I’ve never booked a cabin on the Interislander. I have slept literally underneath the seats in the main area, on a midnight trip… after having missed my daytime one. According to one reviewer who booked a cabin in 2015: For $40 extra we had our own 4 bunk cabin on the Interislander. It had lovely white sheets, a window, our own shower and toilet. Two free cups of coffee and a newspaper thrown in! It was excellent and well worth the money.’ — Paula from Christchurch

For more on the historical era and the setting around the Old Wharf, see this post by Julie Kennedy.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE VOYAGE”

SHORTCOMING

When the child is a main character, their biggest shortcoming is their naivety and their reliance upon those around them.

Mansfield never lets readers know the exact age of Fenella, but we can guess she is a young child because of the limited understanding she has of different situations.

Mansfield writes this story in free, indirect discourse. Another story written with this narration is What Maisie Knew by Henry James, a description of a divorce but via the limited understanding of a girl about Fenella’s age.

When the audience knows something the character does not, this is a technique known as dramatic irony. Irony describes any sort of ‘meaningful gap’ in a story — in this case between audience and character.

Examples of dramatic irony:

  1. The woodpile is described as a “huge black mushroom”, an image that would perhaps be unusual from an adult’s point of view, but completely understandable from a child’s.
  2. In the middle of the story Fenella is in the private cabin with her grandmother. In wonder, Fenella sees the old woman undress. Until then she had hardly ever seen her grandmother with even her head uncovered. Because this is new and strange to Fenella. We know this is through the Fenella-filter because Fenella does not know the right words to describe women’s clothing:  ‘Then she undid her bodice, and something under that, and something else under that.’ This is Fenella’s introduction to what it would be like to have a woman’s body.
  3. Fenella doesn’t know why Grandma thinks selling sandwiches for twopence is such ‘wickedness’.  She doesn’t understand the value of money.
  4. Also, it is the first time Fenella makes this trip. We can also tell from the images — Fenella’s impressions — the narrator uses to describe the public area on the boat that everything is new to the girl: ‘They were in the saloon. It was glaring bright and stifling; the air smelled of paint and burnt chop-bones and india-rubber.’ An experienced traveler would no longer register this strangeness, but children — in common with adults on psychedelics — notice every new detail around them.

DESIRE

Fenella is a typical child, and small children tend to live in the moment. She’s not fully aware of the significance of this journey and she may not even know where they’re going. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be away from her father.

For this reason, her desires are very much in the moment.

  • She wants to take care of her grandmother’s fetching umbrella.
  • She wants to touch the sandwich, so she does. (She wants to eat it, too, but it’s too expensive.)
  • She wants to take off her lace booties.
  • She wants the soap to lather up, though it doesn’t.

OPPONENT

GRANDMA

Sometimes in a story populated by two people, they are each other’s opposition.

Definition of opponent: Any character who stands in the way of what the main character wants.

It’s irrelevant how kind the opponent is. In this story, grandmother is a caring, kind woman. The way in which she deals with Fenella belies her personality – she tells Fenella she would be more comfortable taking her lace socks off, though doesn’t insist that she do so. She reminds me a lot of my own grandmother.

Yet this loving grandmother is still Fenella’s opponent, because Fenella is a little anxious, and the grandmother is requiring her to do something she’d really prefer not to. The grandmother is taking her away from everything she knew and loved. To a child, who has not yet developed the meaning of permanence, a dead parent might come back at any stage.

The other opponent is that of nature — the inherent danger — or the sense of danger — which attends boat travel.

Grandma tells Fenella that ‘God is with you at sea more than he is on land’, betraying her nervousness, and the possibility of disaster.

The grandmother’s fears aren’t wholly imagined. The most notorious of New Zealand’s ferry disasters is the Wahine Disaster of 1968. My father was living and working in central Wellington at that time. He describes the wind as so strong that day that for a smaller individual it was impossible to stand upright outside. He remembers office workers on their hands and knees, trying to cross the street. 53 people lost their lives. The unbelievable part of it was, the ship was so very close to shore.

The Wahine was not New Zealand’s first maritime disaster. Shipwrecks were common in the 1800s, when this grandmother grew up, and as for this particular route:

On 12 February 1909 the Penguin struck a rock (Maybe Thoms Rock or the floating remains of a wreck) off the Wellington coast of Cook Strait and foundered with the loss of 75  lives.  Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand in July 1908 so it is possible to speculate that if the Beauchamp family had been on the boat New Zealand might have lost its best known writer. She would certainly have been upset about this incident when she heard about it in England.

Julie Kennedy

When Grandma and Fenella first go into the cabin, Fenella feels she has been ‘shut into a box’ with Grandma. The ‘box’ refers equally to a coffin. Mansfield probably thought of coffins whenever she entered small rooms — she uses that same imagery with the same reference in her story Miss Brill, who returns to her small bedsit after a visit to a public garden, in which she realises for the first time that she’s old. (I wonder if Mansfield suffered a little from claustrophobia.)

In any case, when Fenella thinks of grandma, she thinks of death. If they’re both in the coffin-like cabin together, they’re both adjacent to death, together. But then Mansfield juxtaposes this vision of grandma as one-foot-in-the-grave by making her climb nimbly up the ladder to the top bunk. Though this is a juxtaposed image of the elderly woman (who probably wasn’t all that old, given the era — she was probably in her forties, dammit), the story function is the same and therefore reinforces the idea that though Fenella is at one end of her life and grandma is at the other, they are both equal: they are both mortal. They will both die, and whenever that is? That doesn’t matter. It can happen at any time, as it happened to her mother.

If grandmother is an opponent, it’s because she is positioned as Fenella’s older version of herself. Fenella is therefore unable to get away from the concept of mortality.

Mansfield is drawing on a long history of the elder-care in this story, especially upon the history of old women. European fairytales are a good place to look for the contradictory feelings people have always held in regards to the sick, frail and elderly. On the one hand, old people have been given special status and privilege as founts of wisdom. By the same token, once a person becomes senile and can no longer contribute to family and society, they are pushed from this position of honour. In the medieval era, the elderly were oft-times executed or abandoned. Death is often considered a good thing, especially when compared to being old here on earth. When dies and joins her grandmother in Heaven, this is considered a happy ending.

THE LITTLE BOY

The little boy in “The Voyage” functions as more of a foil character than of outright opposition. His circumstances are the inverse of Fenella’s: Fenella’s grandmother is kind to her, but the little boy is jerked angrily along between two parents. Note that he has his parents, so is technically more lucky. But what if your parents are angry types?

PLAN

The plan is made by the adults and Fenella has no choice but to go along with it. That’s the typical case for a naive child character.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘big struggle’ scene isn’t any sort of argument or fight but rather conveyed through an imagistic system of light and dark. (See below.)

ANAGNORISIS

Now’s a good time to talk about the imagery, which links directly to Fenella’s Anagnorisis.

LIGHT AND DARK IMAGERY

There are two themes symbolised by the contrast between darkness and light.  First of all, complete the following chart using quotes and examples from the text.

IMAGES OF DARKNESS IMAGES OF LIGHT
The old wharf is ‘dark, very dark’. (Everything on the “Old Wharf” is dark, and the one lantern with its timid light only seems to underline that sensation.) ‘The lamp was still burning, but night was over’ (Describes the morning they arrive in Picton to Fenella’s new life).
Woodpile looks like a ‘huge black mushroom’. ‘the cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea.  On land a white mist rose and fell’.
grandmother is wearing black clothes ‘crackling black ulster’ Grandma’s cheeks are ‘white waxen’.
Little boy has black arms and legs ‘up a little path of round white pebbles’
Wool shed has a trail of smoke On the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s sits a ‘white cat’.
A ‘huge coil of dark rope’ on the ferry Grandpa has a ‘white tuft’ on his head and a ‘long silver beard’.
‘Dark figures of men lounged against the (ferry) rails’.
The ‘dark round eye’ is the window in the cabin on the ferry
‘spider-like steps’ of Grandma climbing the bunk

This darkness/light imagery symbolizes:

1.  TRANSITION FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD TO CHILDHOOD

There’s a point in our childhoods when we understand the concept of death. Until that moment, we believed everyone lives forever. The death of her mother forces Fenella to confront this fact earlier than she otherwise would have.

In a different story, “The Wind Blows”, Katherine Mansfield uses a ship in the distance to symbolise the later developmental phase — that of a teenager: The realisation that childhood comes to an end. This can feel like a kind of death (in hindsight more than at the time, I think).

2.  LIFE AND DEATH

The sense of darkness may illustrate both Fenella’s uncertainty and  her grief.

Symbolically, these images may indicate a difficult period in Fenella’s life is now behind her. Perhaps there have been years of her mother being ill, and now she has arrived in a new, stable home. (The mother might equally have died in childbirth.) However, it is implied that life will never regain the stability it seemed to have from a child’s point of view. Dealing with the death of a beloved one and becoming an adult also means getting a sense of the irrevocable passage of time. Fenella’s grandparents are obviously no longer young, and a final image, the text painted by her grandfather, underlines the awareness that life is transitory. Fortunately for Fenella, Grandpa looks very happy.

Fenella’s slight maturation over the course of a single night on the ferry is such a subtle ‘Anagnorisis’ that the reader is offered a second one, in the form of the grandmother’s painted message, affixed above the old grandfather’s head:

Lost One Golden Hour
“Lost! One Golden Hour Set with Sixty Diamond Minutes. No Reward Is Offered For It Is Gone For Ever!”

I wonder if this saying is a Katherine Mansfield original. It sounds like a poem that was commonly passed around, but I can’t say either way.

This story is about the inevitable passing of time — the hurtling towards death. When Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Voyage”, she had well and truly faced her own mortality. She would die just a few years later. The passing of time must have felt acute.

NEW SITUATION

The umbrella is important when making sense of the ending.

The umbrella is a repeated symbol throughout “The Voyage”, which technically makes it a motif. Fenella’s grandmother lets Fenella take care of her swan-necked, probably expensive umbrella. At first it seems a burden to Fenella as it is big and awkward (too big for her to manage — just like the notion of death). Fenella focuses on it during the trip, almost as a way of avoiding anxiety. At one point she prevents it from falling over at the same moment her grandmother does.

When they have arrived on the island, Grandma does not even have to say the word or Fenella can confirm she has performed her duty:

“You’ve got my—”

‘Yes, Grandma.’ Fenella showed it to her.”

The umbrella comes to symbolize Fenella’s new sense of responsibility, a process which has been accelerated because of the death of her mother. It surprises her grandfather that Fenella arrives carrying his wife’s precious novelty umbrella.

“Ugh!” said grandpa. “Her little nose is as cold as a button. What’s that she’s holding? Her grandma’s umbrella?”

We have learned, along with the grandfather, that little Fenella has grown up a little — enough to be trusted with a precious umbrella, and enough to cope with the tragic death of her mother. She’s going to be okay.

Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

George Sheridan Knowles - The Duet

“Bliss” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield and one of Mansfield’s last. “Bliss” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.

From a writing point of view, “Bliss” is interesting for its big struggle scene, in which the main character experiences purely positive emotions rather than the negative charge which normally goes hand-in-hand with the ‘Battle’ part of a story.

Likewise, the anagnorisis phase is not a SELF-revelation but a plot revelation (more commonly known as a ‘reveal’) which serves to prevent the main character from understanding something deeper about her own psychology. In this respect, “Bliss” is a similar story to Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” (though in every other respect the stories are nothing alike).

It is possible to read this story many times at different levels and on each reading to notice a new detail. It did much to establish Katherine Mansfield’s reputation as a ‘modern’ writer. Although Virginia Woolf despised it, T.S. Eliot and others regarded it with considerable interest. There is clever satire in the grotesque caricature of the London/Garsington intelligentsia, yet there are moments of quite lyrical beauty and colour which impress themselves on the mind with vivid clarity. Through the character of Bertha, Katherine Mansfield explores the nature of the feminine friendship and female sexuality, both of which are recurring preoccupations in much of her work. Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.

Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer by Gillian Boddy

What Happens In “Bliss”?

Thirty-year-old Bertha Young is blissfully happy, preparing to spend the evening with bohemian, artsy friends who arrive for a dinner party at her house in London. At the end of the evening she catches sight of her husband and friend in the entrance hall and realises that the two are having an affair.

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

Mansfield wrote “Bliss” only one week after a haemorrhage which indicated the seriousness of her lungs.

I can’t imagine Mansfield’s state of mind at that time — surely not entirely blissful? Or perhaps Mansfield was experiencing some emotional ups to counterbalance the downs. She did write to her husband, John Middleton Murry, that her awareness of nature had heightened after her terminal diagnosis. Perhaps news of your own impending death can be enough to give you something akin to a psychedelic hit, alongside all the other emotions.

It is quite possible to achieve a state of bliss without chemical input. In his book How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan mentions breathing techniques and meditation as other ways of accessing this part of our brains. Apart from deliberate and focused efforts to achieve a state of bliss, bipolar disorders include manic states which present as the flip side of unbearable lows. The human brain has the capacity for extremes of emotion. Most of us coast along in the middle on an ordinary kind of day.

A Mushroom Diversion

I am inclined to go a bit off-piste in my interpretation of this short story. (My unimaginative English lit tutor thought so.)

FTR, I don’t seriously think Bertha is high because she ingested something, but revisiting “Bliss” did leave me wondering: Did young New Zealand bohemians know about mushrooms in the early twentieth century? Though Mansfield grew up in New Zealand, this story is set in England. Were they used recreationally in England in the early 20th century?

Psychedelic mushrooms aren’t mentioned in New Zealand literature until almost 100 years after Mansfield’s birth, but obviously people knew about them long before mycologists were writing them down in books.

New Zealand has its own varieties of magic mushrooms endemic to New Zealand. I can’t easily find information on magic mushroom use among Māori populations prior to European arrival, but mushrooms were a small part of traditional Māori diet. (Wood ear was eaten by Māori people, who called it “hakeke”.) Surely at some point someone tried an hallucinogenic mushroom and discovered its powers by accident. That said, Māori didn’t really like mushrooms and ate them only when nothing else was about. (Unlike Chinese people, say, for whom mushroom is an important part of the diet.)

European New Zealanders didn’t seem to know much about magic mushrooms until the 1980s, after news of the psychedelic era in America had been widely disseminated. (In pre-Internet days these things took a while. Plus, New Zealand was always England focused rather than America focused until about then.)

Still, I’m left wondering, partly with facetious interest, if Mansfield ever went for a mushroom scavenge on Mt Vic. Wellington is said to be magic mushroom capital of New Zealand and would have been the perfect place for Bertha to experiment with psilocybin. This housewife seems high on something.

Okay, here’s my argument, though:

  • Colours seem to pop for Bertha. She notices how different objects match because of a shared hue: the fruit with the carpet, Eddie’s scarf with his socks. She’s seeing patterns where most people would not make note of such coincidence.
  • She’s noticing small details in the way of a child, as reported by users of psilocybin.
  • Michael Pollan describes an intense experience with a tree, and Bertha really has a thing for that pear tree.
  • Bertha is on a different emotional wavelength from her husband. Her husband wants to talk to her about time — about putting dinner off for an extra ten minutes — but Bertha seems to have lost her awareness of time passing until he calls, and his mention of it irritates her somewhat.
  • She sits up and feels ‘quite dizzy, quite drunk‘. (This indicates some kind of altered state doesn’t line up with a typical psilocybin experience, in which case the body feels heavy.)
  • Mrs Norman Knight seems to shapeshift into a ‘very intelligent monkey’ even after taking off her coat with monkey decorations on it.
  • The dialogue of Bertha’s guests is quite strange, made up of fragments rather than full thoughts, which may be how Bertha hears it:  “I have had such a dreadful experience with a taxi-man; he was most sinister. I couldn’t get him to stop. The more I knocked and called the faster he went. And in the moonlight this bizarre figure with the flattened head crouching over the lit-tle wheel . . . “
  • If Bertha had been up on Mt Vic, I know who she was with earlier. Her wonderfully camp friend Eddie. Eddie has also lost all concept of time. “I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi.”
  • She has to try hard not to laugh at something that’s not all that funny (‘Face’s funny little habit of tucking something down the front of her bodice–as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there’.)
  • Mansfield’s creation of Bertha is in some ways a fictional recreation of herself. She is satirising the very same social set she herself was a part of — bohemian arty types sharing big (ridiculous) ideas for one-act plays (a ripe genre for making fun of), and decorating a room in absurdist fashion — ‘a fried-fish scheme’. The narration is what we’d now call ‘close third person’ — we see this dinner party through the viewpoint of Bertha and Bertha alone. If Bertha is making fun of her own bohemian friends, she’s feeling separated from them. You could describe her as being on her own planet. (Mansfield referred to her character of Bertha as ‘artist manqué‘, meaning an artist who has failed to live up to expectations. She and her friends seem drawn into Emperor’s-New-Clothes ridiculousness posing as art.)

“You’re of course, absolutely right about ‘Wangle’. He shall be resprinkled mit leichtern Fingern, and I’m with you about the commas. What I meant (I hope it don’t sound high falutin’) was Bertha not being an artist, was yet artist manqué enough to realise that those words and expressions were not and couldn’t be hers. They were, as it were, quoted by her, borrowed with… an eyebrow… yet she’d none of her own. But this, I agree, is not permissible. I can’t grant all that in my dear reader. It’s very exquisite of you to understand so nearly.”

Letter to Murry, March 14, 1921
  • She’s feeling this (wholly imagined) connectedness to Pearl Fulton. She’s lost some of her sense of ego.

But as Mansfield showed us in “A Windy Day”, adolescence can feel like that too. Hormones can do it. Bertha is a thirty-year-old housewife but she has not yet come of age. She has yet to experience sexual awakening. Her name is literal and symbolic: Bertha Young.

Bertha is likely bisexual, as was Mansfield. What she’s feeling towards Pearl seems simple erotic attraction, though Bertha is reading a whole lot of mystical meaning into it. A character such as Bertha wouldn’t have known the word or the concept ‘bisexual’. This is Bertha trying to make sense of her attractions.

Freudian Stuff

Mansfield is known for her Freudian themes. At this point in her life especially, she’s interested in repression.

REPRESSION

Up for debate: Did Bertha know that her husband was having an affair with her friend?

“How idiotic civilisation is. Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?”

Could Bertha have known all along about her husband’s affair with Pearl? Mansfield explores the psychology of repression in “The Fly”, written just before she wrote “Bliss”, in which an old man has developed techniques for avoiding any sort of thoughts about his only son killed in the war. When Bertha tells herself that her husband rushes after Pearl because he feels bad about some social sleight, this could be part of a bigger story she tells herself about Harry: How his meanness is really just him being funny, and he’s the sort of man one has to get to know. The irony is, Bertha herself doesn’t know her own husband.

NARRATION

The story works through symbolism, carefully selected detail and the clever unobtrusive fusing of the central character and narrator.

Gillian Boddy

The elliptical narrative style of “Bliss” would support the view that Bertha can’t finish a full thought. The question is, why not? Oftentimes Bertha cannot finish her next sentence and allows herself to be distracted. Perhaps the reality of her life is too uncomfortable.

Take the first paragraphs. Bertha speaks as if observing herself from a distance. Her words are not her own. She thinks one thing then immediately edits herself, as if observing herself taking part in some drama. Her words are simply a collection of quotations, gleaned from elsewhere.

Much use is made of dots and dashes, throughout Mansfield’s work, but especially in this story. Bertha’s feelings are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax — full of dashes and exclamation marks — make the language seem (faux-)spontaneous, like someone thinking out loud, or like someone doggedly determined to live in the moment (and therefore avoid putting uncomfortable pieces of evidence together… the husband late home, who arrives at the same time as Pearl…)

Symbolism and Imagery of “Bliss”

THE PEAR TREE
Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden
Vincent Van Gogh Stil Life with pears, 1887-1888. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden

In Mansfield’s short stories, birds, trees, insects and objects are often introduced by means of a precise comparison e.g. the pear tree in “Bliss”: ‘At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky’.

What of the two cats? The beauty is somewhat diminished by the appearance of the cats — one is grey and pregnant, the other black, following like a shadow.

Some have said the pear tree is a phallic symbol. When both women look at the tree they’re both looking at Harry. I may have gone awol on a psilocybin interpretation, but I think this is a bit of a stretch. Almost everything can be phallic in literature.

The pear tree could be a symbol of nature’s indifference to human suffering.

Or the tallness of it may represent Bertha’s homosexual aspirations, realised suddenly to their fullest. The flowering of the tree could symbolise the flowering of her sexual feelings. ‘[Bertha] seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.’ Across literature, blossoms are a common symbol of sexual maturation and release. The flowering tree could be a symbol of Bertha’s life, and the image of the cat appears once more after Bertha realises her husband has been unfaithful.

Combine these possible meanings, the tree might represent masculinity after all — the tree is tall and assertive and represents the ‘masculine’ part of Bertha’s sexual desire.

Bertha herself isn’t quite sure about the significance of the tree, and the symbolism of the tree remains only vague to the reader.

  • The first mention of the pear in storytelling is in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey.
  • You find pears, apples and figs throughout Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for any kind of sacred tree. It frequently appears in connection with Christ’s love for humankind.
  • Paintings of pear were found in the ruins of Pompei.
  • Elsewhere in the world the pear means a wide variety of things. China: justice, longevity, purity, wisdom. Korea: grace, nobility, purity, comfort. Also good for female fertility, health, and sitting exams. The flower is meant to resemble the face of a beautiful woman. But the transience of petals is a metaphor for the sadness of departure. In many other parts of the world the pear symbolises the human heart, which it kind of resembles.
  • Pears need to be cross-pollinated. A lone pear tree won’t give you any fruit, or reach ‘its potential’.
  • People hasten fruit bearing by causing the tree damage — “punishing” them — driving iron pegs into the trunk and so on. Pear trees are therefore associated with pain.
  • Pears are associated with temptation. The Bible talks about an apple in the Garden of Eden, but actually the name of the fruit tree is not mentioned in the biblical text. 13th century illustrations suggest apples. Two hundred years later everyone thought it was an apple. But honestly, that fruit could just as easily have been an early variety of pear.
  • When did the pear make it to Europe? We don’t know exactly. It may have been independently domesticated or it could have been introduced by the Greeks who founded Marseille in 600 BC. Most likely, it was introduced by the Romans. Charlemagne gets the credit for establishing the first collection of pear in France. Charlemagne was the rules of the Franks in the ninth century — so, the early medieval period.
  • By the late 1500s pears were common in England. Shakespeare makes a few references to pears. He didn’t seem to like them much. Maybe the bard accidentally picked a stewing pear and tried eating it raw? Who knows. He certainly considered the pear phallic, kind of like how bananas are commonly considered today. ‘As crest-fallen as a dried Pear…I must have saffron to color the Warden pies… O, Romeo… thou a Poperin Pear.’ (A sexual euphemism — ‘pop her in’. (Another fruit I’ve never encountered, the medlar, was thought to resemble an ‘open arse’, actually referring to the vagina. The medlar is Persian, and closely related to the pear.)
  • Pears are closely associated with France. Pears were really popular from the 16th to 19th centuries, where many varieties were cultivated.
  • They fruit from May to December in the Northern Hemisphere, so are associated with that time of year.
  • Charles Dickens also used pears as sexual metaphor. From David Copperfield: ‘I suppose you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield? I did that last night, but it’ll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait?’
  • ‘Pyriform’ means ‘pear shaped’, but this refers to European pears. Asian pears are round and crisp (think of the nashi). Asian pears don’t need to be softened before eating.
Sun and Moon Imagery

Mansfield like sun and moons in her stories, and even named one story “Sun and Moon”. In “Bliss”, the earlier imagery for Bertha’s happiness is symbolised by a series of sun images.  Later in the story, the sun image is linked to the moon (via a candle metaphor). This suggests prelapsarian innocence – i.e. before the world is supposed to have turned to shit. (Lapsarian refers to the Fall of Man — a Calvinist idea.)

HEAT AND COLDNESS

Mansfield returns to images of hot and cold throughout “Bliss”, referring back to ‘that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it’. As the story progresses, the metaphor of sun and sparks becomes a form of shorthand for Bertha’s state of mind, and perhaps of her eventual ‘seeing the light’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BLISS”

SHORTCOMING

Anthony Alpers, who wrote The Life of Katherine Mansfield, believed the women in this story are humanised whereas the man are types.

Bertha is young, naive and perhaps repressing the reality that her husband and friend are in love.

DESIRE

Bertha wants to enjoy a dinner party surrounded by interesting friends, and by one friend in particular — a beguiling young woman.

OPPONENT

Character webs become more interesting when opponents and allies are not who they at first appear to be. Bertha thinks Pearl is an ally, but it is eventually revealed that she is a firm romantic opponent. (As is her husband, Harry.)

PLAN

Because Bertha is in a blissful mood, she’s not really in ‘planning’ mood. Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is similarly driven by her mood. Bertha flits from one blissful thing to the next, remaining deliberately in the moment. There’s nothing sequential or logical about her party planning, but we assume she made at least some of the arrangements. (I suppose cook was out back making the soufflés, though Bertha takes credit for ordering them.)

BIG STRUGGLE

Underneath the brittle sophistication the reader senses the underlying tension as it mounts to its disquieting climax.

Gillian Boddy

Which is the ‘big struggle’ scene in “Bliss”?

In a Mansfield short story, the big struggle scene is probably some emotionally charged moment. The big struggle scene in this story is the strong image of two women staring at the same pear tree. We don’t know this until later, but they’re looking at the same man. This scene is an interesting example of a ‘big struggle’ scene which contains the direct inverse of what we’d normally expect from a big struggle — Bertha is filled with utter joy. Not fear, not anger, nothing negative. Joy. But that joy has a certain big struggle-like rugged determination about it. She is determined for Pearl to be joined to her in spirit. This is reminiscent of your archetypal big struggle.

ANAGNORISIS

Perhaps Mansfield does a bit of a bait and switch when it comes to the anagnorisis (which is more of a plot revelation than a deeper understanding of Bertha’s own self). We might expect that by the end of this story Bertha will have come to understand her attraction to Pearl as sexual. The reader can clearly see this situation for what it is, yet Bertha cannot.

But no. She has no such anagnorisis. Her anagnorisis is cut-off short. Instead, her revelation is that her husband is in love with her friend (to whom she is also attracted). I put that very deliberately in parentheses.

This is especially bad timing for Bertha, whose sexual attraction for Pearl has prompted — for the first time ever — a sexual attraction for her own husband.

NEW SITUATION

The abrupt ending leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Bertha now that she finally understands the irony of that bliss that earlier ‘she did not know what to do with’. Will she finally grow up— or is she trapped in this deceptive world of polite pretence?

While a plot-driven story would offer the satisfaction of narrative closure — a definite ending — nothing is finally resolved in “Bliss”. Not overtly, anyhow. We have to read the symbols.

Mansfield’s imagistic patterns are important in that they suggest various levels of meaning not always inherent in the action of the story, create ironic contrasts and support themes with rhetorical figures.

Julia van Gustaren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Certainly, Bertha is shattered and crestfallen. But Mansfield ends not with Bertha but with the pear tree, the story’s central image. The pear tree hasn’t changed at all, juxtaposing with Bertha’s extreme change in emotional valence.

Header painting: George Sheridan Knowles – The Duet

The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield

The Wind Blows Katherine Mansfield

On the surface level, “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield is a coming-of-age short story about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a minor disagreement with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.

(The ship is carrying coal. Mansfield uses the word ‘coal hulk’. Interestingly, these ships used to be used as prisons, as well as for freight.)

On the metaphorical level, the wind is an extended metaphor for the feelings of adolescence. It’s not easy to tell whether Katherine Mansfield is empathetic to the tumultuous feelings of adolescence, or if she’s poking fun. She has written “The Wind Blows” in a melodramatic tone. Critics have called this story ‘the most purely symbolist of her stories to this date.. a highly sophisticated and modernist story…achieving new intensity’ (Claire Hanson and Andrew Gurr).

CONNECTIONS TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

In general, it pays not to conflate characters with their creators. But In Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy provides good reasons why we might read Matilda with Katherine Mansfield herself:

Clearly based on the memories she had shared with Leslie during the summer of 1915, this story has a strange power. Matilda is K.M., she used the pseudonym Matilda Berry at this time, while Bogey was the family name for Leslie, which K.M. later transferred to Murry. It gives a hint, too, of the Trowell’s house in Buller Street which must have been central to her artistic development. This presumably led her to the choice of the music teacher’s name — Mr. Bullen. Could her remarkable memory have failed her by one letter, was the change deliberate, or was there perhaps an error in transcribing the story from her handwriting? Is Mr Bullen another composite figure, based on Mr Trowell and her piano teacher Mr Robert Parker?

Gillian Boddy
René François Xavier Prinet, The Sonata, 1901, the stuff of girlhood fantasy
René François Xavier Prinet, The Sonata, 1901, the stuff of girlhood fantasy

Sadly, Mansfield’s brother Leslie died only a days after this story was published. Once you know that, the admonishment ‘don’t forget’ near the end of the story becomes darkly resonant.

SETTING OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

PLACE

Katherine Mansfield grew up in the capital of New Zealand: Wellington. Central Wellington. The family later moved out to Karori, which is still Wellington.

Anyone who has lived in Wellington will recognise immediately the relentless wind that drives inexorably through the story; not for nothing is K.M.’s birthplace nicknamed ‘Windy Wellington’. It is also, with the sea, a dominant symbol in this story about a girl’s transition into the adult world.

Gillian Boddy

Unless you’ve been to Wellington on a windy day, it’s hard to imagine HOW windy Wellington is.

Wellington in New Zealand is ranked as the world’s windiest city.

World Atlas

The older houses make a lot of rattling noise, which soon blends into white noise as you adjust. If you dare hang washing outside on the line, it’ll dry just fine, but you’ll be untangling it before bringing it in. In exposed areas, trees grow sideways. Dreadlocks are a very sensible hairstyle. Riding a pushbike? Come on. You might as well just walk. Wear well-fitting hats with strings and toggles. Don’t try badminton with the gymnasium window ajar. Fancy skirts? Make them long and heavy or stick to the trusty trouser.

This is the weather Katherine Mansfield grew up with. I’ve no doubt that after she grew older and left New Zealand entirely, windy days would have reminded her of her childhood. (I bet Mansfield would’ve worn her hair in dreadlocks, too, had they been a thing back for white Kiwi girls at the turn of the 20th century. She seems that kind of bohemian.)

In storytelling, when authors make a big thing out of the weather, linking it to emotions of their characters, it’s called pathetic fallacy. When characters are sad it just so happens to be raining outside, that kind of thing.

When authors use the weather and connect it to human emotion, they very often write the environment as if it were alive. Super common. You might want to check out this post: How Can Setting Be Character?

The pull quotes relevant from “The Wind Blows”:

It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble.

CULTURAL REFERENCES

This sentence (from the opening paragraph) reminds me of a creepy-ass poem my parents used to chant when I was a toddler and wouldn’t jump straight into bed at the first request.

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon, Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown, Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock, “Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”

(Except I’m fifth generation New Zealander. It wasn’t said in that awesome Scottish accent.)

I’m confident Katherine Mansfield would’ve known that poem, too, along with various other stories of bugaboos who were meant to come and get you if you didn’t do exactly as you were told, “im-me-diately”. (See what I did there?) Funnily enough, Matilda calls her little brother ‘Bogey’, which is a term used to describe creatures that come in the night. (These days in New Zealand it usually refers to that grossity plucked from the nostril. In real life, we do know that Mansfield called John Murry — her husband — the nickname of Bogey.) The character of Matilda is a fantasist type, imo. I’m reminded of the character played by Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love. That entire film has a Katherine Mansfield vibe, come to think of it.

The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell’s ‘To An Iceberg’. There’s no such song — Katherine Mansfield changed the title slightly. American composer Edward MacDowell was a favourite of hers. The song is probably “From A Wandering Iceberg”. https://youtu.be/54I0k9vVrPM

Matilda misquotes poetry by Shelly. ‘I bring fresh flowers to the leaves and showers’ is based on the opening line of “The Cloud”. Why the misquotation? Matilda doesn’t have a great memory for poetry.

SMALLER SPACES WITHIN THE STORY

All the trees and bushes beat about her. 

… outside Mr Bullen’s gate she can hear the sea sob: “Ah!… Ah!… Ah-h!”

The cry appears to come from within Matilda. (This juxtaposes with Mr Bullen’s drawing room, which is quiet — a haven.)

It’s the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep… stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes

Where is the asphalt zig-zag mentioned in the story?

‘They cannot walk fast enough. Their heads bent, their legs just touching, they stride like one eager person through the tow, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade. It is dusky – just getting dusky. The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pohutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.’

The esplanade is now Thorndon Quay. There is no longer fennel growing here. If you’d like to see some photos, see this post at the Wellington Steps blog.

This is the closest I can get on Google Earth.

BRINGING THE SETTING TO LIFE

Each new scene includes a sentence or two which makes it seem alive.

The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.

This story was written before Maori spelling was standardised. Now: ‘pohutakawa’ (a native New Zealand tree with fiery red flowers)

Season

Mansfield has set her story in autumn, partly because this is a windy month. Partly because things are changing. We often view childhood as ‘summery’. We like to imagine a yellow hue cast over childhood memories. Autumn would therefore mark the end of childhood — an in-between state. Matilda feels ‘everything is ugly’. Self-confidence is not exactly at an all-time high during adolescence. It takes time to get used to the image in the mirror.

HISTORICAL MILIEU

“The Wind Blows” is a snapshot of historical racism of a kind which only recently mutated into something more covert. My own grandmother used the phrase ‘Chinaman’ (to refer to anyone with an Asian face), and she’d say, “I’m not your little black boy!” by way of reminding us kids that we should be doing for ourselves. (The implication being: if she were a little black boy, she’d happily slave away.)

Contemporary Wellingtonians won’t likely recognise the Wellington of this story:

The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets  –  their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind.

No one dresses like that anymore.

In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. […] through the town, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade

The roads are not sealed and wild vegetation grows where everything is now turned to concrete.

She wears an ‘ulster’ — a Victorian working daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves.

Tenerife work refers to handmade lace from the Canary Islands.

NARRATION OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

“The Wind Blows” has a single focaliser — Matilda. This aligns the reader to Matilda. Everything we experience is through Matilda’s senses.

The narration offers no definitive commentary on the specific situation of the focalising character, Matilda. We don’t know what came before or what will happen after. Instead, events of a single day give readers an insight into Matilda’s personality and into her complicated relationship within the family. Mansfield shows us Matilda’s state of mind by presenting selected concrete detail rather than by depicting the mind of the character. Chekhov also wrote like this. There’s a Latin phrase sometimes used to describe these characters who have no backstory: in statu nascendi (in the state of being born).

To the reader, it feels like Matilda is placed in a series of random situations. ‘Slice of life’ stories are often written like this. The ‘random’ slices create an unsettling mosaic but these slices are bound together by a single symbol: The wind.

LANGUAGE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

What’s with the repetition of ‘wind’?

The repetition of a single word “wind” in “The Wind Blows” (five times compounded as “The wind — the wind,” functions not only to reinforce, as though physiologically, the reader’s sense of the intensity and persistence of a Wellington windstorm but also as a sotr of mantra for the central character, a formulaic verbal utterance that here at once invokes change and mediates against it, producing tension.

Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
DETAIL

Mansfield juxtaposes lyrical details against base, realistic details such as the three-legged dog, the burned porridge and the dust that came ‘stinging and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure’.

Some of the details make the environment seem literally alive. There’s the roaring sound from the trees in the gardens, the piece of paper flying like a lost kite.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

[“The Wind Blows”] is a sharp contrast to “The Woman At The Store”; some readers complain ‘but it’s not a story, nothing happens.’ It is a story of a different kind, oblique, episodic, with its shift in time level, and the move into interior monologue at the beginning of the second part.

Gillian Boddy

In common with many children’s picture books, “The Wind Blows” is the story a childlike character and begins with her waking up and ends in the evening. (Unlike in a picture book, we don’t see Matilda tucked into bed.) There is a particular symbolism attached to stories that take place over 12 hours.

SHORTCOMING

Matilda, whose name we don’t actually know until her mother calls her, is hormonal. Over the course of one day, she is at the mercy of her up-and-down emotions.

DESIRE

The desire in this particular story is not a burning, surface one. Characters often don’t know what it is they want. Especially young characters. Knowing what you want is in itself a skill.

Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is a character going about her daily life, one small desire soon replaced by another. But under that surface, Matilda’s desires are strong; she is driven by hormones and angst.

OPPONENT

Matilda’s main opponent is her mother. Mothers often bear the brunt. Mansfield has used contemporary language of the time: “Go to hell,” which lends “The Wind Blows” a contemporary feel. In this story, notice how Matilda is never near her mother.

Note that Mansfield manages to portray tension without resorting to the exclamation mark, which would cheapen the prose. The verb ‘shouts’ does the work of punctuation.

There’s also Marie Swainson, who is a vague irritation to Matilda. That said, Mansfield has done her usual trick (seen also in “The Garden Party”) of presenting the two girls as equals by giving them names that begin with the same letter. That’s not how Matilda sees it — she mocks Marie’s shortening of ‘chrysanthemum’ and wishes she had more time alone with the music teacher — Marie intrudes upon her alone-time.

Stories require human opposition to work, but some commentators have said that the wind itself serves as an opponent in “The Wind Blows”. It seems to be working against Matilda in a ghostly kind of way. It tears her ‘best little Teneriff-work teacloth’ and tries to lift her skirts. The wind bangs a piece of iron on the roof and makes her bed tremble. It causes her to wake up abruptly and ‘dreadfully’.

PLAN

Matilda herself has no plans for her day, which is in keeping with how the story ends. (She loses childhood and doesn’t have plans for what comes next.)

In a story where the main character has no plans, they are carried along by other people’s plans. Her music lesson is something she does out of habit. It’s even Bogey who suggests their walk along the esplanade. Matilda isn’t exactly the proactive type. She’s more of a mooning type. Matilda’s lack of plans are in keeping with the mood of the story — she is a ship (see below) being carried along by the tide of life.

BIG STRUGGLE

In stories of this style, the big struggle section is often entirely symbolic. In “The Wind Blows”, Mansfield’s description of the dangerous sea is a proxy for a big fight scene. Pick out a few words from these paragraphs, and you could easily transplant them into an actual big struggle scene:

  • They cannot walk fast enough. (As if chased by something.)
  • zigzag (road)
  • (fennel) grows wild
  • strong (wind)
  • drunkards (which are actually flowers, not exactly dangerous people out on the street)
  • waves ‘breaking’, Bogey’s voice ‘breaking’
  • thump (onomatopoeia of the waves)
  • ‘the inside of her mouth tastes wet and cold’ (as if something terrible just happened)

ANAGNORISIS

It’s the light that makes her look so awfully beautiful and mysterious… They are on board leaning over the rail arm in arm. 

” … Who are they?” 

” … Brother and sister.” 

Matilda imagines she and Bogey on board the ship; in fact, they ‘are’ the ship. Nothing will stop these children from ploughing through the rough seas of adolescence into adulthood, not even the ‘wind’ – the turbulent emotions every adolescent must steam through.

“Look, Bogey, there’s the town. Doesn’t it look small?”

Mansfield is making use of miniatures in storytelling. This is seen much more clearly in “The Fly“, which she wrote just months before she died.

GOODBYE, CHILDHOOD!

There’s a particular type of Anagnorisis seen in some stories — even in stories for children — in which the main character says goodbye to childhood. I say ‘even’ in stories for children, because a child audience can’t possibly understand it fully. Children are super smart and understand a whole lot of things, but this is the one thing I can think of in which children and adults are distinct as audience members.

When Matilda says, “How many years ago!” we know that Matilda feels she is no longer a child. She says goodbye to the ‘little island’ (the ship), and she is saying goodbye to childhood.

A ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ scene is utilised to great effect in Toy Story 3, when Andy tells Woody what he thinks of him. Until this moment Woody has never known. “He’s  been my pal as long as I can remember…” https://youtu.be/zvQjbrJquFs

“The thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you, ever. Do you think you can take care of him for me?” Woody understands that everything he always wanted to be, he was. Then the viewpoint switches to Andy. Andy is trying one last time to keep hold of his childhood when he grabs Woody back from the little girl. This is the last time he’ll ever play with Woody. What does that do to the audience? We all realise we’ve either lost our childhood or we’re losing it.

Children don’t cry at this Toy Story 3. This is an adult ending that was designed for both children and adults. From a child’s perspective, children get their own ending, which is happy: Woody gets to hang out with his friends. They’re together! For children, Toy Story 3 is happy from beginning to end. Children under about 13 don’t have any concern for Andy’s feelings — they’re identifying with the toys. There is no Anagnorisis for the child audience. This scene is so sad because most adults didn’t know when we were saying goodbye to our childhood. In hindsight, it seems one moment we were children, the next we were adults. This scene allows us to weep for the loss of our own childhood.

In Peter Pan, Wendy says goodbye to her childhood when she says goodbye to Peter (who represents childhood). https://youtu.be/uCt-36PRHLM

Other stories with resonant ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ anagnorisis scenes: A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck (which is the saddest thing I’ve read in my life), Winnie the Pooh and Boyhood, the film by Richard Linklater.

I expect the full emotional impact of the Anagnorisis scene in Mansfield’s “The Wind Blows” would be felt (if not understood) by a post-adolescent readership.

Although we’re talking about a ship on a sea, there’s a bit of river symbolism going on here. A body of water represents the inevitable passing of time, sweeping us along with it, as we get older and older, no turning back.

God, this is depressing.

NEW SITUATION

Now the dark stretches a wing over the tumbling water. They can’t see those two any more. Good-bye, good-bye. Don’t forget… But the ship is gone, now. 

The wind  –  the wind.

The ending is only suggestive and left open to interpretation. It’s really not important what happened between the scene on the shore and the final scene on the boat or how they got there. This ending really only makes sense when you think of the disappearing ship as disappearing childhood. Think of this ending as Matilda’s change in perspective. She feels alienated from other characters.

The final ‘the wind — the wind’ reminds me of ‘Tumbleweeds’ (which is a more modern trope, riffing on old Western movies, and spoofed subsequently by pop culture.)

If Mansfield were writing today, she might have ended with ‘Tumbleweed’ instead. Okay, maybe not, but I interpret that ending as, ‘Childhood was gone now, but nothing had appeared to replace it, yet.’

Matilda has a crush on her married music teacher (well, I guess he was married, since he wears a ring), but he’s way too old for her. Romantically, and in every other way, Matilda is stuck in teen limbo for a good while yet, unable to see how her adult life can get started.

Notice how Mansfield frames the main story: She begins by describing a whole newspaper wagging in the air like a lost kite. With that simple imagery she ties something from the boring adult world (a newspaper) to something from childhood (a kite). The childhood kite ends up ‘spiked on a pine tree’. Childhood has been killed, basically.

WRITE YOUR OWN

A few years back I wrote my own retelling of “The Wind Blows”. I had spent an entire week immersed in Katherine Mansfield, and the story flowed easily. (Not all of them do.)

  • “The Wind Blows” is 1623 words. I recommend you make yours about that length, too.
  • What season is your story set?
  • The story starts in the morning and ends around evening sometime.
  • Everything that happens throughout the day causes some kind of strong emotion. Each emotion juxtaposes with the emotion that came before — positive, negative, positive, negative. There’s no external influence on these emotions — they seem random, and that’s the point.
  • You don’t have to use wind as pathetic fallacy. You might use something else instead as a metaphor for tumult: a ride at a theme park, a hairdryer, a flooded creek… Or you could use pathetic fallacy ironically. Pick a sweltering hot day and juxtapose that against the up-and-down emotions of adolescence.
  • Mansfield uses the girl’s mother as her main opponent, but you could pick someone else. A teacher, perhaps. A best friend. A sibling, auntie.
  • Perhaps your character is the mooning type, in which case other characters will carry them along in their plans.
  • The Battle scene will be a proxy battle — a dangerous description of something rather than an actually dangerous something.
  • The anagnorisis — in keeping with this story — may be that ‘childhood has ended’. Or you might substitute with something else.
  • Like Mansfield, don’t waste time on ‘transitions’, getting your character from place to place. Mansfield whips Matilda out of her music lesson and transplants her straight into her own bedroom. The transition is ‘The wind — the wind’.
  • Mansfield has opened her story with a very particular sentence construction. She closes in this way, too. Try doing the same, see if it works. Even better, write imagery to open which reflects the Anagnorisis. Mansfield used the kite spiked on the tree to foreshadow the end of childhood.

The Fly by Katherine Mansfield

Frank Watson Wood - The Cronies ca. 1900

The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1922.

Mansfield’s short stories are out of copyright and available at various places online. Download “The Fly”by Katherine Mansfield as a document.

CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in February 1922 as she was finding her tuberculosis treatment debilitating. She died in January of  1923, soon after its publication. Thirty-four seems young to be contemplating old age, and to write about an elderly character with any sort of gravitas, but it’s likely Mansfield always had empathy for the elderly. She had probably sensed she would die young. For one thing, she’d faced plague. The Beauchamp family escaped central Wellington to live in Karori, probably to evade the bacterial infections which were highly dangerous to Wellingtonians at the turn of the 20th century. Aside from that, Mansfield grew up with weak lungs. The family doctor told her family (if not Mansfield herself?) that she was a case of tuberculosis waiting to happen.

By the time Mansfield actually did succumb to tuberculosis, I wonder how she had processed the concept of ‘inevitability’. The modern-day analogue is a person who knows they carry genes which put them in the firing line for future health problems and a likely early death (e.g. for breast cancer, Huntingdons, early onset Alzheimers). The more we learn about genetics, the more all of us will be expected to either confront death (by paying for gene sequencing, say), or to ignore it completely (like The Boss in this story). How much should we mull over our own deaths? What is the perfect amount of death-mulling in order to live a good life? This is the ultimate moral dilemma for privileged people of the modern age.

We can only read her stories and speculate about how Mansfield lived with ill-health, but putting her writing to one side, she did live life to the fullest, perhaps because she was always under the spectre of death.

When facing death, it’s common for people to readjust our sense of scale. Big things seem smaller (we realise we are not invincible), important are cast as freshly irrelevant. The flip side: small lives become more meaningful: A fly can lose its life just like that. And we’re no different. Everything feels more connected. (Users of psilocybin will tell you of similar experiences, without necessarily facing their own mortality.)

This is partly why imagery surrounding ‘miniatures‘ is so commonly utilised by storytellers. You can make the argument that all stories are about life, and therefore all stories are about death.

Frank Henry Bellew's A Bad Boy's First Reader
Frank Henry Bellew’s A Bad Boy’s First Reader Fly

What Happens In “The Fly”?

Old Woodifield is an elderly man who goes to visit his former boss at the boss’s office. He’s impressed that the boss is still doing well in the workplace, even though he’s a full five years older than himself.

Old Woodifield forgets what he came to say, but after a tipple of whiskey (which his health properly forbids), he remembers: His daughters visited France recently, including the graves at Flanders Fields, where both old men lost sons.

Old Woodifield tells his boss that they also found the boss’s son’s grave, and would like to reassure him the grave is very well kept. Then Woodifield leaves, unaware of how he has plunged his former boss into the depths of despair.

The reader stays in the room and we watch on as The Boss slowly kills a fly entrapped in his ink pot.

Setting of “The Fly”

The story is set when it was written, in the post-WW1 era.

The story is set in England, near London. “The City” is capitalised, so refers to “The City” district of central London. France is revealed to be a foreign country with very foreign customs when Old Woodifield offers the anecdote about paying for the entire jar of jam. (There is an historic cultural juxtaposition between England and France.)

Some of the language indicates its era:

  • “Toss off” now means something else entirely, but back then meant to ‘down’ a drink.
  • ‘Wiped his moustaches’ — this word has evolved in the opposite direction of trousers (which were once considered plural, now considered singular, often called ‘trouser’).
  • ‘Chaps’ now refers almost exclusively to the butt-less leather trousers, sometimes worn by gay men on the prowl. Back then the word referred to the same leggings and belt, but not in place of butt-covering attire. The word was pronounced ‘shaps’, fyi.

Narration In “The Fly”

This story is told with omniscient narration, neither entering too far into the mind of the boss nor Mr Woodifield.

“The Fly” is typical of Mansfield’s story-telling technique: The reader is moved through a series of incidents, carried along with the action. Eventually the reader discovers causal relationships.  Honeymoon, The Voyage and Prelude make use of the same narrative technique.

Character Web of “The Fly”

The Boss

As first presented, the Boss appears to be the archetypal godlike figure, giving life and taking it away. The Boss is given no name—he is known simply as ‘Boss’—authority, father figure to both Woodifield and to Macey. He gives a little drop of whiskey to Woodifield, insisting it wouldn’t hurt a child, even though alcohol is forbidden to the old man. This interaction is very reminiscent of a scene in Annie Proulx’s much later short story “On The Antler“, though in Proulx’s story the alcohol is literally poisoned. (To someone who can’t drink for health reasons, alcohol on its own can be poison.)

The Boss is also set up as materialistic. Mansfield both shows and tells us this fact.

[SHOWING] ‘New carpet,’ and he pointed to the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings. ‘New furniture,’ and he nodded towards the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle. ‘Electric heating!’ He waved almost exultantly towards the five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.

[TELLING] But he did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years.

Some critics have said this indicates an earlier, less polished time in Mansfield’s writing development because succinctness is highly prized. However, I’m not on board with that view. I think succinctness can  be too highly prized. Like any other kind of emphasis, emphasis achieved by both showing and telling is acceptable to me as a reader.

More interesting: Why did Mansfield want to underscore this facet of The Boss’s personality?

  • Materialistic characters are non-empathetic characters. That’s a rule.
  • He’s also a braggart. A rich, powerful man who is also a braggart is the worst kind of rich, powerful man.
  • But he is also pitiable in his own strange way. Braggarts are showing their shortcoming: They’re not as confident as they hope to appear. A man who brags about his possessions is making up for something very weak about himself. The reader draws this conclusion early (subconsciously, if nothing else) and so when we see his actions at the end, the ending is both surprising and expected. (The rule for endings.)
  • On second reading (or in hindsight) we understand that by fixating on objects, The Boss can avoid thinking about death. Objects cannot die. Flies can die. Flies are not objects. But he seems to consider the fly a kind of object, as a part of the room itself, until he is hit by its tiny death.

I conclude that Mansfield had good reason to underscore the materialistic views of The Boss.

The Boss’s Son

We don’t know what the son was really like because we’re viewing him from the father’s point of view. Bereaved family members have a tendency to remember only the best of the dearly departed. It’s highly likely the son wasn’t anything like the angel he remains in his father’s memory.

Also possible: The Boss required the son to come and work for him whether son wanted to or not, and The Boss refused to listen to anything else. It’s possible The Boss has sociopathic tendencies. While most neurotypical people think nothing of killing a fly, I think most of us prefer a swift and painless death for any living creature.

Like many parents, The Boss had hoped to achieve immortality via his son. Losing his only son means losing his own immortality.

The Fly

When the Boss begins to play with the fly, birth imagery appears and readers remembers that Woodifield was described as a baby. As the fly struggles to recover from the persistent blobs of ink The Boss drops on him, readers understand that the fly is a symbol for humanity and the fly’s struggle is the struggle of humankind.

Flies also ‘fly’. Katherine Mansfield is making use of The Symbolism of Flight. Flies can soar through the heavens and perhaps they have lots of fun, escaping any kind of earth-bound reality. But flies die in the end. Alongside us, flies endure an ordinary and inevitable lifecycle: birth, youth, ‘old age’ (for a fly), death. There is struggle, even for free creatures.

But along with the struggle there are moments of flight, desires, hopes, aspirations. If we put ourselves in the fly’s position, it probably thinks it can get away, until the deathly amount of ink is dropped upon it.

Old Woodifield

Where did Katherine Mansfield come down on the Freudian concept of repression? Old Woodifield has repressed nothing. But look at him. He’s five years younger than The Boss, already retired, his health is at the point where he can’t take whiskey and he seems to be losing his memory, possibly hastened by the stroke which caused his retirement. He is now under the care of his wife and daughters.

We can’t apply a cause and effect analysis to how humans age in real life, but we’re talking about fiction here. Could it be that in “The Fly”, Old Woodfield’s openness towards mortality has actually hastened his own?

Helen Garner wrote a novel called The Spare Room, in which a woman is cast into the reluctant role of caregiver when a friend comes to stay. The friend is undergoing cancer treatment. In interviews, Garner has said that ‘denial of one’s impending death’ is one way of dealing with death. Since death comes anyway, there’s no right or wrong way of dealing with it.

My brother, a hospital nurse, also tells me that it is very, very common to be admitted to hospital in the late stages of a deadly illness and still not ‘accept’ death is happening.

One possible reading of “The Fly”: By repressing thoughts of death, we don’t ever have to deal with it. (By the time we’ve dealt with it, we’ll be fully dead., which is not dealing.) In the meantime, keep working, keep busy.

Western governments, spurred on by a rapidly ageing population, probably take The Boss’s view.

Alternate reading: Old Woodifield has ‘Old’ in his name, but is consistently described as a baby. We could look at this both ways: Old people are helpless like babies and there’s your comparison. When Mansfield calls Old Woodifield a baby, she might simply be underscoring his old age. On the other hand, his acceptance of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death makes him immortal, in a way. Once we learn that death is a thing, and that it will eventually come for us, we’re ‘outside’ death. (‘Forever young’, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Symbol Web of “The Fly”

In the first episode in “The Fly” Woodifield and the Boss are contrasted in using imagistic patterns.

Old Woodifield, though five years younger, is nearing his grave. He’s ‘boxed up‘ and looks ‘like a baby in his pram’ but still likes to go out as ‘he clings’ to his ‘last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves’. He ‘pipes’, ‘peers’, has ‘shuffling footsteps’ is frail’ and ‘old’ (stated seventeen times) and ‘on his last pins’.

The Boss, on the other hand, though described in less imagistic language, is still ‘at the helm’, ‘going strong’, rolls in his chair, and ‘flips’ the Financial Times, interested as he is in his business and life. The Boss has a strong lust for life and shows a great capacity to survive. The imagery that defines the environment is remarkably positive, and equally rich in suggestions of the boss’s energy, his strength, warmth and generosity.

Indeed the implication, especially through contrasting comparisons with old Woodifield, is that the Boss has an unaging vitality. He seems to be immune to life’s ravages and this suggests an important theme. The very effect of the description of the room and the boss’s subsequent conversation with Woodifield is to establish a dichotomy between the two men as well as to portray them naturally in a realistic social context.

Mortality, already implied by the contrasting images, is directly conveyed by the striking verbal metaphor of the boss’s son in his grave: ‘It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girls staring down at him’. This momento mori together with his son’s photograph make him forget the six years, although his mental grasp has weakened. But the Boss has built up not only his thriving business but also an effective defence mechanism. There are no tears to shed.

By sheer accident the boss finds a fly in the inkwell and unconsciously picks it out, watching the struggling fly brushing off the ink in order to survive, the Boss finds in its fight for life an analogy with his own will to survive. The introductory, contrasting images have generated a sense of the boss’s zest for life, which is also evident in the action.

Killing the fly he paradoxically wishes it to weather adversity, increasingly identifying himself as the courageous little insect in the animal images: ‘like a minute little cat’, ‘the little beggar’ and ‘he’s a plucky little devil.’ Time and his zest for life ‘(‘for the life of him’) have healed the wound in his heart.

The images reveal the true nature of the Boss and inform and extend the meaning of the action in the short story. With Mansfield’s method of narrative restraint, which eschews expository comments, the boss’s final oblivion is expressed in the referential narrator’s discourse, but the full weight of the boss’s fight for survival is expressed by imagistic patterns.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE FLY”

SHORTCOMING

The Boss represses his own hard emotions, pressing reset again and again, which leaves him open to continued small wounds when he leasts expects them.

The Boss is the archetype of the broken man who wants to embed himself in his work in order to forget other kinds of pain. The men of Mad Men are uniformly of that type. If they were to understand their own difficult emotions, those emotions would absolutely break them.

Short stories are well-known for their epiphanic moments, and for characters who change just a smudge. (There’s little time for massive character arcs.) “The Fly” is an excellent example of minimal character change (if any at all).

DESIRE

The Boss seems quite happy to continue on as Top Dog of his own company, and no doubt enjoys the authority that comes with it. But this was an era in which men did tend to retire at a certain, fixed age.

The Boss hasn’t retired, which suggests he wants to live in the past. Today starts off as many other days must have, no different from how days have looked his whole working life.

I’m filling in gaps, but I imagine The Boss pretends he’s a much younger man, and that his son is also younger, safely ensconced in his school work, or at home with his mother, still alive and still full of promise.

OPPONENT

Old Woodifield is the opponent because in contrast to The Boss, this is an old man who has come to terms with his impending death. (He’s long since retired.) He’s also come to terms with his own son’s death in the war, to the point where he can talk at length about how well the graves are tended. This is a man who has not repressed his grief, or his own fear of death.

When confronted with such a peer, The Boss is asked to confront his own dark emotions. This is the unique trait of a same-aged peer, and why school reunions in particular can be so confronting. We can look at a much older person and separate ourselves from their mortality. We look at much younger people and we consider them almost ageless. But when we look at those the exact same age, we tend to compare ourselves to our peers in every facet—how are we doing in life? How old do we appear to others?

Only our same-aged peers can show us.

In storytelling terms, Old Woodifield is The Boss’s foil.

Foil: A character with behaviour and/or values that contrast those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character.

Foils work best when they’re the same in many ways:

  • Same approximate age
  • Same milieu
  • Same life tragedies

PLAN

You’ll have heard of Save The Cat as a writing technique. (Kill The Dog is its inverse, though Kill The Dog isn’t dissimilar in function: It is used to show an audience the good in a main character.)

Often in a story, a character will save the life of an insect to show the audience how empathetic they are, deep down. This technique was utilised numerous times throughout the coming-of-age film American Honey, for instance.  After the main character does something questionable, she is shown to save an insect, until eventually we see her do something really nice for some hungry kids. It’s also utilised in one of the first scenes of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to get us onside with Frances McDormand’s character. Mildred Hayes is presented as a tough nut who may or may not be in the right, insofar as the audience knows, so in the same confrontational opening scene the writer/director has her walk over to the windowsill and flip a beetle back onto its feet.

But in “The Fly”, a man is presented to the reader as your regular Boss (hence the lack of a name — this guy is an archetype). But then, when he sort of tortures a harmless — if annoying — little fly, Mansfield breaks archetype to add a little extra. That little extra is not good. It’s uncomfortable to read and now we definitely don’t like this guy. (Even if we don’t like flies either.) This story represents the true inverse of Save The Cat.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle between The Boss and Fly is heavily stacked, and obviously ‘won’ by the Boss, but for him it’ll be a pyrrhic victory, since the death of the fly can only remind him of death in general… his son’s, his own. (And possibly his wife’s as well — in the eras before birth control, an only child often indicated death of a parent, outside secondary infertility.)

ANAGNORISIS

One reading of this short story is that The Boss realises his own mortality for the first time after Old Woodifield’s visit, but I’m not on board with that reading. The final sentence indicates The Boss has had many chances to come to terms with his own mortality (and with the death of his son), but each occasion leads him to repress any uncomfortable grief and…

NEW SITUATION

…he presses the reset button.

For the life of him, he could not remember.

On the other hand, the words ‘for the life of him’ are chosen carefully. You could argue that because of the word ‘life’, The Boss is left with a newly intimate, though subconscious, knowledge of his own mortality.

Once again, Old Woodifield has been set up as his foil. For Old Woodifield we decode the text as indicative of dementia, but for The Boss, forgetting is an act of will.

RELATED

  • “The Fly” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.
  • I’m not entirely sure Mansfield did a great job of depicting old age. She never made it to old age herself (and I’m not there yet, either). Time will tell, and I may shift my position. But have a read of Kevin Barry’s award winning short story “Beer Trip To Llandudno”, which explores the middle-aged version of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. That is a story about middle aged men, written by a middle aged man. As a middle aged person myself, these men’s attitude towards death rings true. The self-realisations about death in “The Fly” feel like middle-aged realisations rather than old-age revelations. Or perhaps Mansfield’s position on death is different yet again, for precisely the reason that Mansfield never made it, even to middle age, and knew full well she would not.

Header painting: Frank Watson Wood – The Cronies ca. 1900

King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

king bait keri hulme

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.



In “King Bait” we see a number of features common to Keri Hulme’s narrative style:

  • New Zealand qualities: Content – whitebaiting, Friday night at the pub; Language – Maori words e.g. kai (food)
  • Mixes colloquial language with poetic prose. She makes use of colloquialisms in dialogue to convey characters and their lifestyles. When rising to the thematic climax she is inclined to make use of poetic techniques.
  • Very graphic description – sex, violence, disgusting descriptions of blood e.g. ‘moise warm groove’
  • Dense use of symbolism e.g. hooks are symbolic of many things. Lots of symbolism is left mysterious and ambiguous, like the cones and goblets of Hooks and Feelers.
  • Magic realism
  • Uses first person narration but with irony and precision. She as the reader and we as the readers are aware of things the main character is not. The first person is often androgynous.
  • Use of ellipsis. She often leaps forward and leaves the readers to form our own connections. Ellipsis serves to economise space, add mystery and encourage alertness. Absence can be more powerful than presence because the imagination can take over.
  • Paralinguistic features such as unconventional capitalisation, running words together, separating words (parataxis)
  • Varied main characters. Hulme is able to transcend gender.
  • Like Katherine Mansfield, Hulme uses idiomatic expressions of her time to build character. e.g. Katherine Mansfield says ‘diddums’. Hulme says ‘bloody oath’.
  • Stories are multi-layered. Both Katherine Mansfield and Hulme are interested in subconscious drives and motivations.
  • Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Hulme is inclined to avoid describing beautiful things such as flowers, dwelling instead on the macabre. She shares this in common with American writer Annie Proulx.
  • Mansfield is often omnipresent, writing from an omniscient point of view. Hulme takes one viewpoint.

STORYWORLD OF “KING BAIT”

WHITEBAITING IN NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.

THE WEST COAST

In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “KING BAIT”

NARRATION

“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.

SHORTCOMING

We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Anagnorisis part of the story. (The psychological shortcoming always is.)

DESIRE

Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.

OPPONENT

This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.

PLAN

Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a big struggle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a big struggle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.

ANAGNORISIS

The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The anagnorisis concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no anagnorisis regarding his own psychology, shortcoming and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no setting explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal anagnorisis, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.

NEW SITUATION

The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Anagnorisis was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

New Zealand As Depicted In Fiction

How is your country generally depicted in fiction, by writers outside your country? New Zealand in fiction, not surprisingly, is the stock country for ‘a place really, really far away.’

Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand.

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

In the English light-hearted drama Last Tango In Halifax, a relative who came from New Zealand to England had made a REALLY big effort to be at a wedding celebration, and therefore his very presence was amazing.

In Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (or Perfect Snogging, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), the main character’s father is sent away to New Zealand to work, which is a plot device to keep him really far away.

Angus-Thongs-and-Perfect-Snogging-2008-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-Online

New Zealand sometimes even gets a mention in American fiction. Even in Breaking Bad! In this case, New Zealand is the stock country that ‘no one knows anything about’ and is the perfect place for Americans to go if they want a new start. Forget that in order for an American to enter New Zealand with intent to live you actually need a visa. (Works both ways!)

Jane Margolis: Do you know what this is? [refers to a bag full of money]
Jesse Pinkman: It’s a whole lot of cheddar.
Jane Margolis: This is freedom. This is saying, “I can go anywhere I want. I can be anybody.” What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? South America? Europe? Australia?
Jesse Pinkman: Is New Zealand part of Australia?
Jane Margolis: New Zealand is New Zealand.
Jesse Pinkman: Right on. New Zealand. That’s where they made “Lord of the Rings”. I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art. Right? Like, you can paint the local castles and shit. And I can be a bush pilot.

from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2

Sometimes, though, ‘distance’ equals ‘stupidity’ or ‘naivety’. Which makes me wonder what Americans think New Zealand teens do with their time. Because New Zealanders are watching the same shows, listening to the same music, wearing the same fashions, more or less. I’m pretty sure Kiwis know more about American culture than the other way around.

Wit from Riverdale actress. Riverdale is an American TV show.

That’s because America has a long history of exporting its culture, while admitting very little in.

What is New Zealand really like?

Here’s an article from a European whose version of New Zealand — from books introduced by his Kiwi girlfriend— turned out to be quite different from the New Zealand he met when he eventually visited the country.

The YA market is currently dominated by books from the US, so it’s refreshing to read something that relates more closely to our part of the world. NZ [as a setting] is perfect for Australian teens as it is familiar in many ways, but still exotic in others, which adds a point of difference.

Our cousins to the West: the challenges and opportunities of the Australian literary market

The Male Gaze In Children’s Literature

Charles Spencelayh - She Stoops to Conquer

Meg Elison has written a McSweeneys post about The Gaze which strikes a chord.

IF WOMEN WROTE MEN THE WAY MEN WRITE WOMEN.

At The Guardian, Lindesay Irvine (incidentally, a man) responded to this spoof gender reversal with:

Anyone who’s ever had a brush with cultural studies will be familiar with Laura Mulvey’s influential theory of the male gaze in film and fine art and photography. But I’d never quite thought the male gaze could function equally well in fiction.

Yes, of course the male gaze functions equally well in fiction.

I’m sorry to say that this gaze is just as prevalent in children’s fiction.

After chuckling at Meg Elison’s piece I made a note to blog an example from children’s book world. I wasn’t actively looking for it because I have plenty of other ideas for blog posts, but it took less than a week to stumble upon an example.

Here we encounter the male gaze by the time we’re halfway down the middle of the very first page of an upper middle grade/young adult novel:

One

“Haven’t you loaded that chainsaw on yet?” Lisbeth asked.

Craig Dawson paused with one hand on the helicopter cabin door. He breathed deeply.

“I’ve been checking to make sure its tank’s empty,” he said. “You never carry anything with petrol in it, if you’re in a chopper.”

“Is that right?” Lisbeth’s voice was as cool as always. “Thanks for the lecture.”

This time, Craig breathed deeply twice. He slide the chainsaw into the main locker inside the Mongoose’s cabin, snapped the safety clips over it, then pulled the storage net tight, holding it in place.

“OK,” he announced as he straightened up. “That’s the lot.”

Lisbeth had finished stacking the supermarket bags of milk, fruit and vegetables in the Mongoose’s small locker. Now she stood with perfectly clean hands on the hips of perfectly fitted jeans, watching Craig.

Cold Comfort by David Hill, 1996, published with the support of Creative New Zealand

It’s hard to imagine the character of Craig standing in perfectly fitted jeans (unless we’re reading specifically gay fiction, marketed quite differently), and if you’re wondering about the narration of Lisbeth watching Craig, well, that’s it. I didn’t cut anything pertinent off by ending the quote there. The story goes back to Craig.

We might call this literary candaulism. Candaulism is a sexual practice, or the fantasy of the practice, where a man exposes his female partner, or intimate images of her, to others for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Here, a male author exposes his female character, or intimate images of her, to young readers for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Isidor Sadger hypothesized that the candaulist completely identifies with his partner’s body, and deep in his mind is showing himself. Except in this particular instance, as in most, the author does not intend to show anything about the narrator. The narrator is an unseen, all-seeing, all-knowing, trustworthy persona, whose view of everything is the implied accurate one.

This unseen third person narrator is unambiguously male. The author chooses to pull in more closely to Craig’s head than to Lisbeth and there are writerly reasons for that; the reader’s sympathies are supposed to lie with Craig, not with Lisbeth. In short, this tendency to sexualise the female body rather than the male body is partly to do with how many more books are written about boys and men. (In children’s books, across the board, it’s about 3 male characters to every 1 female.)

David Hill’s work has  been widely read (and taught) in New Zealand schools (I’ve had to teach his work myself, in a girls’ high school) and, like a couple of other big name educational authors from my home country (William Taylor is another), this is typical of the sort of narration that gets purchased by schools as class sets. It’s written from a blokey point of view with sympathies directed at the put-upon male character whose opponent is the annoying but sexually alluring female character. These characterisations are thought to engage those hard-to-reach reluctant boy readers.

(Fortunately in New Zealand reading lists have become a bit more diverse since the 1990s. This has happened in part because teachers have started to acknowledge that it’s not just boys who are failing to take up with fiction these days.)

colour plate from A Book of Old Ballads illustrations by H.M. Brock, Hutchinson & Co. 1934 The Boy and the Mantle
Colour plate from A Book of Old Ballads illustrations by H.M. Brock, Hutchinson & Co. 1934 “The Boy and the Mantle“.

However, when it comes to the male gaze, there’s more to it. 

FOR MORE ON THE MALE GAZE
  1. One of the most important essays in contemporary film theory: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey (1975), which has some weird Freudian stuff in it but is still relevant for the pretty standard dichotomy between the watched and the watchers.
  2. Fashion As A Way Of Avoiding The Male Gaze from Merf, Thinking Is Hard
  3. The Peeping Press: Understanding the Male Media Gaze from Jessica Valenti
  4. The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes by Kate Elliot
  5. From the classroom to the boardroom, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder is always a man, from Soraya Chemaly
  6. Opinion: Video games and Male Gaze – are we men or boys? from Gama Sutra
  7. Six Reasons Female Nudity Can Be Powerful from Salon
  8. Why Do Actresses Have To Do The Orgasm Face? from Daily Life
  9. How Can You Tell if You’re Being Sexually Empowered or Objectified? Ask Yourself This Simple Question from Everyday Feminism
  10. Red Sparrow is Male Gaze as Female Empowerment from The Mary Sue
  11. The Male Gaze master class by Jill Soloway
  12. Further analyses showed that men’s preferences for larger female breasts were significantly associated with a greater tendency to be benevolently sexist, to objectify women, and to be hostile towards women. (from Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women, PubMed.)
  13. The consequences of the media’s objectification of women from The Not So Quiet Feminist
  14. Staring Is Caring: Anti-cancer campaigns often use fundraising or awareness for then cause as an excuse to sexually objectify women. (Not to mention animal rights!) from Osocio
  15. Why lads’ mags don’t ‘celebrate women’ by using their bodies to sell copies: The Five Worst Arguments from Newsweek
Illustration by Hans G. Kresse (1921-1992). This 1957 magazine cover would have been seen as innocent by many people in the mid 20th century. A brother plays a harmless practical joke on his sister, perhaps. However, the look on his face, his camera, and the angle (he will be taking an ‘upskirt’ pic (without the skirt) reads as pervy to many viewers today.

The commercial below dates from the 1980s and is an advertisement for the revitalisation of Melbourne inner city. This is the ‘humour’ of my 1980s childhood, and no one in my orbit was remarking upon it at the time. Women surrounded by pervy men (and enjoying the attention) was played for laughs. But trust me, some of us always felt the inherent creepiness. I did.

THE MALE GAZE IN WORKS BY WOMEN, FOR YOUNG WOMEN

When the male gaze is internalised by women and directed back upon ourselves it is called ‘self-objectification’.

For more on that I would direct you to the work of Peggy Orenstein. You can find numerous podcast interviews with Orenstein as she talks about her book Girls and Sex.

Author Peggy Orenstein says that when it comes to sexuality, girls today are receiving mixed messages. Girls hear that “they’re supposed to be sexy, they’re supposed to perform sexually for boys,” Orenstein tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “but that their sexual pleasure is unspoken.”

While researching her new book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein spoke with more than 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20 about their attitudes and early experiences with the full range of physical intimacy.

She says that pop culture and pornography sexualize young women by creating undue pressure to look and act sexy. These pressures affect both the sexual expectations that girls put on themselves and the expectations boys project onto them.

from the Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

Peggy Orenstein has given us a sobering set of up-to-date statistics in this book, especially if you’ve ever read the work of Shere Hite — published 1976 — and wondered if things have improved since then.

Popular YA authors, as you might expect, are very well attuned to today’s teens and face a difficult task: Negotiating that fine line between telling the reader, “I know how it is, I will depict it as it is no matter how awful so that you know you’re not alone” and “This is how it could be. Look at this character — behave like this.”

The sex scene in Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay is an example of the former. In a flashback scene, our main character Mia tells the reader about the first time she had sex, with her more sexually experienced, uber-cool boyfriend Adam. He tells her to play him like a cello, which some reviewers find a bit weird (ouch?) but the point is, he’s offering her a diversion tactic to put her at ease. My issue is instead with the (very relatable) contrast between how easily Adam is able to sink into the sensations versus how much harder it is for Mia. This isn’t only attributable to the difference in sexual experience between them. It’s also to do with Mia’s self-objectification.

Here she is, empowered by her newly-realised ability to arouse, focusing on her partner’s pleasure:

I reached for the bow and brushed it across his hips, where I imagined the bridge of the cello would be. I played lightly at first and then with more force and speed as the song now playing in my head increased in intensity. Adam lay perfectly still, little groans escaping from his lips. I looked at the bow, looked at my hands, looked at Adam’s face, and felt this surge of love, lust and unfamiliar feeling of power. I had never known that I could make someone feel this way.

Now they ‘switch roles’:

When I finished, he stood up and kissed me long and deep. “My turn,” he said. He pulled me to my feet and started by slipping the sweater over my head and edging down my jeans. Then he sat down on the bed and laid me across his lap. At first Adam did nothing except hold me. I closed my eyes and tried to feel his eyes on my body, seeing me as no one else ever had.

Except the roles haven’t really been switched, because while Adam’s moaning seems to indicate an ability to fully enjoy the experience, Mia’s arousal is instead fully reliant on seeing her body from the boy’s point of view.

That’s ‘self-objectification’ right there. Most girl readers will identify with this scene and think nothing of it. In case you’re wondering, Gayle Foreman does spend a paragraph describing Mia’s orgasm (without using the word orgasm), but the work of Orenstein highlights just how much of a fantasy scene this is. For many girls having an early sexual experience with a boy, the balance between self-objectification and focusing on his pleasure over her own overwhelms her ability to sink into her own pleasure.

Edmund Blair Leighton - A Source of Admiration
Edmund Blair Leighton – A Source of Admiration

THE FEMALE GAZE

In case you were wondering if this is a thing, we are now coming to a place where the heterosexual female gaze is entering mainstream culture — on screen and in popular literature — rather than sticking to its usual walled garden of Harlequin Romances.

  1. [Guest Post] Young Avengers #1: Sex and the Female Gaze from Bad Reputation
  1. The Bachelor, Shirtless Men, And The Dawn Of The Female Gazefrom GMP, which explains why certain feminist writers in my twitter feed seem to like The Bachelor so much
  2. “Hot Dudes Reading” Instagram Reverses The Male Gaze and Makes Print Books Sexy from Flavorwire
  3. Hot Dudes With Dogs from BuzzFeed
  4. Colin Firth’s Shirt: Jane Austen And The Rise Of The Female Gaze from The Atlantic

I find it hard to believe that even though feminists have been talking about this issue since at least the 60s, not only has the situation got worse for women, it’s also getting worse for men.DOES THE RISE OF MEN’S SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION = EQUALITY? from Sociological ImagesWatch Rebel Wilson objectify a man in a short film. (Of course, this is a backwards take on an old gag about a woman.)

Men Deemed ‘Too Handsome’ Deported from Saudi Arabia for Fear They Would Be Irresistible to Women from Gawker

Money Porn: Simply put, men are objectified in terms of money in a way that parallels the sexual objectification of women. from PsychCentral

Male Bodies And Objectification at GMP

Male Actors Hate It When You Treat Them Like Actresses at Daily Life quote a couple of high profile men who complain about the very thing female actors have endured all along.

Chuck Wendig explains why the objectification of men isn’t ‘just as bad’ as objectification of women.In brief: Years of unfortunate history.

Pictures of men posted by a woman just don’t carry the same meaning as pictures of women posted by a men – HTML Giant

OBJECTIFICATION OF BLACK MEN

I have always been interested in African American manhood and masculinity and particularly by the way that – although contemporary discussions of objectification most often focus on the bodies of white women – Black men too are highly objectified by the news and entertainment media. Black men’s images – their bodies, in particular – are used to sell products, ideas and political campaigns, including those that are actually deleterious to Black men and their communities.

visual artist Arjuan Mance
Barbara Shermund. 1939 female gaze
Barbara Shermund. 1939 female gaze

In YA literature, the female gaze does, indeed, exist alongside the male gaze.

From Mia’s scene in If I Stay:

As thin as he was, he was surprisingly built. I could’ve spent twenty minutes staring at the contours and valleys of his chest.

(Most of the attraction is in the build-up, in fact, in which Mia imagines licking the sweat off his face as he comes off stage and so on.)

The question is, in YA sex scenes what is the perfect balance?

Sex scenes for teenage girls exist

  1. to arouse
  2. as a sort of manual
  3. as a subliminal messages, shaping 13-year-old expectations about what to expect in future
  4. as a literary mirror, to show girls that they’re not alone

I do wonder about young adult fiction aimed at girls, if (1) and (4) conflict with the feminist ideals of (2) and (3).

Female gaze in anime

THE MALE GLANCE

Lili Loofbourow argues that The Male Glance is the flip side of The Male Gaze.

SELF-OBJECTIFICATION

That thing where you size yourself up every time you catch your reflection. In the absence of mirrors you’re wondering how you appear to other people… Even when other people aren’t around. That. That’s called self-objectification. Teenagers have it bad, but many carry it around for much longer.

Header painting by Charles Spencelayh – She Stoops to Conquer

The Day Patch Stood Guard by Elizabeth Laird and Colin Reeder (1990)

The Day Patch Stood Guard is a New Zealand farming picture book from the 1980s which is, at its heart, a man and his dog story.

The Day Patch Stood Guard

Notice anything a bit different about the cover of The Day Patch Stood Guard? The usual convention is to credit the writer first and the illustrator second. Here the convention is reversed. In fact, it’s not only reversed, but depicted in such a way that the illustrations are the main story and the writing came after. I am not making any value judgment here. Instead, I’m reminded of all those times we are told who wrote the story, and then the illustrator is tacked on afterwards, perhaps with ‘illustrated by X’, to suggest that the illustrations are tacked onto the story.

In a picture book, of course, both text and pictures interact to create the story (except in wordless picture books, that is).

WHAT’S WITH THE OTTER?

This is a strange book, written by a New Zealander but once again featuring an otter.

I have since learned that there have been rumours of actual otter-like creatures spotted in the South Island of New Zealand for over 200 years. But honestly this is a big-foot sighting because you’d think scientists would’ve found the critters by now, wouldn’t you? New Zealand isn’t all that big.

As far as storytelling goes, I am a bit flummoxed about the meaning of the otter, who makes a brief and inexplicable appearance at the end.

MEN AND THEIR DOGS

The Day Patch Stood Guard is a dog and a man story at its heart, and because there are many such stories in the world it was cheering to learn that Patch is a female dog, at least. (Usually it’s a white boy with a male dog, though boy-bitch pairings aren’t completely unheard of. Sometimes the male dog dies and is replaced by a female dog.) On the downside, this an example of the female maturity principle I have a huge problem with, and the farmer does refer to his female dog in diminutive terms, “the best little guard dog” one could hope to have; would a man have referred to a male dog in this way? Would a male dog have been quite so self-sacrificing? Self-sacrificing female characters can be traced all the way back to Beauty and the Beast and beyond, and are still very much seen in children’s stories today, held up as a model of feminine virtue.

BORDER COLLIE CHARACTERS

This is ultimately a story for lovers of Border collies, and I definitely fall into that category. Border collie characters in books tend to be even more intelligent and intuitive than real-life Border collies and Patch is no exception. She understands the command to ‘guard’, considers the tractor a live-being and also understands when the tractor is fixed. Uncharacteristically for a socialised Border collie, though, she growls at Walter the mechanic.

Let’s take a closer look at the setting and the structure of the plot.

STORYWORLD OF THE DAY PATCH STOOD GUARD

I don’t know where the illustrator comes from — is this an American/British illustrator or is he from New Zealand? The truth is, it’s impossible to tell definitively from the illustrations, as this is a fairly generic ‘storybook’ farm. The names of the places on the aerial map make me think this is an English countryside. Also, the geese. Geese seem to be more populous in English farmyard storybooks.

The Day Patch Stood Guard opening

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE DAY PATCH STOOD GUARD

SHORTCOMING

As in many animal + human stories for children, it’s not all that easy to separate the human character from the animal one, and in the end it’s easiest to consider them one and the same. Or more typically, the human character is the one who undergoes the character change by having the anagnorisis, but the bulk of the story is told from the point of view of the animal.

Stan’s shortcoming: He is a bit of a loose cannon. He gets up late and has neglected his morning jobs. We’ll soon find out that his muddle-headedness makes him leave his handbrake off.

DESIRE

Stan wants to get his farming jobs done: milking, feeding pigs, collecting eggs and all those other storybook farm activities which probably have little to do with actual farming these days (and have more in common with hobby farming).

OPPONENT

The tractor is given a name: Duncan. There’s a good reason for this. Although Stan doesn’t mean to, he stupidly rolls down an incline and crashes into a tree. The personification of the tractor absolves Stan a bit.

PLAN

Stan plans to mend the bridge. He loads the tractor trailer up with planks of wood and sets off with Patch.

This plan goes awry when the tractor crashes into the tree.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle takes place overnight, when poor, loyal Patch is left to stand guard over the trailer and is locked inside the work shed.

ANAGNORISIS

But the anagnorisis is had by Stan, who realises what a good little guard dog he’s got, after getting so immersed in the problem of the tractor that he forgot to tell her she didn’t need to guard the tractor overnight.

The anagnorisis seems to be symbolised by the otter swimming past. Stan is reconnected to the animal world after a day of being immersed in his mechanical, human one.

NEW SITUATION

The point of view then expands to include all of the farmyard animals who are ‘glad to see the little red tractor safe home again’.

Black Dog by Pamela Allen Analysis

Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG

If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.

SHORTCOMING

The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509
Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01
Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553

DESIRE

It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.

OPPONENT

Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062

PLAN

After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

For more: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

ANAGNORISIS

But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.

NEW SITUATION

We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

Walter The Farting Dog Picture Book

Walter the Farting Dog

I have a love-hate relationship with Walter the Farting Dog. My home country of New Zealand produces a disproportionate number of bum, poo and fart picture books, which I think speaks to our national enjoyment at free and cheap entertainment. I love books which make my kid laugh out loud, but I do have an upper tolerance for fart jokes, as it turns out. The lurid illustrations of this series suit the subject; if farts were coloured they’d look like these pictures. But they’re not exactly easy on the eye.

Perhaps for these reasons, Walter The Farting Dog is an example of a book that took a long time to find a publisher.

Kotzwinkle and Murray conceived the idea for the first book in 1990, inspired by a real-life dog named Walter, whose owner fed him doughnuts and beer and who was prone to foul-smelling flatulence. With assistance from Kotzwinkle’s wife, Elizabeth Gundy, they devised a story about a dog who overcomes two burglars with his smelly farts. Eleven years passed before they found a willing publisher, North Atlantic Books, and the right illustrator, Audrey Colman.

Wikipedia

My theory on what happened there: The culture needed time to catch up. This is a book given to my daughter by my parents, who would never have stocked their own children’s bookshelves with this kind of material, but who have given their granddaughter a range of poo and fart themed stories, including this one and I Need A New Bum, and Christmas decorations which are a model of Santa’s bare backside farting ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ etc etc. Unbelievably, as kids of the 80s we weren’t allowed to say ‘fart’ — we had to say ‘blow off’, which is actually more hilarious, if only for its much wider application as a verb. No one can use that perfectly fine compound verb now without me associating it with farts. We weren’t allowed to say ‘bum’, either, by the way. We were required to say ‘bottom’, which is far more wide-reaching in its impact upon perfectly non-scatological conversations.

They say the great thing about being a grandparent is you can give the child back. Addendum: You can also give your grandchildren slightly annoying toys… and books, and you, yourself, won’t have to read said book more than once or twice. As for me, the mother, I’ve read this book quite a number of times because, let’s face it, it’s a hit. Though the other night when it was requested I did turn it down, because actually… I confess… it’s not the farting plot line that gets to me.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

It’s the super creepy artwork. For some reason I don’t find the artwork of Wolves In The Walls creepy, but I do find these ones to be so. Yet they are both of a similar style — a mixture of collage and photorealistic faces, morphed slightly, as if looking into a distortion mirror at a travelling circus. The colour palette of Walter The Farting Dog is a grimy rainbow in which every scene looks like a fart. It’s really quite an achievement on the part of the illustrator that when I look at these pictures I have an almost synesthesic olfactory reaction. *looks around for the dog*

walter uncle
It doesn’t help that the cat has evil human eyes.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTER THE FARTING DOG

Shortcoming/Need

Walter is smelly. He needs to stop assaulting other people’s noses with his farts.

Desire

He wants to stay with this new family because otherwise he goes back to the pound.

Opponent

At first glance the opponents are the burglars who break in, but no — the opponent who makes this story work is the father. It’s the father who threatens to send Walter back to the pound unless he can stop farting.

Plan

The children take Walter to the vet, but that doesn’t help. They try all sorts of different diets, but still nothing works.

walter vet

Big Struggle

The big struggle comes one night when two burglars break in. Walter has just eaten a big bag of food and is able to release a poisonous gas which renders the burglars weak and drives them out of the house with nothing. Outside, the burglars just happen to be apprehended by a police officer.

Anagnorisis

The whole family, plus Walter, learn that his farts come in useful after all. His annoying difference is accepted. We’re given big clues about the message of this book right at the beginning when we see this dedication:

beginning of walter

New Situation

Walter stays with the family. We see them all sitting on the couch in a Simpsons shot. Walter is a permanent part of this picture now.

walter family

THE BURGLARS

burglars

These are not your typical picture book burglars. Usually, children get two men dressed as if they’ve just escaped from prison, in unambiguous black and white jumpsuits, wearing eye masks and perhaps carrying a torch and a sack.

THE STORYBOOK BURGLAR

Here we have some of those aspects of the archetype: Two men, one short and stocky, the other taller and thinner, and they are indeed carrying a sack and they are indeed stealing the very things that fetch nothing on eBay — lamps and whatnot — they’re not taking things of true value, like favourite teddy bears. Unlike most picture book depictions, they also look like real individuals. One of them is definitely a junkie, as coded by the adult reader.

WHERE ARE THE FEMALE BURGLARS?

We’re yet to see female burglars in picture books, unless someone can show me that it’s already been done. Two women breaking into a house would be the story in its own right. The archetypal burglar is still very much the male duo. They are older than the typical house thief, too, who in real life tend to be in their teens.

THE WALTER SERIES

Walter the Farting Dog has been a huge commercial success and more have been produced. What next for Walter? It is a requirement of storytelling that Walter leaves the house to go on a home-away-home adventure.

Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale came next in 2004. I prefer the UK title: Walter the Farting Dog Farts Again. Interestingly, it was published as Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Garage Sale here in Australia. It’s true, we don’t have ‘yard sales’ here.

I’m reminded of listening to You’re So Vain by Carly Simon as a preschooler (the first song I remember listening to) thinking (for many years) that she was singing, “You walked into the party like you were walking into a yard.” That was just a pronunciation difference. Obviously I knew already what a ‘yard’ was.

I don’t believe the sequels have been as successful as the original, which tells me I’m not the only parent who will put up with a bit of farting in picture books, but how many versions do you really need, when kids are perfectly happy to read the same story over and over… and over.

Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise cover

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

If you like the art in Walter The Farting Dog, you may also like the art of Brother Zurab Martiashvili. The colour scheme and shiny skins of the characters remind me of his work.