Some picture books have an Aesop fable at their base. Amos and Boris is one such picture book, written and illustrated by William Steig (1971). Amos and Boris is also a romance in the style of Nicholas Sparks. (Sorry, Nick Sparks doesn’t like it when his books are called romances, so let’s use his word: love tragedy.)Continue reading “Amos and Boris by William Steig”
Come Away From The Water, Shirley is a 1977 picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller, John Burningham. A number of adult readers talk about the “two different stories” going on in this book.Continue reading “Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham 1977”
Scaredy Squirrel At The Beach (2008), written and illustrated by Mélanie Watt, is the third picture book in a series starring an anxious squirrel who deals with his fears by facing them head on, though his exposure therapy is comically accidental.Continue reading “Scaredy Squirrel At The Beach by Melanie Watt”
Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).Continue reading “Dead Calm Film Study”
Ships, boats and other sea vessels are symbolically significant across literature. How are they used and what do they symbolise?
If Noah’s Ark existed, it would have looked more like a massive floating crate than like a storybook boat, but illustrators clearly enjoy creating a more aesthetically pleasing ship.
THE FRAILTY OF HUMAN ENDEAVOUR
Just as the image of billowing sails against a backdrop of clear sky can evoke these ideals of liberty and human ingenuity, the life at sea, at the mercy of Nature, is one very much grounded in age-old tradition and deep-seated superstition. As in both “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Byron’s “Darkness”, the austere images of stranded and wrecked ships serve as grim reminders of the essential frailty of the human endeavor.Ships (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Darkness”)
SHIP AS METONYM FOR COLONIAL INVADERS
Metonymy: when a word, name, or expression is used as a substitute for something else closely associated. For example, Canberra is a metonym for the Australian government.
“This ship…is England. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun. Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action! After all, surprise is on our side.”Master & Commander
WHITE SAILS, BLACK SAILS
In the Ancient Greek myth about Minotaur, King Minos and the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete. He planned to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster.
Theseus promised his father King Aegeus that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.
Theseus did manage to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out. Unfortunately, Theseus was not a great person. He left Ariadne behind on the shore even though she saved his life, and was so drunk after celebrating his victory that he forgot to change the sails. His father therefore saw the ship approaching and assumed his son was dead. King Aegeus suicided by drowing himself in the sea, now called the Aegean Sea.
The premature, completely unnecessary suicide is utilised in a number of modern stories including The Mist by Stephen King and in one of the stories of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, directed by the Coen Brothers.
BOATS AND THE HUMAN BODY
In the most general sense, a ‘vehicle’. Bachelard notes that there are a great many references in literature testifying that the boat is the cradle rediscovered (and the mother’s womb). There is also a connexion between the boat and the human body.A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot
SHIPS AND BOATS AS SECOND HOMES
Most people like paintings of ships. You probably know someone with a painting of a ship on their wall. Perhaps we like to imagine the adventure promised by ships… but only while cosied up inside our own safe homes.
The painting below by N.C. Wyeth is a wonderful chimera of the Dream Boat (apologies to Gaston Bachelard). Ships and boats featured prominently in 20th century literature aimed at boys. “Imagination” is an amalgamation of the main seafaring archetypes:
(The following year, Norman Rockwell painted Lands of Enchantment, perhaps inspired by Wyeth’s cover.)Continue reading “Symbolism Of Ships and Boats In Literature”
Iconic Examples of Australian Beach Stories
There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.
In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.
- Tim Winton
- Robert Drewe
- Peter Temple
These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.
What is distinctive about the Australian beach?
The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities.
Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.
Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront.
Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.
In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.
The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.
When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.
But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.
In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.
In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.
Beautiful places have been shown to be good for mental health. (We get the same effect in a forest.)
A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.
The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.
Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’.
British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.
When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.
Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.
The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.
In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.
Many Indigenous texts place more importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.
Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.
Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.
In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)
Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.
In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches.
Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005.
Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings.
The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).
In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.
The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks.
The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand.
Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.
Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather).
The beach is considered a space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).
Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men.
Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows.
The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings.
Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.
Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.
When a Manly school sets out to bring a country class to the city for a beach visit, three very different kids find each other and themselves.
Noah is fearless in the surf. Being at the beach makes him feel free. So where does his courage go when his best mate pushes him around?
Lottie loves collecting facts about bugs, but she wishes her dad would stop filling their lonely house with junk. She doesn’t know what to do about it.
Jack wants to be a cricket star, but first he has to get to school and look after his little sister. Especially if he wants to go on the class trip and see the ocean for the first time.
OTHER BEACHES IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
A young girl is unhappy about having to leave the city for a family vacation on the Pacific Ocean (which she used to call the Specific Ocean).
As the days pass, however, she is drawn to spend more time in and near the water, feeling moved by its beauty and rhythms. “The ocean does its own thing, rolling backward and forward. Wash, swash, splush, hush. There is no late or hurry or racing in ocean time.”
By the end of the vacation, the girl has grown to love the ocean and now feels reluctant to leave it behind.
But as she soon realises, it doesn’t ever have to leave her.
- Does the coast belong in the Australian Gothic Landscape by Christine Tondorf
- The Australian Beachspace: Flagging the Spaces of Australian Beach Texts by Elizabeth Ellison
Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.
“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1912. At its heart, “Pearl Button” is a story about a clash of two cultures seen through a child’s eyes.
This story plays out as a duality of restriction and freedom. The European settlers are restricted while the Māori people enjoy freedom. “Pearl Button” is the only story in which Mansfield wrote about Māori. Her treatment of Māori from a white perspective was typical for the era — a romanticized opposition between Western and non-Western cultures. Mansfield came back to the idea of colonial constriction in later stories but focused on white New Zealanders.
SETTING OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”
The Māori of New Zealand lived in a more communal way than New Zealand’s Pākehā immigrants. Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa and immediately started sectioning up the space — from land down to living quarters. While European settlers lived in little houses, Māori people did not live like this. The pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, and is the centre of a Māori community, extending the concept of family out beyond the traditional nuclear family by European concept. Mansfield grew up alongside Māori pā culture and would have noted the differences.
The story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” juxtaposes two ways of living — the European way of living in segmented ‘little boxes’ versus the freer, more sensual Māori way of life, closer to nature. Pearl Button herself prefers the Māori way of life. Since Pearl is the focalising character, the reader is encouraged to share in her view.
There’s another kind of juxtaposition in this story as well, a really interesting one, and it was the first time she’d used it. “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” was the first time Mansfield used narrative parallax.
Mansfield’s ironic use of parallax to suggest that the man’s experience of the world is multifaceted also marks the particular modulation into a selective, restricted perspective, which is Impressionistic in concept. She employs this technique haphazardly, beginning with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1910) and ending with “Miss Brill” (1920).
There is no consistent development. The method depends on a single device: the restricting of the perspective and knowledge of a focaliser-character into a broadening, more objective narrator’s one. He is not emotionally detached from the scene, but capable of perceiving it from a great distance. It often involves an initiation, a sudden awareness or enlightenment (epiphany) of some profound significance.
The imposition of narrative distance on a scene of intense emotional concern on the part of the participant(s) creates an irony of perspective which often suggests the isolation of individual human beings, their lack of consequence in the universal flux of life, their diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point and their defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround them.
One of the best examples of this method can be found in “The Little Governess”, where the nameless, inexperienced young governess is made aware of her fellow-travellers, of herself, and reality outside her. At the end of the story she is isolated from everyone because of her own inconsistent behaviour. She feels hopelessly insignificant and deflated by events.Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren
STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”
“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is basically a carnivalesque story. If this were a children’s picture book, the kidnappers might be an animal — let’s say a cat in a hat — and there would be no police officers bringing the child back — the parents wouldn’t notice she’d gone. In a carnivalesque story the child escapes into fun.
Of course, Mansfield’s story has that very dark layer because Pearl Button really is kidnapped within the world of the story. Pearl has an Unexpected Emotional Reaction. We expect children to be distraught when taken away from their natal homes. But what if a child is so young and so detached from their family that one family could easily be switched out for another? Isn’t this the horror that gave rise to an entire category of changeling stories around the world?
Throughout her ‘kidnapping’, Pearl experiences positive emotions that burgeon out of bodily experience. The women first see her in the joyful, childlike act of swinging on a front gate. They reciprocate her motions by ‘waving their arms and clapping their hands together’. Pearl’s responsive laughter reveals that her primary means of experiencing the world is through reactive and embodied emotion. Later, she will cry when tired and confused, laugh when entertained by funny faces, and scream when she sees the ocean. She learns to enjoy the sea by entering it with the trusted woman, whom she is hugging and kissing at the moment she sees the ‘little blue men’ coming to carry her back home.Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
Pearl’s problem is that she’s a little girl severely constricted by her European life. The story opens with her symbolic swinging on the gate.
Pearl clearly goes willingly with the women and never complains. We assume she wants to be there the whole time, though we might read the story a slightly different way — Pearl would have been taught not to complain. This is part of the restriction of being a girl in white society in that era. When she sat in the dust while eating a peach she might have complained when she spilled the juice on her petticoat. But she doesn’t complain — she instead just tells the women what has happened, and only because she is frightened of what comes next. Ruining pretty clothes is clearly a terrible misdemeanour where Pearl Button comes from.
In any carnivalesque story the main character (usually a child or child stand-in) only desires to have fun.
Pearl is itching to get out of that gate, out into the world where she can be closer to nature and run around with fewer clothes hampering her movements. Pearl doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know what she’s missing until she’s taken out of her European life, full of boundaries and restrictions.
For plotting purposes, the opposition is the cadre of policemen who come to ‘save’ Pearl from her fun. The reader will likely feel the opponents are the abductors because popular ideology would have it that children should stay with their natal families at all costs. This feeling is even more true today than it was in 1912 when first peoples’ children around the colonised world were regularly abducted from their families by white people (especially in Australia).
The story works with long-established tropes about the colonised racial other who experiences the world as a body rather than as a mind. The two women who encounter Pearl and bring her away with them are ‘big’ and walk slowly ‘because they [are] so fat’. These large feminine bodies are, like that of the grandmother in “The Little Girl”, extremely comforting for the young protagonist. Pearl ‘nestles’ into one woman’s lap, where her physical sensations bleed into a contented emotional state: ‘The woman was warm as a cat and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring […] Pearl had never been happy like this before.Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
The intrigue of this story rests upon the reader feeling worried for Pearl. A long history of storytelling has taught us this much: A taken child is in danger. Think of the Greek myths, with those terrible women who eat other people’s babies because they can’t have children of their own. They wreak havoc by eating other people’s babies instead. Lamia is a standout example.
So the reader expects Pearl to come to harm, but Katherine Mansfield’s kidnapper is more of a nymph than an ogre; rather than devour the child, these proxy nymphs taker her away to look after her. Mythological nymphs are especially drawn to looking after children who have been abandoned by their mothers. Pearl Button hasn’t been abandoned, but when the Māori women find her, she is on her own, with no whanau in sight. An unusual situation for a child, according to a Māori worldview at the time.
To further the analogy of the Greek nymphs, the Māori end up by the sea. The seaside could be coded as a New Zealand equivalent of the river Ilissos, where nymphs like to frolic in the water and enjoy the shade. Importantly, Greek nymphs are not evil. They don’t even have any backstories of their own — they are about potential (young women waiting to be married).
Pearl is too young to be a ‘planner’ as such. The adults have the plan — they let Pearl move about freely by stripping her of most of her constricting Edwardian clothing. They let her frolic on the beach and have the new experience of playing in waves. Through the focalised viewpoint of Pearl, it seems these abductors exist only to have fun themselves. We never learn why they’ve taken Pearl or if they ever intended to return her. I doubt the Māori characters who took Pearl didn’t see it as abduction, but rather a casual sharing of the parenting load, fully intending to return her at the end of the day.
When the Māori mother undresses Pearl she is preparing Pearl for a metaphorical Battle. In a carnivalesque story there’s no Battle as such — instead the fun gets funner and funner, culminating in peak fun before something or someone intervenes to bring everything to an end. The child returns to their normal life in a home-away-home structure.
But there’s a structural difference between “Pearl Button” (a lyrical short story) and, say, The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea — carnivalesque picture books for preschoolers. “Pearl Button” stars a preschooler, but is clearly not for a preschool audience.
The difference is that Pearl has some sort of revelation. She doesn’t understand it, but she feels it at a sensory level. Mansfield makes use of the sea…
She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands.
Throughout the story, Mansfield has mentioned colour over and over — Pearl notices the different colours of things. When witnessed as a whole, the ocean looks blue but not when she tries to hold a tiny portion of it in her hands. This detail stands in for a Anagnorisis — no doubt unformed and preverbal — after all Pearl is still a young child. What is the nascent revelation? That things look lovely from this distance (as a temporary visitor) but as soon as she gets right into it the illusion disintegrates. Her day of fun with the Māori families is about to come to an end.
It is in fact the sensory experience of the ocean that provokes the most feeling from Pearl. Its warmth, wetness and unique visual properties — ‘it stopped being blue in her hands’ — get her to shriek, exclaim and throw ‘her thin little arms round the woman’s neck’. During this time away from the restrictive civilisation of the ‘House of Boxes’, Pearl, unlike young Kass, does not have to fight a natural order in which feeling comes first.Katherine Mansfield and Psychology
We extrapolate that the police will charge the abductors and Pearl will be returned to her family. I doubt she’ll suffer trauma because her big day out has been a lovely experience. But her freedom will probably be curtailed from now on. I doubt her mother will let her swing on the front gate without close supervision. She’ll be cautioned against talking to strangers. Pearl will be more fearful from now on. Her days of childlike bliss and innocence are over.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
- Another story in which Mansfield explores how affectionate physical contact plays into the emotional relationships between children and adults is “The Little Girl“.
- “The Representation Of The Maori By European Artists In New Zealand, Ca 1890-1914″ by Leonard Bell elaborates on how native New Zealanders were fictionalised by colonial settlers.
Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance
“A View Of Mount Warning” is an Australian short story by Robert Drewe, and can be found in his collection The True Colour Of The Sea (2018).
Honestly, I’m pretty much done with reading about middle-aged men who develop crushes on younger women, especially when the point of view centers so firmly on the man, inevitably objectifying the woman and underscoring the idea that men’s sexual desire is paramount.
This is exactly that kind of narrative, so if I’m writing about it here, you can bet it’s well done, at least.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Russell Garrett — about to turn fifty. A horse vet in Rock Forest near Bathurst. His marriage to Estelle has recently ended. They have two grown children together, Daniel and Lily.
Max Hodder — Russell’s longtime friend since childhood. Dropped out of engineering at the University of New South Wales, entered real estate, made a lot of money during the housing boom. Married twice. Has been married for ten years to Sophie.
Sophie Howson — Max’s second wife, described as ‘striking’ via Russell’s lens. Russell has been in love with Sophie since Max married her. She is significantly younger than them both.
STORY WORLD OF “A VIEW OF MOUNT WARNING”
The two friends live 900km apart but meet every New Year at Max’s house at Wategos Beach in Byron Bay.
Robert Drewe is a famously ‘littoral’ writer — meaning his stories take place along the sea shore, in that ‘liminal’ space where land meets sea. (There’s another ten dollar ‘L’ word for you.)
Time wise, this story takes place in the wake of the 2007 Australian equine influenza outbreak. The ‘themes’ of this news story overlap with the themes of this fictional short story: both involve quarantines and breaches. In Drewe’s story there’s the unspoken quarantine around a good friend’s marriage.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VIEW OF MOUNT WARNING”
The main character here, for my purposes, is Russell.
His was a melancholy and insurmountable jealousy, compounded by guilt. Of course his feelings for Sophie were unrequited, but even if she’d been aware of them and magically, enthusiastically, reciprocated, she was the wife of his boyhood friend — Max’s second and twelve-years-younger wife — and therefore out of bounds, now and forever.
Whenever [Russell] saw [Sophie] she had him in a flurry of confusion. In her presence, aching for her trailing hostessy fingers, the accidentally brushed knees, the casual touch, he always felt like a teenager. As she passed by his chair he’d clench his stomach muscles and surreptitiously flex his biceps. Willing her, touch me. Then he felt like a fool.
Psychologists call this intense desire for human touch ‘skin hunger‘. It’s a powerful force and it’s driving Russell’s life at the moment.
Sophie is Russell’s romantic opponent. Max is Russell’s best friend, but an opponent in that he stands in the way (as Russell perceives it) of Russell giving things a go with the object of his affection.
At first the love appears unrequited. Soon it is revealed that Sophie feels similarly. This is in fact more difficult for Russell to bear.
What’s the significance of the mountains in this story? To me they symbolise the enduring nature of the men’s friendship — it would appear, now that the men are both nearing fifty, that nothing can shake their ‘rock solid’ friendship.
At first Russell’s Plan of action is Nothing. This is often a character’s first ‘plan’ — rather, the author shows the reader that the character has a pattern of doing nothing, but in this story, of course, that is about to change. First, a paragraph about the pattern of doing nothing:
Such was the nature of his infatuation, however, that even as he tussled with guilt one moment, deliberately avoiding her presence, the next minute he’d be torturing himself with the smallest hints and snatched glances. She’d bustle and bend and flip her hair from her forehead and he’d have to tear his eyes from the thrilling sight of her rinsing dishes at the kitchen sink, arranging flowers, making coffee.
This isn’t limited to short stories, by the way. In Dan Santat’s award winning children’s picture book The Adventures of Beekle: The unimaginary friend, Beekle desperately wants a human friend but first Santat writes of his pattern of waiting around passively.
Then the story switches from the iterative (constant pining for what he can’t have) to the singulative:
Then, quite abruptly, these overlapping quandaries produced some new dilemmas to both confuse him and rekindle his hopes.
Because this is a story told via the lens of a middle-aged man fresh out of divorce, I don’t entirely trust his narration as reliable.
For the purposes of the story, the Battle scene occurs the morning after, with Russell witnessing Max and his red eyes — possibly from crying — wondering if his best friend is about to confront him about the previous evening with his wife.
This short story exemplifies a classic plot closure without the psychological closure — the reader, like Russell, never finds out if Max saw he and his wife kiss.
The Anagnorisis is that he crossed a boundary — penetrated an invisibly quarantined arena. This is how the setting (and political news) of this story interconnects with the character arc.
When Drewe uses the metaphor of the avalanche to describe the way ice tumbles into Max’s drink as he maybe, maybe did not see Russell betray his trust, Max is compared to the mountain. An avalanche is about the only thing that damages a mountain.
Then there’s the colour symbolism of the purple. A purple haze covers the mountains. When Max gets that ice he happens to be wearing purple boxers. Yep, there is a reason for that. The purple connects Max to those mountains. The ice he pours into his glass connects Max to the avalanche. Symbolically, the reader has our psychological closure, though we may not realise it without reflection — the symbolism tells us that Max did indeed witness the intimacy, if not the kiss itself.
But it doesn’t really matter whether Max saw any of that intimacy or not — the result either way is a friendship permanently changed for the worse.
“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is sometimes subtitled “A tale for children”. This short story reminded me of middle grade novel Skellig by British author David Almond. Sure enough, Almond has said in interview that he was influenced by the 1960 Colombian short story, and others have already looked into the relationship between the two.
- What does it mean for a short story to be ‘for children’?
- How is the story structured?
- What do I get out of this story and how are its themes relevant today?
NARRATION OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”
Perhaps this is the thing which seems tailored for children. The narrative voice has a fairytale/folktale vibe.
SETTING OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”
The setting is a fairytale world, but not the forests and castles of landlocked fairytale Europe — this is a fishing village beside the sea and the sea is the magical place. Weird things come out of the sea. First crabs, then, well, an old man with wings.
But why else is the sea setting important? Well, the sea and shore is often said to be a ‘liminal’ space — a space that exists on the borders, in the ‘in between’. But the word liminal is useful because it refers to metaphorical borders as well as geographical, actual ones.
A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.Liminal Space
Apart from the sea itself, the story arena is very small for this one — we never follow the ‘camera’ into the ocean depths. Rather, the entire story takes place around a chicken coop and shack.
The setting is ‘fallen’ — the inverse of utopian. Also known as postlapsarian. A type of hell before actually getting to hell. ‘Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing’, we are told. Hell on Earth, in other words. This is a story about an unfortunate convergence. The angel is both miraculous and ordinary — the world is both worldly and heavenly, with no division between the celestial and earthly.
When people come from all around to see the caged angel, broken and pathetic, this is not part of the fantasy world. Garcia Marquez is saying nothing about human relationships that hasn’t actually happened. In this way he is like Margaret Atwood, who wrote a ‘fantasy’ world for The Handmaid’s Tale, but invented nothing — every terrible thing in Atwood’s book had happened somewhere at some point in history.
Until the 20th century, it was socially acceptable to enjoy cruelty as entertainment.
Australia is having this debate, most recently with The Melbourne Cup — a culturally significant annual horse race. Many horses die as a result of this race, and their treatment too often involves torture. Australians are currently bifurcated into those who happily accept the Melbourne Cup and those who are morally appalled by it. Using history as our guide, the Melbourne Cup’s days are numbered.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”
“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a story about a community rather than an individual, though the story focuses on a husband and wife, which makes sense because the angel arrives at their house.
The symbolism of names is important here. Pelayo is the Spanish form of Pelagius, which if you trace back far enough means “the sea”. This character is inextricably linked to his home by the sea. Elisenda is from Catalan — originally a Visigothic name meaning Temple and Path.
Pelayo and Elisenda do not want a scraggy old guy with wings in their yard. That is about the last thing they need, in the wake of all those crabs. They want their baby to get well. They want to live their simple lives in peace, without calamity, without crowds turning up to their chicken coop all the livelong day.
The Opposition in this story is an excellent reminder that ‘Opponent‘ does not equal ‘Villain’. The opponent in a story is the character who stands in the way of the main characters’ Desire. In this case the Opponent is very much the victim of the main (viewpoint) characters (the villagers).
The angel is guised as a ragpicker — a person who collects and sells rags. In stories, characters tend to underestimate those dressed in rags. The Pied Piper is a classic example – pied meaning he was wearing clothes stitched together by lots of different rags, meaning that he was too poor to afford proper clothes. Yet the Pied Piper had the last laugh.
Perhaps because of this history, in which a dishevelled appearance so often belies intelligence, conniving and trickery, I expected this story to end differently. I expected the fallen angel to ‘win’, to take revenge upon the people who abused him rather than helped.
Pelayo and Elisenda ask the woman who knows things for advice. This woman is completely full of supernatural crap, but she’s established herself as Someone Wise, and people listen to her.
We can find contemporary analogues in anti-vaxxers, astrologists, conspiracy theorists and similar. There will always be people like this in every society, who position themselves as helpers and mentors as soon as science fails to explain new and disturbing phenomena.
Which part of this story is the Battle? The scenes of abuse, with the angel trapped in the cage, are of course a big struggle of sorts. For storytelling purposes, the Battle scene is the part which leads to the Anagnorisis.
This is an interesting technique: The writer spends most of the story with characters engaged in a big struggle, but the death scene is very short. The Battle which kills the angel is presented to us as succinct narrative summary rather than as a dramatised sequence.
In fact, his death is presented to us as if in passing, underscoring how little respect was garnered by this celestial creature:
Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.
Why? Why not dramatise that scene for us? Wouldn’t it be spectacular, to see how a tarantula woman spiritually murders (‘crushes’) an angel? Well no, it would be grotesque.
- The story is about the relationship between the humans and the angel — the tarantula is mainly brought in as a plot device
- What I can imagine this scene looked like is probably far more fearsome than how anyone could’ve described a blow-by-blow account on the page
- Unless writing for the action and thriller genres (and adjacent), an audience probably doesn’t even want a blow-by-blow description of a crushing.
When even the tarantula can’t get rid of the groteque angel completely, Elisenda realises she’ll just have to live with him.
Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if astro-biologists discovered life on another planet. Unless it was intelligent life who was coming for us all, I suspect we’d all be surprised for a while, but that the wonder would very soon wear off and we’d return to our regular infighting here on Earth, giving extraterrestrial lifeforms very little thought on a day-to-day basis, outside a small group of enthusiasts. We’d just take it for granted that it’s there, much like we take deep sea life for granted. I rarely give a thought to the alien-like creatures living deep in the Mariana Trench. If similar lifeforms were found beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, I’d probably watch a documentary on it, be fascinated for a while, then go back to my day-to-day life.
Because we can’t remain in awe forever, right? Awe is not an enduring emotion. If we felt it every day, it wouldn’t be ‘awe’.
Having made money off him, Elisenda and Pelayo will live a nice life in their nice big mansion, having put the poor creature right out of their mind.
This is an active non-noticing. I believe we in the West are pretty good at active non-noticing. Our sports shoes are made by children living in slave conditions, but we choose not think of that when we walk out of the store wearing comfy new kicks. Almost everything we buy is unethical; but to not buy it is unrealistic. It’s impossible to buy an ethical mobile phone; it’s also impossible to log in to certain Australian government websites without one.
Magical realism is a phrase that crops up a lot when discussing stories concerned with the manifestation of the supernatural in the context of everyday life. Our standout example of a magical realist writer is this very guy — Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What’s the difference between ‘fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’? A writer at The Millions puts it this way:
in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.
Worth knowing: magical realism is a contentious label to apply to work which is not Latin American. You’ll find various opinions about whether we may call non-Latin American fiction magical realism, or whether we should instead stick to, say, ‘fabulism’ to describe other work with the same attributes but set elsewhere. There’s quite a lot to this debate.
An invasion of creatures is used in another ‘magical realist’ story — one by Keri Hulme — “King Bait”. That New Zealand story is also about the base, nasty nature of humankind, in that case greed, in this case selfishness, and our ability to dehumanise what is clearly human, or equivalently sentient.
KIDS CAN SEE THINGS ADULTS CAN’T
The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?
A well-known Australian picture book example of “children who notice things adults don’t” is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. A boy sees all sorts of weird machines everywhere. He even takes one home and his parents still don’t bat an eye. Commuters dressed in suits are wholly oblivious to the wonder all around them. The boy grows up and loses his ability to see these wondrous things, most of the time. But now and then he gets a glimpse of his former childish wonder.
What about in stories with no adults? Often in that case, when the author has dispatched with the adults, there’ll be a dog who can sense things the kids cannot. The kids will take the dog’s lead. The standout example from my own childhood is Timmy the dog from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.
Basically, the closer a character to its animalistic, unadulterated nature, the more useful they are in picking up on vibes more cerebral characters cannot. This is why, traditionally, girls have been used for this role more frequently than boys. Women give birth and menstruate and until very recently were consistently either giving birth or preparing to, across their entire adult lives. So women were more clearly ‘animal’ than men, who traditionally positioned themselves, and only themselves, closer to God. For 1000 odd pages on that idea see Women, Men and Morals by Marilyn French.
Header photo by Raphael Bick
“The Pearl” is a novella by John Steinbeck, first published hot on the heels of the second world war. The story is a re-visioning of a Mexican folktale, sometimes called a parable. This story is widely studied in American high schools so much has been posted elsewhere about symbolism and themes. My focus is on the structure and storytelling techniques, from a writer’s point of view.
The following song is based on John Steinbeck’s story.
THE ILLUSION OF CAUSALITY
This story reminded me of a half-forgotten memory. I’m four or five, sitting on the carpet in the living room at my Nana’s house. Nana goes to her bedroom, comes back with a ring and says, “See this ring? That’s yours when I die.” I can’t really see the ring from where I sit on the floor, but I nod obediently. A year or so later, Nana is killed by a car while crossing the road to buy milk at the dairy. I never see that ring again, because my father insists it’s cursed. First it belonged to an auntie of his — an auntie who died. Now his mother has died. Obviously, to his mind, the ring itself is bad luck.
That’s how inheritance works, of course — a ring isn’t passed down until its owner dies. If everyone were affected by the same cognitive bias as my father we wouldn’t see older women walking around with hands full of inherited rings.
The illusion of causality is at work in Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”, too, as humble villagers are corrupted by greed as soon as they come into some material good fortune. The oversized pearl itself is blamed, when in fact pearls are just pearls. Bad deeds are carried out by imperfect humans.
CHARACTERS OF “THE PEARL”
Kino — small build, wears a suppliant hat, native to Mexico, no money. Owns a canoe and spends his days diving for pearls and fishing to feed his family.
Juana — Kino’s obedient wife who has recently given birth to their first baby. Her life revolves around her baby. Juana is your classic Female Maturity Formula. She realises the evil in the pearl much earlier in the story, functioning as a Cassandra character. If only she weren’t under the thumb of her husband, who knows best according to the laws of patriarchy, they could’ve returned the pearl to the sea and their baby would have lived.
Because of the Female Maturity Formula, authors like Steinbeck are often let off the hook, because, as the following Goodreads commenter says:
In …The Pearl, Juana is the true hero of the story whose place is behind her man until the end, when they walk “side by side” when before, she always had to walk behind him. They only survived each scenario because of her and her ideas. Based on that, you make the call.Goodreads
I disagree that Juana is ‘the true hero’. The viewpoint character is Kino, Steinbeck spends the first chapter getting us to side with Kino, and Juana remains unrounded. We never see her interiority at all. The same has been said of Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan, as a get-out-of-sexism free card for the creators, but I don’t buy ‘women as true/secret/sleeper heroes’ precisely because of the long history of unrounded woman characters.
Coyotito — their baby (At first I thought Coyotito referred to a bird! Just me?)
The Doctor — a French man who considers poor people animals, and whose fat body symbolises his greed.
Juan Tomas — Kino’s brother
Apolonia — Juan’s wife
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PEARL”
The story begins with two characters waking up. Many children’s picture books open with the beginning of a day, and end with our main character falling asleep. There is an inherent cosiness to a story which takes place over 12 hours — as if to say, “This too shall pass — tomorrow is a brand new day.” This story takes place over a number of fraught days, but we don’t know that yet.
It is difficult to write an original waking up scene. It has been done many times before. Here, Steinbeck is describing an idyllic morning — at least for Kino, who gets to sit around watching ants while his dutiful wife, always awake before him, sets about preparing their breakfast.
It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.
This is Steinbeck describing the iterative. He is yet to switch the reader to the singulative. This technique of opening with the iterative is again very common in children’s books, because it feels cosy. Routine is reassuring.
The first clue we have that not all is perfect in this world is mention of the ‘poisonous air’ of night-time. It was common long ago around the world for people to believe that illness was caused by ‘night vapours’. Darkness itself was feared, as much as the things that come out of the dark.
MAKING USE OF THE MINIATURE
John Steinbeck likes to remind readers of differential scales — he did it in “The Leader Of The People” and he does it in the opening, as Kino observes the ants, transforming himself into ‘god’.
The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him.
For more on The Miniature In Storytelling see this post. But why does Steinbeck use it in this particular story? Abundance does not cause satiation in humans; it causes anxiety and greed. The size of the pearl, and the size of Kino (godlike in comparison to the ants), coupled with the dream of the massive book with giant letters, all serve as symbols of (over) abundance.
The pearl in this story is as big as a duck egg, beyond anything known at the time. FYI, the world’s biggest clam pearl was found in 2006 in the Philippines and sold for $130 million. The pearl in Steinbeck’s story should, by market value, provide Kino’s entire community with enough to live on for generations to come.
Kino and Juana are classic fairytale underdogs — they show no moral shortcoming. Nor do they show much in the way of psychological shortcoming, other than Kino taking his anger out on the gate and splitting his fist. (He may suffer from a self-destructive temper.) Instead, this pair have a problem: Their baby’s life is in danger after being stung by a scorpion. Apparently scorpions can cause convulsions and shortness of breath — these two are right to be worried about their baby.
Their related problem is that they have no money to pay the doctor.
Chapter One, which ends with Kino punching the fence in frustration, is almost a self-contained story in its own right, complete with problem, desire, plan, opponent, big struggle and a tragic ending. The only thing it doesn’t contain is the anagnorisis. For that we must read the rest of the novella.
However, though my modern lens, I find Kino’s violence wholly unacceptable. I put forward two main reader interpretations of Kino’s character after we see him punching the fence:
- Kino is expressing his frustration in an appropriate way, since fences are not able to feel pain and he is justifiably angry.
- Kino’s physical expression of rage hints at an uncontrolled temper, dangerous for his wife.
I went with number two, because I don’t trust people who punch anything out of rage. Sure enough, later in the story Kino bashes his wife’s face to the point where her wounds are attracting flies the following day. To me, Kino was never a pure-hearted fisherman corrupted only after the pearl was found. I suspect he was always a wife beater, hence his wife’s manic vigilance, conveyed via the creepy spectacle of her watching her husband each morning, then springing into action with a cooked breakfast once he awakes.
However, is this what a typical mid-century reader would have thought? Just 50 years ago doctors were recommending men beat their wives as ‘temporary therapy’. Kino is clearly depicted as an increasingly flawed human in this story, similar to the ‘breaking’ of Walter White, but I feel it would be a mistake to assume mid 20th century readers would have roundly criticised Kino for punching his wife in the face. I suspect judgement of Kino would have come later in the story for many.
This is a story of escalating desires, and the human tendency to be dissatisfied, which Steinbeck’s narrator tells us is the reason we are elevated above the animals (who are happy with their lot). Permanent lack of satiety is both our shortcoming and our strength.
Because this is a major theme, Kino’s desires escalate as the story progresses, beginning with a man who wants for nothing.
- Kino and Juana are happy as they are, but when their baby is bitten by a scorpion they would like a doctor to make their baby better.
- They would like money or a valuable pearl to pay the doctor.
- After finding the pearl, they want to fetch enough money to pay for their son’s education.
- Kino wants to escape the faceless, unnamed evil coming after him in his own village.
The first opponent is the doctor who refuses to heal their baby without payment. He tries to persuade Kino that their baby’s eye is blue. I’m reminded of the people who call from ‘Microsoft Windows’, who then tell you to go into the bowels of your computer to view all sorts of normal running messages, then try to tell you that your PC is riddled with viruses.
The second opponents are the pearl buyers whose mission is to pay as little as possible for anything, despite being salaried themselves. Like the doctor, these are tricksters who make use of Kino’s lack of knowledge about pearls to try and persuade him that his pearl is defective under a magnifying glass. Anyone with basic knowledge of pearls understands that pearls are supposed to look unusual when magnified — this is the very thing that distinguishes them from fakes.
Even the obedient wife Juana becomes Kino’s opponent when she tries to get rid of the cursed pearl.
Why are the pursuers faceless and nameless? Wouldn’t it be more thrilling if the reader knew who these men were and what they are capable of? Perhaps, in thriller tradition, yes. But by remaining faceless these men better symbolise the evil that resides within Kino himself.
The plan to take their baby to the doctor fails so Kino and Juana try their luck finding a valuable pearl. They are magically rewarded with a massive pearl, which seems to cure their baby instantly.
Kino plans to sell the pearl so he takes it to local pearl sellers, but he can see they are trying to swindle him.
The next plan is to take it to the city, which scares him. He has never ventured outside his own village. But that night he his thwacked in the head. Juana tries to throw the pearl into the sea but Kino stops her and hits her.
When Juan accidentally kills a man who attacks him he and his small family take refuge in his brother’s hut while everyone else speculates about what happened to him.
After an exciting chase sequence, the baby has the top of his head shot off by the men on horses who pursue Kino.
When Kino and his family are chased into the wilderness, this is a metaphor for Kino entering deep into his own subconscious. Very Freudian. Very fairytale.
Kino comes to the conclusion (too late) that his wife was right — the pearl brings evil. He gets rid of it. He has seen the evil in humanity and within himself, no longer godlike, as he saw himself at the beginning of the story, overseeing those shiny black ants.
Back in the village, this couple will lead a miserable life, forever changed by the murder of their firstborn, and also by the hopes and dreams held temporarily after securing a valuable pearl.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
There are many folk tales about greed, in which we learn that more does not mean better. This moral never gets old, and is only more salient today.
A picture book example is More and Better by Margaret Neve.
“King Bait” by Keri Hulme is a short story for adults, similarly fabulist, in which abundance immediately corrupts.
John Steinbeck was a renowned misogynist and it’s difficult to read his wife’s description of him without mapping Steinback himself onto Kino.
There are a lot of similarities between Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Kino — both men tell themselves that they’re doing what they do for their family. But there’s a saying that there are always two motives for doing anything — one is the noble one, the other is the real motive. The ‘noble’ motive in both cases is ‘I’m doing what I do to provide for my family’ but the real motive is ‘power’.