All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.Continue reading “All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury”
Cry Heart, But Never Break is a picture book to help children process their grief. The book was first published in Denmark in 2001, then translated into English by Robert Moulthrop five years later. The story is beautifully illustrated by Danish artist Charlotte Pardi.
I recommend this book for children of all ages dealing with grief or contemplating death. I found it moving and can’t imagine how much more moving it would be if I’d just lost someone.Continue reading “Cry Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi”
Fly Homer Fly is a 1969 picture book written and illustrated by Bill Peet who died in 2002 after a long career at Disney and in children’s books. At 64 pages, Fly Homer Fly is a lengthy picture books by modern standards. Modern picture books tend to be 32 pages, under 400 words, and read in about ten minutes. I really do think there’s still room for longer picture books such as this one in the world. Instead, it seems children old enough to sustain attention through a 64 page picture book are encouraged to read chapter books.Continue reading “Fly Homer Fly by Bill Peet”
“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, published by Windmill Books, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1969. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Steig wrote picture books in a comically melodramatic way, which is one way of appealing to the dual audience of children and adult co-readers. Here’s a useful thing about melodrama: The audience can know it’s melodrama but still be moved.Continue reading “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)”
“Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published in her collection The Dove’s Nest (1930). Our main character Edna should be feeling great right now. She’s eighteen, she’s beautiful and she’s in love. One slight problem. She is about to become a Bride of Christ, also known as taking the veil. (Or so we think from the title!)
Mansfield was expert at varying emotional valence from scene to scene on the page, and “Taking The Veil” is an excellent example. Check out “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “The Singing Lesson“ and “Bliss” for others.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “TAKING THE VEIL”
What outwardly happens: A young woman called Edna walks from the library to the cathedral holding a black book. She sits in the garden and overhears the choir practising. The main story takes place inside her head. The outward story is underwhelming so, in order to work, the story inside her head is melodramatic. In this parallel ‘head story’, Edna even dies from an illness after rescuing a small animal.
Whether Edna’s fantasy happens in the veridical world of the story, or whether it happens only inside Edna’s mind, for storytelling purposes it doesn’t matter.
That is a useful takeaway point for writers when crafting highly imaginative characters like Edna, who looks to the rest of the world like a staid young conservative Catholic girl on the brink of marriage, but who on the inside is absolutely roiling.
ESCAPE INTO IMAGINATION
Perhaps “Taking The Veil” came about because the unconventional ‘remittance woman’ Katherine Mansfield, the writer, wondered if even her staid, gender-conforming counterparts also experienced ‘break-free’ fantasies. For a conventional girl, what might a break-free fantasy have looked like? We have an example in Edna. Ironically, comically, Edna’s idea of breaking free is to join a nunnery.
The story structure is similar to a carnivalesque children’s story such as Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea. A character goes about their regular mundane life but an imagination (or imaginative) character appears out of nowhere. Our main character has fun living a completely different life.
The story ends with a return to safety and to the mundane realities of the real world. (It’s basically a home-away-home structure.) In picture books for toddlers, the aim of these stories is simply to have fun. But in a lyrical short story such as this one, the main character escapes her mundane life via a fantasy, and by doing so she does learn something. In this case, Edna will reminds herself of her love for her fiancé. I argue below that this is not an epiphany, per se. Edna is not a self-aware character, and experiences no true anagnorisis. But the melodrama does become increasingly melodramatic until she feels quite downcast, at which point she snaps out of her diverting fantasy.
MANSFIELD AND CATHOLICISM
Unlike her fictional creation of Edna, Katherine Mansfield herself was not a product of a Catholic educational system. She attended Wellington Girls’ High School, a New Zealand public school. But Mansfield was no doubt surrounded by Catholicism later, especially when she lived in France.
The French literary movement at the beginning of the 20th century was hugely influenced by Catholicism. This return to Catholic ideas was a reaction against the Positivism, Naturalism and materialism of the 19th century. Ironically, many right-wing, Catholic, French literary critics were reacting against Modernism at the time but loved the stories of Katherine Mansfield. This is ironic because Mansfield was later regarded as an author working at the vanguard of Modernism (which they said they despised). For more on that see Katherine Mansfield: The view from France by Gerri Kimber.
Katherine Mansfield was in essence a queer leftie. If she’d lived in our time she’d have had her septum pierced and would be sporting sleeve tattoos of carnations and birds. “Taking The Veil” isn’t a story about the Catholic tradition of becoming a nun. Nor does it make use of Catholic symbolism (unlike, say, horror from the West which is full of it). Mansfield wasn’t able to view Catholicism from the inside, and neither can I.
SETTING OF “TAKING THE VEIL”
Instead, Mansfield is exploring the tumultuous feelings of being young and in love, falling in lust in an instant, but also being afraid of matrimony and sex. Mansfield juxtaposes temporary sparks of lust against the long-term, safe kind of love, and explores how a young Catholic woman might tame these emotions into something acceptable, something safe to show to the world. In order to explore these ideas in fiction, the context of a restrictive Catholic tradition comes in handy.
The story opens on a beautiful, utopian day.
IT seemed impossible that anyone should be unhappy on such a beautiful morning. Nobody was, decided Edna, except herself. The windows were flung wide in the houses. From within there came the sound of pianos, little hands chased after each other and ran away from each other, practising scales. The trees fluttered in the sunny gardens, all bright with spring flowers. Street boys whistled, a little dog barked; people passed by, walking so lightly, so swiftly, they looked as though they wanted to break into a run. Now she actually saw in the distance a parasol, peach-coloured, the first parasol of the year.
How does Edna really feel?
Edna’s positive view of her environs even as she (ostensibly) feels like crap must be a close cousin to pathetic fallacy, in which a character’s environs afford insight into their internal state. Is Edna really all that miserable? I don’t reckon. Here’s the clue:
Perhaps Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt.
Inversely, perhaps Edna did not feel quite as unhappy as she looked. At any rate, Mansfield is telegraphing that this character is not as she appears. I put it to you that Edna’s world looks great because Edna feels great. (Later in the story it becomes clear that Edna takes a Gothy delight in her own melancholy.)
Today Edna is playing a role. She’s trying ‘nun’ on for size, probably inspired by the book she’s got out of the library. And how are nuns supposed to act? The archetypal nun emanates a staid, steady, calming presence. This may give an overall impression of sadness. Our cultural notion of nuns is key here. Despite a century between Mansfield and the contemporary reader, my expectations of ‘proper nun comportment’ are no doubt shared by Edna. We all make use of pop cultural stereotypes and scripts. When Edna tries ‘nun’ on for size, she is also trying on ‘sadness’.
At the story’s opening, I suspect any negative feelings derive from Edna’s nervousness at the prospect of married life. Perhaps this is a story about the Fear of Engulfment.
Fear of Engulfment is the specific female fear of being impregnated and then having to give birth, over and over and over, perhaps until the day you die. It’s easy for many womb-owners to forget the extent of this ancient fear now, but until recently this state of being was reality for any sexually active heterosexual cis women. Fairy tales such as “The Frog Princess” are said to be about the Fear of Engulfment.
Of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, “Psychology” is a good example of a character’s fear of engulfment. The main character in “Psychology” has her own way of enjoying a sex life without penetrative, partnered sex. Edna’s way is similar — she enjoys the platonic company of a safe man (in this case her fiancé) while enjoying a fuller sex life in her head.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TAKING THE VEIL”
Edna is at an age where she’s inclined to fall in lust easily, and now she has to do something with those massive feelings.
To an outsider, Edna doesn’t have many problems. She’s in the prime of her life. She has plenty of body confidence. She knows she’s beautiful. She’s engaged to be married to her childhood best friend. She’s clearly upper middle class. We know this from mention of a nurse (ie. nanny).
Edna’s Imaginary Audience
At first the following paragraph reads like a wise statement offered via an unseen narrator, but after the description of her book, when we are firmly inside Edna’s head, we realise this entire passage describes how Edna perceives her own self:
Perhaps even Edna did not look quite as unhappy as she felt. It is not easy to look tragic at eighteen, when you are extremely pretty, with the cheeks and lips and shining eyes of perfect health. Above all, when you are wearing a French blue frock and your new spring hat trimmed with cornflowers. True, she carried under her arm a book bound in horrid black leather. Perhaps the book provided a gloomy note, but only by accident; it was the ordinary Library binding. For Edna had made going to the Library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now.
This paragraph shows that, in common with other young adult characters across Mansfield’s short stories, Edna views herself through the lens of an Imaginary Audience, constantly perceiving herself as if from another’s point of view. This is common in the years between adolescence and young adulthood, when we’re checking ourselves in shop windows, entering crowded rooms with excruciating levels of self-consciousness, wondering how we are perceived, wondering if we’re acceptable.
Some commentators pinpoint this as a feature of narcissism, but narcissism is quite different. Imaginary audience ‘syndrome’ (not a syndrome) is more to do with navigating the world in a newly adult body, and the lack of confidence that naturally attends lack of life experience. Until we’ve worked out who we are, we’re more inclined to reflect off others, using other people as our mirrors.
The problem with perceiving yourself from another’s point of view: When it becomes habit, you become disconnected from your body. Peggy Orenstein wrote extensively about this in her book Girls & Sex. (Here’s no coincidence: Peggy Orenstein wrote her BA dissertation on Katherine Mansfield in 1983.) Girls and women are highly sexualised, valued for appearance over all else. When this becomes internalised, women across a culture can lose touch with what they really want, and who they really desire.
So I consider Edna’s imagined audience and disassociated view of herself highly problematic for Edna.
Because she is so dissociated, Edna doesn’t know what she wants, who she wants or what constitutes enduring feelings. (This does change at the end.) It’s up to us to understand Edna’s stage in life and what she wants. How is this achieved? Via narration. If we don’t interpret the irony (Mansfield’s main ironic delivery method) we’re not going to understand Edna.
If we take a look at Mansfield’s other work, we know she was an expert with narrative irony: a writing technique in which a character presents the reader with a ‘fact’ or statement that isn’t true within the world of the story. Key point: there’s no narrator winking at the reader signalling that we are not to take the judgement at face value. Questioning everything is the responsibility of the reader. This is in line with the literary Impressionist view that there is no such thing as the real truth anyhow.
Everything we know about Edna is a deduction based on very little by way of backstory. Mansfield preferred to simply present readers with a situation almost as if the characters have been birthed for the purposes of the story at hand. In other words, her characters are presented in statu nascendi. In “Taking The Veil”, where backstory occurs, it only takes us back in time as far as the play, in which Edna falls in lust with the actor. We get a few snippets of conversation from the time Edna tried to break up with Jimmy but we don’t know when that happend. The dialogue remains suspended in space-time.
At the story’s opening, Mansfield has decided to trick readers into ‘knowing’ this about Edna:
- Edna is about to become a nun. (A deliberately tricky title!)
- Edna is in love with a flesh and blood boy.
- Edna has very recently fallen ‘in love with’ a stage actor.
EDNA’S SEXUAL ORIENTATION
When analysing characters in a text, commentators are inclined to assume everyone is sexual. We are also inclined to assume that if we love someone romantically then we must, at some point, want to have sex with that person.
Here’s where my reading of Edna becomes very modern, and although Mansfield was ahead of her time, she didn’t have access to our modern terminology. I wonder if Mansfield meant to put Edna somewhere on the asexual spectrum, specifically at the aegosexual part of it. (This is a new word and there are other terms which may eventually replace this one.)
In short, aegosexuality is an orientation (inasmuch as straight/gay/bi are also orientations) in which someone isn’t interested in participating in sex acts with other people, but will think and fantasise about it. An aegosexual individual will fall romantically in love as easily as an allosexual (non-asexual) individual. The object of affection may be someone they know from real life, or might be a celebrity or a fictional character.
For more on this orientation, Radio New Zealand’s Bang! podcast features an interview with someone in her thirties who identifies as aegosexual.
For me it’s a lack of interest in anything physical, but the fantasy or conceptual element is there.Rosie, interviewed on RNZ’s Bang! podcast
Alternatively, Edna may simply be a product of her ultra-conservative times, yet to experience her ‘sexual awakening’. I suspect this is the dominant interpretation ie. Once Edna gets married and learns to share sex with her husband, she’s going to be just fine.
Some young people take longer to develop any feelings for anyone. Taking another story from that era, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley is pretty similar to Edna in her thoughts about boys:
Anne often states she is not comfortable with a romantic liaison. The adolescent girl tells Marilla: “Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it? Diana and I are seriously thinking of promising each other that we will never marry but be nice old maids and live together forever”.LaTrobe
(Bear in mind that Anne of Green Gables in the novel is different from how she is portrayed in a later screen adaptation. In the Sullivan Entertainment miniseries she is very aware of Gilbert’s interest in her. In fact this less likeable Anne seems to take delight at turning him down. This turns the story from a coming-of-age drama into a romantic comedy.)
Attraction can change over the course of a lifetime. (But doesn’t always.) It pays to read Katherine Mansfield through a queer lens. When we consider different types of attraction separately, this is known as the Split Attraction Model.
Any love story requires a romantic opponent. At first glance that’d be the boy Edna has known her whole life. Edna’s in love with Jimmy, but in a comfortable, queer-platonic way. Even his ‘smooth-feeling handkerchief’ is comforting. This isn’t going to provide much drama for the purposes of a short story, though we do get a glimpse into the time Edna tried to break up with him. This story isn’t about Edna’s conflict with Jimmy. This is about Edna’s psychology which led to the temporary break up with Jimmy. The human oppositional aspect is very much backgrounded.
So what of the psychology? Why is Edna wrestling with herself? Supporting my own theory of aegosexuality, if Edna were a straight allo-girl wouldn’t she just marry Jimmy? The conflict and drama of this story is all inside Edna’s head. Clearly, societal expectations don’t line up with how Edna feels on the inside.
As object of her romantic fantasies, Edna fixes (for now) upon the unavailable, purely hypothetical actor she saw at the theatre the other night. We learn via Edna’s free indirect speech that she’d drop Jimmy in a heartbeat if the actor were to show any interest in her. But again, we are not supposed to trust Edna’s narrative about herself. She describes a fleeting feeling rather than a real possibility. The actor is unavailable because he and Edna are separated by a stage. Moreover, he plays a blind man, implying another barrier between them forever. Edna regards him as his an entirely fictional character, not as a flesh and blood actor. If “Taking The Veil” were a modern story, Edna might have seen him on TV and fell equally in lust.
Later in the story we learn we were right to suspect a disconnect between Edna’s fantasies and Edna’s real world spectrum of possible actions:
The man she was in love with, the famous actor—Edna had far too much common-sense not to realise that would never be.
Chocolate has a long association with lust, which explains why Mansfield (melo-)dramatised the very small act of Edna taking a chocolate almond from a box. In storytelling and in pop narrative (especially around pop cultural ideas about premenstrual pain) chocolate is often considered a sex substitute, as well as an aphrodisiac. This makes me wonder how long chocolate has been thought of in this way. How did Katherine Mansfield think of chocolate?
Primarily symbolic of love, chocolate is a sensual food with aphrodisiac properties that are due, in part, to association. However, its melting point is the same temperature as blood.Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols
What might you do if you were a beautiful, Catholic, 18-year-old woman who loves being in love but doesn’t ever want to have sex?
Joining the convent looks like a pretty good option, right? Even more so in an era when getting married was one of the very few routes to financial security for women, who were universally expected to get married and have babies. Becoming a nun and living in genteel poverty was one of the few socially sanctioned non-marriage options for Catholic girls.
The whole entire narrative is an inner big struggle but what’s the climax of it?
The moment Edna decided to join a convent seems impetuous on her part, coming about purely because Edna happened to be sitting in the garden of a cathedral. In stories, anagnorises must follow big struggles (yeah, it’s a rule) and Katherine Mansfield uses a few snippets from the break-up conversation she and Jimmy must have had at some point:
” But, Edna! ” cried Jimmy. ” Can you never change ? Can I never hope again? ‘:
Oh, what sorrow to have to say it, but it must be said. ” No, Jimmy, I will never change.”
Rather comically, Mansfield uses the background choir practice as a leitmotif. Their ‘ah-no’ is purely tonal, without semantic meaning, but to Edna listening from out in the garden their ‘ah no’ sounds like a cry for help. Notice too how the ‘little flower’ falls. Mansfield really liked her flower motifs:
Edna bowed her head ; and a little flower fell on her lap, and the voice of Sister Agnes cried suddenly Ah-no, and the echo came, Ah-no…
At that moment the future was revealed. Edna saw it all. She was astonished ; it took her breath away at first. But, after all, what could be more natural? She would go into a convent…
Why wouldn’t Jimmy believe his fiancée she says she’s breaking up with him? Because it is pretty unbelievable for the era, is why. Jimmy is Edna’s best chance at a conventional life. And she does love him. In those times, in that part of the world, a girl like Edna would need some good reason to break up with Jimmy. But she is not sufficiently self-aware to understand what that reason might be. (Jimmy has no hope.) So she will settle for an ‘excuse’ rather than a reason. Hence, the convent.
Has Edna experienced a genuine anagnorisis? I don’t think so. The literary Impressionists didn’t really think that people changed just like that. Self-awareness is a slow, piecemeal affair and we get ourselves wrong.
But the reader does experience a plot reveal at this point. (Speaking for myself, anyhow.) It is now revealed that Edna’s decision to join a convent is as impetuous (and temporary) as her lust for the actor, symbolised also by the flower which fell (a universal symbol of impermanence).
Mansfield had experience in the theatre, on stage herself, and though it’s not obvious to a modern audience now, her writing was clearly influenced by stagecraft. (Not obvious now because every writer is influenced by stage craft.) When Edna sees her future, she is imagining the whole thing playing out as if she is watching herself on the stage.
We already know she’s very good at viewing herself like this, because Mansfield introduced her as a girl with an Imaginary Audience at the very beginning of the narrative. Note the melodramatic touches:
How can they add to her suffering like this ? The world is cruel, terribly cruel!
Edna clearly takes delight in her own melancholy.
Unlike grief after the death of someone or something known, melancholy is the feeling you get when you’re grieving for something and you don’t know what that something is.
I wonder if there’s an English or borrowed word for this. Masochism is too strong; schadenfreude only describes taking delight in other people’s misery, and that’s not quite the same even in reverse. For now the best I can say is that Edna has Goth sensibilities. She’s clearly been reading Gothic literature (hence the melodramatic touches and the graveyard and the church…) but I’m talking about the 1970s and 80s Goth now.
A big part of Goth sensibility: Finding pleasure in their own melancholy. Another big thing for Goths: rebelling against society’s pressure to conform to gender norms. Imaginatively, Edna would like to rebel in some way. But I doubt she has the imaginative breadth to imagine what true rebellion might look like. Rebelling by escaping to the hugely restrictive institution of the nunnery is a comically ironic thing to fantasise about. Many goths were into death chic (hence the black clothes and white faces). As Edna sits in the graveyard contemplating her own death, yeah, Edna’s sure into death chic. Case closed. Edna is a Goth.
The final paragraph of “Taking The Veil” plunges the reader into a that confused space Edna currently occupies: Is there really a family visiting the graveyard crying about their only daughter, or is this part entirely in Edna’s imagination? (It’s not a binary distinction — it could be that Edna sees three people and pastes identities onto them.)
Whether Edna remains alone in the graveyard or not, she experiences another revelation: To break off her engagement with Jimmy would be to wound him forever. She doesn’t have it in her to do that. She will not become a nun. She will make Jimmy happy and become his wife.
Sideshadowing: If Edna were to spend the rest of her life as Sister Angela, I’m sure her sparks of lust and secret fantasies would make the whole thing bearable. For Edna, perhaps the prospect of marrying Jimmy is on a par with the prospect of joining a nunnery. She may expect both situations to be restrictive and physically unsatisfying.
Extrapolation: Since we can never really know how others experience their sexuality, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone’s life is a trajectory towards satisfying penetration within the Sanctity of Marriage. Even after marriage, Edna is just as likely to continue as she is right now, seeking pleasure imaginatively.
This theme of secret fantasy life as a means of getting through marriage has been explored by various writers, especially woman writers, notably by Alice Munro in her story “Cortes Island“.
The header illustration is by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt The Vale of Rest (1858–9). I’ve chosen it because of the nuns, but also because Mansfield’s story is about a burial — a burial of big, nascently (a)sexual emotions.
“Pictures” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919. The London Evening Standard said of the story ‘it is stark realism from first word to last and yet it gives an impression of infinite understanding and pity’.
The character Ada Moss was inspired by a woman Mansfield met three years earlier. They had sat in the same cinema. We know this because Katherine Mansfield wrote in her diary on January 27, 1915: ‘her old yellow teeth [?] and pink roses in her hat and hollow lovely [lonely?] eyes and battered hair. I shall not forget her. No, no. She was wonderful.’
STORY STRUCTURE OF “PICTURES”
The indomitable Ada Moss, drawn with humour and compassion, is one of the first of a remarkable line of middle-aged women that Katherine Mansfield created and with whom the reader sympathises. Alone and embig struggled she soldiers on — though the solution to her problems was not to be followed by Miss Brill, Ma Parker or the Lady’s Maid!Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy
Mansfield was very interested in the plight of older women, though she never became one herself.
Like the young protagonist of “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Ada is in a precarious situation, right on the edge of poverty. She is so hungry she’s dreaming of food. Food is becoming a preoccupation. She’s constantly cold. As an opera singer, Ada’s ideal body is one with a good covering of fat but the fashion has since changed. She’ll soon learn that the film industry is after younger, thinner women.
Ada is a character who lives, to some extent, in the world of her imagination. She pretends to be someone she is not.
Starting with children’s books, fiction is harsh on characters who lose sight of their ‘true selves’. In all types of stories from thrillers to comedy, characters who wear metaphorical masks will have the mask ‘ripped off’, and the uncovered face is the real face.
What did Katherine Mansfield think about masks? She left us an insight, actually. And I believe this quotation sums up Ada’s situation in “Pictures”:
It’s a terrible thing to be alone — yes it is — it is — but don’t lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath — as terrible as you like — but a mask.Katherine Mansfield
The idea that there is a true self and a false self is a peculiar ideology. Modern psychology does not subscribe to the concept of the ‘one true self’. Our private, public and secret selves are all equally valid.
In fiction, one way of losing one’s ‘true’ self is to conflate public self with the private and secret selves.
Artists live by profession in imaginary worlds and are especially prone to this. In The Wrestler, Randy the Ram leaves our company as a tragic figure because he is unable to extricate his job from his self-identity. When his work lets him down (as work inevitably does) he has nothing left. Randy the Ram is juxtaposed against his stripper girlfriend. Significantly, the girlfriend keeps her work name separate from her legal name. Randy the Ram is always Randy the Ram, no matter the context.
And what of Mansfield’s Ada Moss? Like Randy the Ram, Ada Moss is an opera singer, by profession and by identity. She has been forced to take acting work lately, and only with the threat of mid-winter eviction does she consider less prestigious, menial work. Throughout “Pictures”, Ada subscribes to the idea that you ‘fake it til you make it’. She approaches strangers and acquaintances as a theatre professional and exaggerates her busyness in Moira Rose fashion. But unlike Moira Rose of Schitts Creek, Ada doesn’t have an erstwhile millionaire husband to support her.
Moira Rose is known for saying to her children, “You are blind to reality, and for that I am most proud.” For Moira, her theatrical persona is a work of art in its own right. Such characters make excellent comedy fodder, and Ada Moss of “Pictures” is one of Katherine Mansfield’s rare comedic creations, showcasing the author’s sense of humour.
Is Ada’s ability to reimagine her status a shortcoming or a strength, though? It’s certainly a coping mechanism. When you’ve got nothing else, is a fantasy-self so bad? Take the two has-been theatre ladies of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Miss Miriam Forcible and Miss Spink live entirely in a world of fantasy and this serves them well.
Ada wants to be a revered opera singer. Most pressing in this story, she wants to earn enough money to pay her rent by 8pm on a Saturday.
Unfortunately Ada is not getting any paid work. Her landlady is about to evict her if she doesn’t come up with rent.
The situation is against her — there were few establishments open at the weekend, narrowing Ada’s options for paid work considerably.
Ada must leave her bed and embark upon a mythological journey where she will meet a variety of people of varying degrees of helpfulness. She’s trying to find work, but no can do, partly because it’s a Saturday, and partly because people see through her pretensions. She is simply not welcome in the working class world.
The Battle scene involves the technique of pathetic fallacy:
There was a high, cold wind blowing; it tugged at her, slapped her face, jeered; it knew she could not answer [the questions].
Ada sits down and looks at herself in the mirror. Then she begins to cry. It seems she’s had some sort of anagnorisis at this point, though I think this is more of a ‘revelation of circumstance’, rather than some insight into herself. She has realised she’s not going to get work in the film industry. Her theatre skills don’t translate. She is too old for aviating, high-diving, driving cars, buck-jumping and shooting.
Ada Moss is in sensory overload by this point, described in detail at the Psychogeographic Review.
Sensory overload at the Battle sequence is a technique Mansfield used frequently. The world becomes too much. All five senses are heavily utilised.
Miss Moss, to her surprise, gave a little snigger.
The snigger seems to indicate some kind of anagnorisis. Ada seems to have realised that this is what it has come to — a great lady of the theatre, reduced to sex work.
The snigger is why I think this is the story of the first time Ada engages in sex work. There’s nothing to suggest this has happened before. Threat of eviction in winter is Ada’s rock bottom.
Ada’s cultivated ability to imagine another self will help her to dissociate her ‘self’ from the sex work.
Perhaps as part of her coping mechanism, she imagines herself and the stout man she’s about to have sex with as yachts:
And she sailed after the little yacht out of the cafe.
Mansfield used this technique in “The Wind Blows“, in which Matilda becomes the coal hulk. In both cases, the imagined self as water vessel seems to signify inevitability as well as vulnerability, because a ship/boat is very small compared to the vastness of the sea, and also at the whim of weather (environment).
Header painting: Baccarat – the Fur Cape 1920 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942
Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X — the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.
This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:
BUT IS QUICKSAND EVEN REAL?
Yes, but quicksands not as quick as all that, unless you flail about in a panic, or deliberately try to sink yourself deeper:
I do know sand in general can be dangerous. My high school friend’s older brother suffocated to death under a collapsed sandcastle on Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach in the 1970s at the age of nine. Though nowhere near as common as drownings, children dying in sand still happens. However the popularity of the old quicksand trope suggested quicksand was a disproportionate hazard, when I should have been warned instead about burying myself too deep in sand holes:
It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.Encyclopedia Britannica
There’s a disturbing misogyny behind many of the live action quicksand scenes of the 20th century. Look up famous quicksand scenes from cinematic history and it readily becomes apparent that a sexually desirable woman flailing about and pleading in quicksand is a common male saviour fantasy, which is one thing, but I suspect it’s also a ‘trapping and dispatching with women’ fantasy.
When it’s two men flailing about in the swamp, it’s likely there’s a comedy vibe to it. Stanley is a revenge film from 1972. It gets 4.2 on IMDb and I doubt anyone would watch it for the serious drama. Quicksand tips a dramatic story into melodrama:
This how-to video makes me feel a lot better about quicksand.
The horror of sinking into some suffocating substance apart from water remains a powerful trope. It is used in the horror film A Quiet Place, but in that film it’s not sand — it’s grain in a granary.
According to this guy, who lives in a part of the world with genuine, slightly scary quicksand, it’s probably not going to be the suffocation that kills you. He also makes a good job of describing what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand.
The quicksand trope is used far less commonly these days. You know what basically killed the quicksand trope? The moon landings.
Quicksand is a common and deadly element of swamp, jungle, and desert terrain. Science Fiction stories written before the Moon landings are also liable to describe thick layers of extremely fine lunar dust on the Moon’s surface that are treated as functionally equivalent to quicksand.TV Tropes
Strange as it seems now:
Prior to the first Moon landing, scientists had good reason to believe the lunar surface was covered in a fine layer of dust. While this might not sound like a big deal, it presented a host of concerns to the Apollo mission planners. […]
First and foremost, and as proposed by Gold, the lunar dust might swallow astronauts like quicksand. Indeed, without any prior experience of standing on a celestial body aside from Earth, a concern emerged that the soft regolith on the Moon wasn’t compact enough to support the weight of the Lunar Module or astronauts out for a stroll. Nightmarish thoughts of astronauts getting swallowed up into the lunar dust prompted further investigation.Gizmodo
EXAMPLES OF SINKING TO DEATH IN SHORT STORIES
“Singing My Sister Down” by Australian writer Margo Lanagan is a horrific example.
“The Scarlet Ibis” is a classic short story by James Hurst about an older brother who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. One day they are both out in a thunder storm. The older brother runs for shelter, leaving the younger brother behind. The younger brother is struck by lightning (we extrapolate) and dies.
The symbolism and pathetic fallacy of this story is clear. When the big brother teaches the younger brother to walk, they go down to a swamp.
Where there is swamp, there is the possibility of death and danger. But it’s not just about sinking to death. Bogs, swamps and marshes have a murky history. Case in point:
My favourite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.Diane Purkiss, academic and witch expert
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MARSH, BOG, SWAMP ETC?
The different kinds of wetlands:
- MARSHES — no trees, lots of grass, exist at the edge of lakes and streams
- SWAMPS — murky water, lots of trees, muddy, full of pits and quagmires
- FENS — dominated by grasses, alkaline water
- BOG — accumulates peat (deposits of dead plant material), mosses aplenty
All varieties of wetland are essential to the ecosystem, but symbolically, in stories, they function quite differently. The fen is basically a watery meadow, offering little real danger to humans — on fens we can see for miles around — we’d see predators approach. As for the swamp, well that’s a different matter. The swamp contains the worst of all worlds — the shadowy depths of an ocean combined with the foreboding of the forest. We have no visibility in either direction.
Bogs and swamps seem more ‘sinkier’ than fens and marshes, probably because of the English language collocations such as ‘swamped at work’, bogged down by homework’ etc. I’ve never heard ‘marshed at work'(though someone should make that happen).
When a story is told from the point of view of, say, a frog (who needs it for survival), then swamps can function as utopian landscapes.
The wetlands of The Wind In The Willows are a genuine utopia.
At this point I’d like to mention The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter has the undeserved reputation for writing sweet, utopian stories about animals dressed like people. But that’s not true at all. Jeremy Fisher is the story of a frog, set by some wetlands. These wetlands are no utopia, but a dangerous, deadly place. There is nothing happily ironic about Potter’s wetland environs.
FURTHER READING ABOUT SWAMPS
Header painting: Charles Ernest Butler – Poole Harbour, Dorsetshire 1904
What can I say about “The Scarlet Ibis” that isn’t on Wikipedia? This 1960 short story is loved by English teachers because of its clear literary symbols — a good introduction to symbolism, especially to colour symbolism.
Students can be highly suspicious of close reading when teachers talk about colours and their symbolism. Colours can have multiple readings e.g. red can mean heat and anger but also love. So what’s the point, right?
Let’s take one step back. What even is a symbol? As shown by the ‘blue curtains’ meme in that post, sometimes a colour is simply an off-duty detail.
But the colour symbolism in “The Scarlet Ibis” is very much ‘on-duty’.
There is a good, watertight reason why Hurst’s older, wiser narrator sits in a green parlour, and here’s why.
Take the distinction between the youthful main character and his wiser, older narrator self, who I consider two separate characters (despite being simply the younger and older versions of the same person).
The older narrator barely resembles his younger self. This distinction — and his flipped sense of old man morality — is conveyed nicely in the opening paragraph via the complementary colours of red and green.
Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree. It’s strange that all this is so clear to me, now that time has had its way. But sometimes (like right now) I sit in the cool green parlor, and I remember Doodle.
Colour symbolism varies significantly between cultures and context, but red and green will always be opposite in a scientific sense — unlike many instances of colour symbolism, colour theory does not change from context to context, from culture to culture.
Complementary colours, in stories, can be unambiguous markers of inversion. In other words, something in the story has done a one-eighty.
Young narrator: immoral.
Older, wiser narrator telling this story after many years of reflection: moral.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE SCARLET IBIS”
Apart from peripheral parents there are two characters in this story — big brother, little brother. And, as mentioned above, the big brother has two alters — young character, older narrator.
Take note of the ways in which Hurst compares the children to old people:
- Doodle was born when I was seven and was, from the start, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man’s.
- So I dragged him across the cotton field to share the beauty of Old Woman Swamp.
Alice Munro uses this technique a lot. She tends to write across a person’s entire life, in which a young woman is simultaneously an old woman, perhaps because the old woman is looking back. Yet the older woman is right there alongside the younger woman the entire time, affording the reader a compressed but also expanded sense of time. This has the effect of expanding time even within the brevity of the short story format.
Annie Proulx has a different way of achieving similar ends — Proulx tends to write inter-generationally — sometimes across three generations. Then she connects those characters to the landscape, focusing on the magnitude of the landscape, miniaturising the characters.
So what does Hurst achieve in this story, with mention of ‘old man’, ‘old woman’? Perhaps this story is an examination of culpability. Can the narrator’s younger self be excused for this reprehensible behaviour just because he was young? If he imagines himself as a person, simultaneously old and young — just a person — it is harder to justify his own actions. Hence the regretful, confessional tone.
SHORTCOMING OF THE NARRATOR
Values The main character starts with a set of beliefs and values.
This is a story of the patriarchy, in which there is only one way to be a man: Strong, able-bodied and protective. The narrator learned this young. He has learned to be disgusted by anything that doesn’t fit this stereotype. When Doodle cries he is chastised by his father:
“What are you crying for?” asked Daddy, but I couldn’t answer. They didn’t know that I did it just for myself, that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.
It’s the crying itself that’s the problem, so far as the father’s concerned.
This is ultimately a story of remorse. The narrator doesn’t exactly paint a flattering portrait of himself as a young man. How reliable is he as a storyteller? How reliable is his memory? This story isn’t held up as an example of unreliable narration, but one way of reading this story is as a work of self-flagellation. Perhaps there is a lot of sibling guilt in here, guilt that might come with the knowledge that the brothers’ situations could easily have been flipped. It could have been the narrator with the health issues, not the brother. Anyone could think this at any time about anyone, but when it’s your sibling, it’s easier to imagine the flipped positions.
Flipped. Inverse. Opposite. Again with the complementary red and the green, you see.
There’s also embarrassment.
Doodle was five years old when I turned 13. I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn’t walk, so I set out to teach him.
I put it to you that the narrator has been culturally conditioned to believe that a person can do anything so long as they put their mind to it.
“Oh, yes, you can, Doodle. All you got to do is try.”
I’ve heard it said that this is an idea that exemplifies California. I’ve heard it come out of various actors’ mouths in interviews — they are where they are today because they worked really hard and they had a dream, and because they believed in the dream — like, REALLY believed it — the universe delivered!
This 2013 speech by Angelina Jolie garnered attention because she’s saying something too rarely hear from the one per cent: That she is where she is today largely because of… luck. Privilege. Random fortune of circumstance.
If we really believe anyone can do anything if only they set their mind to it, that can lead us to the following conclusion: If you’re living in poverty, homeless, desperate — well, you must have done something wrong. You deserve to be where you are.
If the narrator in “The Scarlet Ibis” can teach his brother to walk, this confirms such a view. He will also no longer be embarrassed by Doodle. He will also feel like Jesus.
Since I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to believe in my own infallibility.
There is inside me (and with sadness I have seen it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love. And at times I was mean to Doodle.
The first thing he does wrong:
One time I showed him his casket, telling him how we all believed he would die. When I made him touch the casket, he screamed. And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine he clung to me, crying, “Don’t leave me, Brother! Don’t leave me!”
The main character comes up with a goal toward which all else is sacrificed.
The narrator wants Doodle to walk, for the reasons listed above.
This goal leads them into direct conflict with an opponent who has a differing set of values but the same goal.
This story isn’t about differing values. I’m confident Doodle would love to walk and run and do everything most other kids can. He simply cannot.
Or is it? Doodle knows to give up trying to run before the narrator does — probably not just out of pain — he knows, viscerally, that ‘trying hard’ won’t do jack. Sometimes it really is a matter of ‘can’t’, as in ‘permanently cannot’.
Drive The main character and the opponent take a series of actions to reach the goal.
The brothers go down to Old Woman Swamp and practise walking.
The immoral action is pushing Doodle way too far, causing him pain and physical damage.
In this particular short story there are only two characters, but also the third as I mention above — the much older narrator looking back. Via the psychological insights offered by this extradiegetic character, the same ends are achieved. In other words, the narrator himself guides the reader in our criticism of his younger self.
Justification: The main character tries to justify his actions. They may see the deeper truth and right of the situation at the end of the story, but not now.
Throughout the narration, the reader is given all the reasons why the narrator keeps going with his plan.
Attack by Ally The main character’s closest friend makes a strong case that the hero’s methods are wrong.
This is Doodle himself, not saying the narrator’s methods are wrong, but simply impossible.
Obsessive Drive Galvanised by new revelations about how to win, the main character becomes obsessed with reaching the goal and will do almost anything to succeed.
The parents are pleased with the narrator. The narrator feels less embarrassed. The younger brother looks up to big brother — his behaviours are positively reinforced. No wonder he keeps going.
The narrator pushes his brother beyond his limitations, and we know he isn’t going to back down.
Criticism: Attacks by other characters grow as well.
The father criticises the narrator for crying, though the criticism is for the crying, not for the immoral actions against Doodle. As far as the father is concerned, it’s great that Doodle can walk now.
It’s fully up to the reader to extrapolate that the narrator feels the way he does about Doodle because Doodle is failing to live up to society’s idea of a man. And that these ideas come down from their father.
Justification: The main character vehemently defends their own actions.Doodle was both tired and frightened.
He slipped on the mud and fell. I helped him up, and he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it. He would never be like the other boys at school.
Battle The final conflict that decides the goal. Regardless of who wins, the audience learns which values and ideas are superior.
The big struggle is made more intense via the pathetic fallacy of the lightning storm.
The narrator must choose whether to run home through the rain and lightning, or to go back and help his own brother. He chooses to run without his brother. So he makes an immoral decision, according to common decency.
At that moment, the bird began to flutter. It tumbled down through the bleeding tree and landed at our feet with a thud. Its graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still. It lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and even death could not mar its beauty.
The reader realises before the young narrator does that beauty comes in many different forms. If the scarlet ibis can be beautiful even when it’s dead, why can’t the little brother be beautiful even with his physical disabilities? The older narrator knows that now. He leads the reader to realise this point before he makes his immoral decision to leave his own brother behind in the storm. We therefore judge him negatively, as he has judged himself.
The younger brother is dead; the older brother must live forever with the result of his decision. He immediately knows he chose wrongly.
Carson McCullers also wrote a story about two boys from the same family in which the older one abuses the younger. She wrote it when she was still a teenager herself. She called it “Sucker”.
Header image by Vincent van Zalinge
“Rain” (1921) by W. Somerset Maugham is a fish-out-of-water story, in which characters wholly unsuited to their environment become marooned somewhere due to external circumstances. As a result, they undergo many trials and change as a result… or they don’t, if it’s a tragedy.
The incessant tropical rain is pathetic fallacy which foreshadows tragedy.
In this case we have Christian missionaries hellbent of converting native Pacific Island culture into something foreign and entirely unsuitable (Protestant, puritanical, cold climate culture). It’s worth remembering that the mainly white, Christian audience of Somerset Maugham’s contemporary readership had to be converted themselves to the view that this was not acceptable.
These characters get stuck on an island because of a travel ban due to a measles outbreak, which is deadly for local populations if not to themselves. By the time we’re told there’s no hotel for them at Pago Pago, we despise them so much we are glad to see them suffer.
SETTING OF “RAIN”
Somerset Maugham does a good job of placing us geographically within the first few lines of story:
It was nearly bed-time and when they awoke next morning land would be in sight. Dr. Macphail lit his pipe and, leaning over the rail, searched the heavens for the Southern Cross.
From that we know that it is dark > our characters are on a ship > on the deck of a ship > they are in the Southern Hemisphere > nearing a landmass.
I deduce that because this person is looking for the Southern Cross, they have traveled from the Northern Hemisphere (otherwise it would be a fact of the skyscape and unremarkable). Perhaps they are about to arrive in New Zealand or Australia or one of the Pacific Islands.
I also deduce that because they are travelling a lengthy journey by ship that this takes place in the early 20th century or before, and that the person smoking is male, because smoking was a masculine thing to do in this era.
We are soon told that they are about to reach Apia, which is the capital of Samoa. In the background, a war is going on.
Pago Pago is the territorial capital of American Samoa. Somerset Maugham stopped here in 1916. The ship will stop there, some passengers are supposed to disembark, the rest are supposed to travel to Apia.
LANGUAGE IN “RAIN”
- propinquity — the state of being nearby
- carp — to go on complaining about trivial matters
- Samoari — seems to be an outdated word for Samoan, which seems to have been only used by Christian missionaries e.g. the book The Samoari Culture and the Christian Gospel.
- yaws — a contagious disease of tropical countries, caused by a bacterium that enters skin abrasions and gives rise to small crusted lesions which may develop into deep ulcers.
- Mother Hubbard — a storyteller character in children’s tales from way back, and here it means clothing reminiscent of her. A long, loose-fitting, shapeless woman’s dress or undergarment.
- hooch — inferior or illicit whiskey
- obsequious — obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree
- copra — dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained
- chafing dish —A chafing dish (from the French chauffer, “to make warm”) is a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the “fierce” heat of direct flames.
- ducks — pants made of duck fabric, a kind of strong linen which is also used for sails.
- burg — an ancient or medieval fortress or walled town
CHARACTERS IN “RAIN”
Narrator — An Englishman. ‘It was not like our soft English rain that drops gently on the earth’. We don’t know much else about him. Was he lurking unseen at the same establishment?
Rev. Davidson — With his tall, spare form, and his great eyes flashing out of his pale face, he was an impressive figure. He worked in the Solomons for five years before he met his wife. She had been a missionary in China, and they had become acquainted in Boston, where they were both spending part of their leave to attend a missionary congress. On their marriage they had been appointed to the islands in which they had laboured ever since. He was a medical missionary, and he was liable to be called at any time to one or other of the islands in the group. He has done his ‘missionary’ work by issuing fines to locals minding their own business.
Mrs Davidson — described like a bird, with her small frame and shrill voice. She seems to turn a blind eye to the violence of her husband. “When he is on the Lord’s work I never ask him questions.”
Dr. Macphail — A little more open-minded than the Christian missionaries he hangs out with. Is able to see the funny side in situations. Smokes a pipe. Treats locals for their tropical diseases and whatnot. Dr. Macphail was a timid man. In the war, he had never been able to get used to the hurtling of the shells over the trenches.
Mrs Mcphail — Mrs. Macphail is shy, and in the habit of doing what her husband bade her. She spends all her time making comforters for the war effort.
Miss Sadie Thompson — Also gets marooned on the island. Described by the missionary women as ‘fast’ which is probably more a comment on her lower socio economic status. Loud and cheerful voice. Dresses in a white frock, and her shiny white boots with their high heels, her fat legs bulging over the tops of them. Of all of them, fits in best with the locals. Mr Davidson concludes she boarded the ship from Hawaii, where she worked in the sex trade.
Mr Horn — owner of the place where they’re staying. A ‘half-caste trader’.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “RAIN”
Who is the main character of “Rain”? Reverend Davidson is the main focus of the narrator’s point of view. Normally, the main character is the character who has the anagnorisis. Because he gets killed, the reverend gets no revelation, though he may have realised something before he died. (However that death happened.)
The reader is let in on only one side of Reverend Davidson’s desires—the desire to punish others for what he considers human failings.
The part of his desire kept back as a reveal is that he is the worst of the lot.
This second part of his psychology isn’t much of a surprise, and I wonder if the modern reader is more jaded, and if a contemporary of Somerset Maugham would’ve been genuinely surprised that a reverend (even a fictional one) would behave in such a way. The fairly recent history of reverends and priests as above human infallibility is very recent.
The group’s opponent is Sadie Thompson, as she doesn’t conform to their high moral standards. They dislike her for her corrupting influence and perhaps because of fears of contagion — sex workers are considered dirty, because they can be a vector of sexually transmitted disease in a time when people don’t understand how these things work.
Davidson’s other opponent is the doctor, who the audience sympathises with. The doctor is a non-confrontational, laidback sort of man, so not exactly a formidable opponent. He gives up trying to keep Sadie being sent back to San Francisco, where she will serve time in prison, presumably for the crime of sex work.
The reverend plans to send Sadie Thompson to San Francisco and sets that up very effectively, by strong arming. First he plans to do sex to her, and then she’ll be safely gone, so she’ll never tell.
The doctor has ‘counterattack’ — to try and persuade people with reason not to enforce Sadie’s return to San Francisco, but to allow as she wishes — to find straight work in Sydney. This plan is ineffective.
Someone else — the murderer — has a different plan. Either Sadie kills him, the reverend’s wife kills him, or else she somehow finds out, leading the reverend to kill himself.
Leading up to the big struggle we have a ‘big struggle-state-of-mind’ in which the author describes the weather, the surroundings, in an ominous, restless kind of way:
[Dr Macphail] scratched his mosquito bites. He felt very short-tempered. When the rain stopped and the sun shone, it was like a hothouse, seething, humid, sultry, breathless, and you had a strange feeling that everything was growing with a savage violence. The natives, blithe and childlike by reputation, seemed then, with their tattooing and their dyed hair, to have something sinister in their appearance; and when they pattered along at your heels with their naked feet you looked back instinctively. [sideshadowing] You felt they might at any moment come behind you swiftly and thrust long knife between your shoulder blades. You could not tell what dark thoughts lurked behind their wide-set eyes. They had a little the look of ancient Egyptians painted on a temple wall, and there was about them the terror of what is immeasurably old.
Note that the violence in that paragraph is imagined, and W. Somerset Maugham is making use of sideshadowing when describing what a character thinks could happen.
That paragraph is necessary not only as foreshadowing because the big struggle which leads to a death takes place off-stage.
The ‘twist’ in this tale is that we are first given a false Anagnorisis. (Though if you read it like me, you saw it coming.)
”It’s a true rebirth. Her soul, which was black as night, is now pure and white like the new-fallen snow. I am humble and afraid. Her remorse for all her sins is beautiful. I am not worthy to touch the hem of her garment.”
How do we know this is all fake? Because the narrator has already primed us to not expect a didactic, Christian tale. All this time he has been highlighting the nasty side of the missionaries, and the more Christian they are, the worse they behave.
The revelation, which comes in the last line, and which we are left to deduce (somewhat) is that Rev Davidson was either raping Sadie or offering to pay for sex, all the while hypocritically punishing her for her sins.
The reader is left not knowing whether it is Sadie or Mrs Davidson who killed the reverend. I think the point of withholding this information is to avoid creating a moral hierarchy in the reader’s mind regarding murder — humans are all the same, so we are told. This point becomes underscored when the reader is left to consider that every woman, from a lowly sex worker to a respectable reverend’s wife is a murder suspect.
“I’m A Fool”(1922) is a short story written by American Sherwood Anderson, who was born around the time Lonesome Dove is set, and who died at the beginning of the second world war. So, he came along at the end of the cowboy days, lived through one world war and was heading into another.
Anderson had four wives during his relatively short life. I’m immediately suspicious of a man who has had four marriages. “I’m A Fool” demonstrates a possessive, objectifying attitude towards a woman character which isnt challenged. This doesn’t improve my impression of the writer. To understand this story the reader must also understand that being attracted to a woman and not acting on those strong feelings is about one of the worst things that can happen to a man. If this story were a contemporary song, it’d be “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2004). A young man catches sight of a pretty woman on a train, can’t be with her and is sad forever that he can’t have her. All because she smiled at her.
James Blunt swears he’s got ‘a plan’ but never tells us what that plan is, making the narrative arc incomplete. Like the narrator of “I’m A Fool”, Blunt spends the entire music video punishing himself physically, in this case by taking off all his clothes in the snow, laying out all his pocket possessions and jumping (probably to his death) into the sea below.
Sherwood Anderson’s own young life working various jobs will have influenced this story, about a young man who also feels he has little in common with more sheltered boys of his own age. I recently rewatched Terminator 2, and the very annoying kid in that movie has the same superiority complex of a boy who has been let loose on the ‘real’ world and immediately starts dividing between men and boys, putting himself in the category of man, prematurely.
Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.
Some think Sherwood Anderson is a genius. Others think he’s mediocre. Mark Twain did the first person vernacular style first. Every English speaking country has their own iconic male writer of the early 20th century who got famous for daring to write in the regional working man’s vernacular. There’s Frank Sargeson of my own home country (New Zealand). In 1935, Sargeson wrote a piece in a New Zealand liberal newspaper in praise of Anderson’s literary devices. I had to study Sargeson at high school, so it’s interesting to see his main influence. I don’t remember Sherwood Anderson ever mentioned. New Zealand likes to think Sargeson was wholly original in coming up with the idea of eschewing that fancy book learnin language for normal everyday speech.
Anderson also influenced Hemingway and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth.
I don’t get a ‘genius’ vibe from this snippet of Anderson’s oeuvre. But I sure am sick of stories about the regrets of men who don’t get to do exactly what they want to with their dicks. Especially when it’s for being dicks.
Apparently, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. This mode of death is trumped only by Margaret Wise Brown, who died after kicking up her leg to show doctors how well she (ostensibly) was. In any case, I’ll be very careful with toothpicks from now on. And I won’t be kicking any legs up in hospital, either.
SETTING OF “I’M A FOOL”
The time and place are very specific. Authors do this to create a strong sense of verisimilitude.
It began at three o’clock one October afternoon as I sat in the grandstand at the fall trotting and pacing meet at Sandusky, Ohio.
Sandusky is right at the top of Ohio.
I checked to see if horse racing is big in Sandusky. It’s not anymore, but used to be, notably between the 1860s and 1920s.
Gee whizz, gosh amighty, the nice hickorynut and beechnut and oaks and other kinds of trees along the roads, all brown and red, and the good smells, and Burt singing a song that was called “Deep River,” and the country girls at the windows of houses and everything. You can stick your colleges up your nose for all me. I guess I know where I got my education.
Black people and women were not respected. People were afraid of Black men and didn’t trust women could understand stuff.
There’s a lot of things you’ve got to promise a mother because she don’t know any better.
Young women (Janes) are peachy, or they are mutts.
that girl wasn’t any mutt of a girl.
Young women are classy or they are trash.
when you’re out with girls like that, you can’t get careless and miss any trains and stay out all night, like you can with some kinds of Janes.
This is the character speaking, of course. But these were the times.
The narrator uses the word ‘dude‘ in a slightly different way we’d use it today. I think he means poser types who dress well and parade around for the ladies. (More like a modern hipster.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF “I’M A FOOL”
Sherwood is lauded for creating characters trapped by their own eccentric natures in a hostile world.
“I’m A Fool” opens with the narrator telling us that he’s been stupid, and he gives us a reason for writing. This technique is often used in diary format novels as well. Many middle grade diaries open with the main character telling us why they would bother writing something down. Here, the narrator hopes to take ‘a kind of satisfaction in making [himself] look cheap by telling it’.
I had got too big to mow people’s lawns and sell newspapers. Little chaps who could get next to people’s sympathies by their sizes were always getting jobs away from me.
Although taking the job as swipe is justified, Anderson is sure to show us his moral shortcoming. This is what our narrator imagines in his darker moments:
There was one fellow who kept saying to everyone who wanted a lawn mowed or a cistern cleaned, that he was saving money to work his way through college, and I used to lay awake nights thinking up ways to injure him without being found out. I kept thinking of wagons running over him and bricks falling on his head as he walked along the street.
The narrator’s shortcoming is most evident via his mode of narration, in which he digresses often, trying to impress us, his narratee.
I’m reminded of these graphs you see sometimes on social media. Unfortunately I don’t have an attribution:
The ‘nigger named Burt’ exists functionally in this story about a white boy, but is not fleshed out in his own right. The narrator can see that this black man is just as good as a white man, and this has two functions for the white narrator’s character development:
- It’s got a Save The Cat vibe about it. This guy is empathetic to those below him and sees the guy’s skills.
- Shows how close to the bottom of the social hierarchy the narrator is himself.
Burt taught me how to rub down a horse and put the bandages on after a race and steam a horse out and a lot of valuable things for any man to know. He could wrap a bandage on a horse’s leg so smooth that if it had been the same color you would think it was his skin, and I guess he’d have been a big driver, too, and got to the top like Murphy and Walter Cox and the others if he hadn’t been black.
First, he wants to earn his own living, but jobs are scarce and he has to take what he can get. What does a horse swipe do?
You got to a county seat town, maybe say on a Saturday or Sunday, and the fair began the next Tuesday and lasted until Friday afternoon. Doctor Fritz would be, say, in the 2. 25 trot on Tuesday afternoon and on Thursday afternoon Bucephalus would knock ’em cold in the “free-for-all” pace. […] And then at the end of the week when the race meet was over, and Harry had run home to tend up to his livery-stable business, you and Burt hitched the two horses to carts and drove slow and steady across country to the place for the next meeting, so as to not overheat the horses, etc. […] looking down on the swipes coming out with their horses, and with their dirty horsy pants on and the horse blankets swung over their shoulders
Next this guy wants to impress a girl with a view to having her for his own. But he also wants to do his job, and these two things conflict.
His romantic opponent is the girl he meets at the races.
He plans to get these kids to spend a lot on horse racing and he’s going to take the opportunity to big himself up. He’ll enjoy being another person for a little while — a middle upper class person, worthy of a middle upper class girl.
The Battle he has is with himself, and the reader experiences this most at the train station. The train takes his never-was, might-have-been lover away forever.
The Anagnorisis phase has been brought to the front as an opener (in much the same way as action scenes are often brought to the front in TV and film, to hook the viewer in).
He realises he has been a fool, as it says in the title. He realises not that he should have acted differently — he’s robotic in that regard — but that he just brushed up against a relationship which was never meant to be.
The twist in this tale is that the horse doesn’t lose any of them their money. It’s not that. It’s the narrator’s own lying about all the other stuff — about his social standing. In a different kind of story, the mask would come off the narrator because the horse he recommended would have won.
The fact that he wasn’t lying about the abilities of the horse but was lying about all the rest makes everything feel so much worse for our narrator. If only he could switch them round — if only he could know nothing about harness racing but belong to the same class as this girl he’s so keen on. This idea of switching is seen throughout the story, but there’s no regret until this point — he is happy being a swipe and happy being a yap, wherever he happens to be. But now he’s not happy.
How much does the narrator really know about his own situation? Well, I don’t trust he’s able to tell what the girl is thinking.
And I was with that girl and she wasn’t saying much, and I wasn’t saying much either. One thing I know. She wasn’t stuck on me because of the lie about my father being rich and all that. There’s a way you know … Craps amighty. There’s a kind of girl you see just once in your life, and if you don’t get busy and make hay, then you’re gone for good and all, and might as well go jump off a bridge.
He thinks she wants him because he wants her. End of. They’re not saying much so how else could he know? More recently than this story was written, numerous studies have shown that men tend to overestimate romantic interest shown to them by women (Levesque et al., 2006; Perrilloux et al., 2012; Treat et al., 2015).
Where there is no clear Anagnorisis in this story, it can be interesting to look at The Range Of Character Change. The difference here is between the narrator as he tells his story (the extradiegetic, autodiegetic narrator) and the person he was when this story was happening in real time. There’s not a great difference between the guy he was then and the guy he is now. This all could’ve happened last week. When he describes his strong feelings after the train leaves it feels very raw and unprocessed. He wants to punish himself physically (e.g. by having a train run over his foot) to take his mind off the mental anguish.
He is romantically alone and he will return to his underbelly life, but with a newfound dissatisfaction. He probably won’t be quite as happy to be an underdog from now on. He’ll always look back to this night and wish things were different.
The story ends with pathetic fallacy — it is raining and the character is sad.