Symbolism and The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst

three scarlet ibis flying

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.

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.

red green complementary colours

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!

#NotAllActors

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!”

DESIRE

Desire 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.

OPPONENT

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’.

PLAN

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

The younger brother is dead; the older brother must live forever with the result of his decision. He immediately knows he chose wrongly.

FURTHER READING

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 by W. Somerset Maugham

rain somerset maugham

“Rain” 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.



STORYWORLD 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.

Pago Pago Apia route

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 Hubbarda 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”

SHORTCOMING

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.)

DESIRE

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.

OPPONENT

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.

PLAN

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.

BIG STRUGGLE

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.

ANAGNORISIS

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.

NEW SITUATION

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.

The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield

The Wind Blows Katherine Mansfield

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

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

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

CONNECTIONS TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

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

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

Gillian Boddy

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

SETTING OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

PLACE

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

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

Gillian Boddy

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

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

World Atlas

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

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

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

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

The pull quotes relevant from “The Wind Blows”:

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

CULTURAL REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

SMALLER SPACES WITHIN THE STORY

All the trees and bushes beat about her. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the closest I can get on Google Earth.

BRINGING THE SETTING TO LIFE

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

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

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

Season

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

HISTORICAL MILIEU

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

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

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

No one dresses like that anymore.

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

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

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

Tenerife work refers to handmade lace from the Canary Islands.

NARRATION OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

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

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

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

LANGUAGE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

What’s with the repetition of ‘wind’?

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

Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
DETAIL

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

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

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WIND BLOWS”

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

Gillian Boddy

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

SHORTCOMING

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

DESIRE

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

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

OPPONENT

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

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

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

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

PLAN

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

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

BIG STRUGGLE

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

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

ANAGNORISIS

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

” … Who are they?” 

” … Brother and sister.” 

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

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

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

GOODBYE, CHILDHOOD!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, this is depressing.

NEW SITUATION

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

The wind  –  the wind.

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

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

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

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

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

WRITE YOUR OWN

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

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

Things To Know About Miyazaki Films

Hayao Miyzaki Howl's Moving Castle

1. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS FEATURE A TECHNIQUE CALLED ‘PILLOW SHOTS’

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

It comes from the famous director Yasujiro Ozu and is common in Japanese cinema. Why are they called pillow shots? It’s the cinematic equivalent of ‘pillow words’ used in Japanese poetry. A pillow word represents a sort of musical beat between what went before and what comes after. It functions as a kind of punctuation, signalling the end of something and a transition to something else.

Similarly, silence plays an important part in Japanese films, and Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t subscribe to the Dreamworks school of thought, in which kids need action from the get-go.

Although it looks as if nothing is happening in some of Miyzaki’s pillow shots, Japanese animators are more likely to use dynamic backgrounds and Western animators to use static ones. For instance, something in the Japanese background will be in motion and change. Even when there’s action going on in the foreground, Miyazaki will quite likely have something going on in the background.

2. THE ENGLISH DUBS AREN’T ALL THAT GREAT

The English translations of Miyazaki movies are often quite different. For example, the agency of Sophie is taken away somewhat in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle. Regional dialects are lost when they are dubbed into standard American English. Voices are quite different, also. Miyazaki’s children’s voices tend to be authentic child voice actors whereas sometimes Hollywood uses an adult to mimic a child.

Also, the English dubs tend to put words in where there were none, under the assumption that a young Western audience needs them. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, several additional words and sounds occur at moments of silence in the original.

3. MIYAZAKI’S FILMS TEND TO STAR GIRLS BUT THEY ARE ONLY ‘FEMINIST’ IN THEIR OWN, OLD-FASHIONED KINDA WAY

The Feminism Of Hayao Miyazaki from Bitch Media

4. BUT WHEN DISNEY’S MARKETING DEPARTMENT GETS A HOLD OF MIYAZAKI FILMS THEY MAKE THEM LESS FEMINIST THAN THEY WERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Miyazaki at the A.V. Club

Miyazaki at Bitch Flicks

6. HAYAO MIYAZAKI USES A WIDE RANGE OF CLASSIC LITERATURE AND BUILDS ON IT.

The name ‘Laputa’ (from ‘Castle In The Sky’) is derived from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, wherein Swift’s Laputa is also a flying island controlled by its citizens. Anthony Lioi feels that Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is similar to Swift’s Laputa, where the technological superiority of the castle in the sky is used for political ends.

7. THERE’S THIS JAPANESE CONCEPT CALLED ‘MA’

ma hayao miyazaki concept

When Roger Ebert asked Miyazaki about the “gratuitous motion” in his films—the bits of realist texture, like sighs and gestures—Miyazaki told Ebert that he was invoking the Japanese concept of “ma.” Miyazaki clapped three times, and then said, “The time in between my clapping is ma.” This calls to mind the concept of temps morts, or dead time, in the European art cinema of the 1960s. Temps morts is a pause, a beat, a breath, a moment that doesn’t advance the plot. But far from being dead, Miyazaki’s moments of “ma” are full of life—there is a simple joy in watching his worlds move. In “animating”—breathing life into—a world that looks like our own, Miyazaki carries forward a spirit from the very beginning of film history.

Bright Wall Dark Room

8. THE FILMS ARE COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS ‘MAGICAL REALISM’

For more on magical realism see the blog posts by Michelle Witte.

However, there is a case to be made for reserving the word for specifically Latin American literature using magic to explore ideas of colonisation. To avoid this appropriation there is another word we can use: fabulism.

9. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS A WORLDWIDE INFLUENCE ON OTHER STORYTELLERS

Take 2017 Netflix series Okja as an example.

Kong: Skull Island is another: “Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took a page from Miyazaki’s playbook and decided to focus on the unique spirit of all living creatures.”

Lilo and Stitch, too, was apparently influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. “Kiki’s Coffee House” was inserted into the movie as a tribute.

[Miyazaki’s] stories are everything but cliché. There’s never a cliché I’ve ever detected in his stories; the storylines are completely original and the way the characters interact is very believable. I think that’s one of the things that inspired us to rewrite the book in the way our characters interact. You referenced that when we were talking about the scene with the sisters yelling at each other. It’s so natural and cathartic to see that going on. When characters interact believably, you believe in them and it makes it seem much more real to you. One of the big reasons we didn’t have this film as a musical in the traditional sense is that the minute a character begins to sing, it places that film in a certain realm, a musical realm, which is great but it’s not really happening the way we wanted this film to feel like it’s happening.

Chris Sanders

Specifically, if you reference a film like Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, that film shares a lot of similarities with ours. We were inspired by the way Miyazaki created realistic relationships between the human characters, the sister-sister relationship, and wove in a realm of fantasy and whimsy very subtly. It’s done in such a believable way… You’ve got these fantastic elements and yet you feel like you watched a story that really existed between a family.

Dean DuBlois

Ubisoft’s Child Of Light was also influenced by Miyazaki, particularly the hand-drawn look of the art.

10. HAYAO MIYAZAKI LOVED BOTH JAPANESE AND IMPORTED CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Like a disproportionate number of adult story creators, Hayao Miyazaki was a ‘physically weak’ child and the time not spent on running about was spent reading. Open Culture published a list of Miyazaki’s favourite children’s books showing that (of course) he didn’t just enjoy stories for and about boys, but loved stories about girls equally. Miyazaki didn’t stop reading children’s books just because he stopped being a child, either.

11. HAYAO MIYAZAKI IS THE ULTIMATE PANTSER

A plotter describes a storyteller who works out the plot outline before fleshing it out. They know the ending before even starting to type. A pantser is the opposite of this, working out the plot as they go along. Miyazaki is the ultimate pantser because he has an entire studio working for him, under his direction, and none of these people knows how the story is going to progress. Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Scripts undergo numerous revisions and workshopping before filming begins. For this reason, the Studio Ghibli plots feel quite different from Hollywood blockbusters, and even more meandering than most indie films. For Miyazaki, the main thing is emotion. Emotion is first and foremost; plot is secondary.

Miyazaki also never studied screenwriting.

12. VILLAINS ALSO DEVELOP AS CHARACTERS

Miyazaki’s baddies are rounded characters in their own right. There’s no clear line between good and evil. An example of a character who is ostensibly a villain but who has a soft side is No Face from Spirited Away. He begins as greedy but becomes an ally.

There’s no binary of good and evil. These two things coexist in the same characters. The protagonist doesn’t win, but grows and adapts to a world that isn’t built to their needs.

Characters begin flawed and end flawed. There’s not the same sort of character arc as we are accustomed to in the West, though writers such as Matt Weiner have embraced this realism. Don Draper never really evolves, either. The goal in a Miyazaki movie is to develop emotionally. Any external goal is secondary. Western stories tend to use an external goal as a metaphor for internal change.

Whereas the humans in Miyazaki films have complex emotions, the fantasy characters do not. We are never let in on what they are thinking. They remain mysterious to us. Mysterious creatures hold our attention in a way that an empathetic human character does not.

13. FLIGHT IS VERY IMPORTANT

Miyazaki’s father owned a plane company and Hayao is fascinated with flight. Every single one of his movies contains a flight scene, or a scene in which a character sees something from a long distance. More on the symbolism of flight.

14. MIYAZAKI DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A PESSIMIST

But doesn’t want that to come through in his movies. He wants to offer young viewers a sense of hope. This reality versus aspiration is evident in each of Miyazaki’s films — the themes demonstrate that the mind of the creator is focused on issues such as corporate greed and environmental destruction, but the endings of the stories are still hopeful.

15. MIYAZAKI DOES NOT LIKE HIS STUDIO DESCRIBED AS ‘THE JAPANESE DISNEY’

Far more accurate to call him ‘The Japanese Yuri Norstein’. Norstein (or Norshteyn) is a Russian animator born the same year as Miyazaki (1941). These men have lived through the same world events.  Take a look at a few of his productions and you’ll see the similarities. Hedgehog in the Fog is his best-known work in the West:

16. THE AUDIENCE FOR GHIBLI MOVIES AREN’T JUST CHILDREN

Certain films such as Totoro and Ponyo are written with young children in mind. But when stories are written to appeal to human emotion, there is no upper age limit. Miyazaki works under the principle that children don’t necessarily have to understand what they see right away — they can see something now and understand it later. That’s just fine with him.

https://twitter.com/zenitotts/status/1254197509083336710

17. GEKIGA, NOT MANGA

Miyazaki began his career as a manga artist and is influenced by a type of manga called ‘gekiga’. This literally means ‘dramatic pictures’. It was a term coined by manga artists who wished to separate their own work from ‘less serious’ cartoonists. Creators of gekiga tend to depict more realistic humans and backgrounds. Miyazaki has no love for the manga industry in general, and its cheap tricks to get an audience reaction. He avoids large, flashy moments in favour of small, subtle ones.

18. ANIMISM

Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all  have a distinct spiritual presence. Even rocks, weather systems and certain words are considered animated and therefore alive.

Miyazaki believes people to be part of nature — this is the traditional Japanese way of thinking, unlike in other major world religions, in which humans (specifically male humans) are thought to be at the top of some tree of life, with animals placed her for our own use.

19. HILLS, VALLEYS, COVES AND CLIFFS

Miyazaki’s films rarely take place on flat landscapes. Japan, too, outside the megacities, is hilly. In stories, these features of land elevation are symbolic.

20. WEATHER AND EMOTION

Human sensibility is also conveyed via the weather. Rain, wind, sunshine — these mirror the emotions of the characters. This is called pathetic fallacy.

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How the Films of Hayao Miyazaki Work Their Animated Magic, Explained in 4 Video Essays