“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.
Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.
Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.
What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”
A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
Suddenly the boy hides his face.
The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.
Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind? It is the father with his child. He grasps the boy in his arm. He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.
My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully? “Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there? The Erl-King with his crown and train?” My son, it’s a streak of mist.
But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy — daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.
RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING
The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.
[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman
Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.
Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.
But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.
Edward Hopper was a master at depicting loneliness with paint. The sense of isolation is achieved with colour and composition. Eyes don’t meet, or not at the same time. Body language is closed off. Figures are small inside vast spaces, their heads far from the top of the canvas, They gaze from windows as if longing for connection. Edward Hopper did not call this emotion ‘loneliness’, however:
Why did Hopper not want to talk about loneliness? Perhaps he wanted to avoid conflating ‘loneliness’ with ‘isolation’ and in this he was right, as shown by more recent psychological research.
There is only a weak correlation between social isolation (not seeing others) and loneliness, so we don’t necessarily need to fear becoming lonely.
“Liverpool Art & Illustration – markmyink” has this to say about Hopper’s Automat painting:
Automats were open at all hours of the day and were also ‘busy, noisy and anonymous. They served more than ten thousand customers a day.’ Moreover, the woman is sitting in the least congenial spot in the entire restaurant for introspection.
‘They were clean, efficient, well-lit and – typically furnished with round Carrera marble tables and solid oak chairs like those shown here – genteel.’
By the time Hopper painted his picture, automats had begun to be promoted as safe and proper places for the working woman to dine alone.
Another artist who similarly depicts loneliness is O. Louis Guglielmi. The painting below includes a girl playing alone, an empty chair on a balcony and a street mostly devoid of decoration.
Alain de Botton doesn’t like the concept of ‘single’ versus ‘in a relationship’. He instead prefers to think of ‘connected’ people and ‘disconnected’ people. This makes more sense because you can still feel lonely even when ‘in a relationship’. Simply having people nearby doesn’t quell loneliness; it really is all about connection.
A CATEGORISATION OF LONELINESS
Not everyone means the same thing when talking about loneliness. At The Spinoff, Holly Walker uses the following categories:
EMOTIONAL LONELINESS: related to the lack or loss of an intimate other
SOCIAL LONELINESS: feeling unconnected to a wider social network, such as friends, family, and neighbours
EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS: related to a feeling of lacking meaning and purpose in life.
A good example of a story about existential loneliness: Taxi Driver. Tagline: On every street in every city in this country, there is a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. I believe this particular type of ‘loneliness’ is connected to the feeling that no one is paying attention to you. In stories it frequently leads to a character doing something for attention.
HIGH LONELINESS (5.7%). This group comprise the most introverted, emotionally unstable and score poorest in wellbeing. This is a much smaller percentage than some other loneliness studies would suggest, but it depends where researchers draw the loneliness line. Chronic loneliness has a very real effect on health, affecting every kind of mortality, impacting sleep.
LOW LONELINESS (57.9%). These people don’t really feel lonely at all. This NZ percentage reflects UK and USA statistics.
APPRECIATED OUTSIDERS (29.1%) Appreciated outsiders receive acceptance from others but feel like social outsiders. These people experience experience and support in the social connections that they do have.
SUPERFICIALLY CONNECTED (7.2%) The superficially connected are the opposite to ‘Appreciated outsiders’. They have many ‘friends’ but do not enjoy close connections with many or any of them. This group had moderate wellbeing, but ‘appreciated outsiders’ are relatively higher in wellbeing despite greater introversion and neuroticism.
Hannah Hawkins-Elder explains that in reality loneliness is more of a spectrum because all of us feel lonely at different times. Loneliness forces us to seek social connection, so this is an important emotion, drawing us back into society.
LONELINESS AND AGE
Young adults (18-24 year olds) tend to score highest on loneliness in general, followed by the elderly and people with chronic health issues, neurodiversities and similar. British people feel most alone at the average age of 37, which may be quite an arbitrary age.
People look to social media for encouraging loneliness in young people. Social media enables a high quantity of friends but does not encourage authenticity. It’s easier to wear a mask online. We see everyone’s well-lit shop window on the Internet, not their messy storerooms. That said, social media apps are changing in a way which aims to do a better job at fostering authentic connections online, for example by encouraging sharing and chat between smaller groups of people who know each other well.
The 18-24 age is a very liminal, volatile time when we are still forging our own identities. We are quite often leaving home or moving cities, starting new work where we lack confidence. Connecting with others has the prerequisite for finding your people, so we must all understand who we are as people before forging deep, close personal connections. This takes time, and social media aside, may explain why young people are the loneliest demographic. However, this theory requires more research.
LONELINESS IN FICTION
LONELINESS AND THE IMAGINATION
Other people are so necessary to our mental health that when we have no people around us, we start to hallucinate.
Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.
LONELINESS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
All stories about friendship start from a place of loneliness. Since many children’s stories are about friendship, many start off with lonely main characters. This explains why the trope of the child moving houses is so enduring — everyone is lonely when they move to a new place, faced with the daunting task of starting friendships from scratch.
Fern is alienated from her farming family The Arables for caring too much about pigs, but soon makes barnyard friends. Initially her mother is worried about this, but the doctor reassures the mother that animal friends are just fine. Whatever it takes to quell the loneliness.
Picture books are less about loneliness than middle grade literature, though all small children experience a kind of loneliness after being required to sleep alone in their own bed. There exist many Western picture books about that particular experience. Tropes include monsters under the bed and imaginative trips into the night, with carnivalesque guests who may or may not be imaginary. The postmodern picture books of Anthony Browne have a lonely aesthetic (see for example Gorilla), though these picture books tend to appeal to an older audience.
In his collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, Richard Yates includes a short story about a boy who starts at a new school and becomes ostracised by his peers, helped to fit in by his well-meaning young teacher. So far, so good — you might read it to your child and they’d understand every beat. But why is “Glutton For Punishment” a short story for adults? By the end this young boy has lost the support of his teacher as well as his peers. His loneliness looks set to continue. We don’t accept that ending in stories for children, which must end with hope and at least one friend to quell the interminable loneliness.
LONELINESS AND FICTIONAL MEN
We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated in a controversial 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. I would like to know why so many more male participants than female participants preferred the electric shocks.
Like children’s stories, many fictional narratives for adults are also about loneliness followed by a happy ending of friendship, though in stories for adults, some stories end on loneliness, with no relief in sight. This marks a difference between the sort of narrative accepted for adult readership versus those accepted for child readership. A story which begins and ends with loneliness is considered a tragedy.
Hud based on the novel by Larry McMurtry is a good example of that kind of tragedy.
Hud is an excellent example of a character who cannot form deep connections because he plays by the rules of toxic masculinity. He cannot form a close connection with a woman because he uses them and assaults them. He cannot form a close connection with his father because he is in direct competition with him for patriarchal control of the farm. Ditto for his nephew, who initially looks up to him.
The Wrestler is another excellent peek into male loneliness, though again, this story is a tragedy.
There’s another type of story which so far predominantly stars men: The story of the man who gets himself a doll. There are two standout examples of this in film: Her and Lars and the Real Girl.
THE SPECIFIC LONELINESS OF THE MIDDLE AGED WOMAN
The “Sex Machine” episode of the Hidden Brain podcast outlines the history of sex objects, going back to Prometheus who created humanity from clay. Likewise, Pygmalion seemed to enjoy fashioning women to his own tastes (he carved a woman out of ivory) and we see the influence of that ancient myth in modern storytelling.
Most middle-aged women are surrounded by people, partly because of the extra caregiving duties experienced by women in midlife (for both children and elderly parents) and also because more women tend to work in people-oriented roles such as nursing and teaching and human resources.
Though she didn’t use this terminology, Irish author Marian Keyes explained on the How To Fail podcast that she feels like an appreciated outsider much of the time, and the main character of Grown Ups is also an appreciated outsider, a fifty-year-old woman who gets social gatherings organised, pays for them, does the dishes at a party and ultimately feels a little like she is buying her friends by performing all this labour.
There’s a teacherarchetype who fits into the appreciated outsider category. Richard Yates also includes one of these types of loneliness in his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness collection. “Fun With A Stranger” is the character study of an end-of-career teacher who does not know how to connect with her students, though she tries to with the best of intentions. Though told from the point of view of a student, this woman’s loneliness shines through. A teacher is a prime example of a person surrounded by people, but because of the need for emotional distancing, and due to the intensity of the job, I suspect appreciated outsiders can be found in schools everywhere.
The loneliness of the performer is similar. Surrounded by people, the performer is nonetheless alone on their stage.
Katherine Mansfield wrote many lonely women across her short stories. Standouts include:
Miss Brill, who sits on her on in a park and imagines social connectedness by making up backstories about complete strangers, then returns to her room with the new understanding that she is probably too old to be married and must remain forever alone.
Linda Burnell of the Prelude trilogy is a mother living in a three-generational household yet remains interminably lonely, perhaps due to post-natal depression or similar. Beryl is unmarried and romantically lonely, though I’d argue she is less lonely than Linda, who is married to hapless Stanley. Beryl knows how to console herself with her imaginative powers.
Pearl Button is playing alone in her front yard but enjoys a lovely social day after she is whisked away by some Maori women.
In “The Doll’s House“, two girls are ostracised due to their lower social class. The sisters still have each other, however. We can extrapolate that their exclusion will forge a stronger sisterly bond.
“A Dill Pickle” is another story about an unwed woman living in genteel poverty, but she is not so lonely that she will marry just anyone.
“The Escape” features a married couple who live on different emotional planets.
In “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Rosabel goes through her life surrounded by people but utterly alone and hungry. This story highlights the inherent loneliness of a large city.
“Psychology” is a more uplifting story because an unmarried woman seems to have found a way to deal with sexual loneliness, and it involves more than one person.
When considering the symbolism of the child, pair with the elderly person, who represents the past. In popular imagination, we consider life as a circle, in which the very elderly return to a kind of childhood. Live long enough and we become transformed. We acquire a new simplicity. This idea comes from Cirlot, who thought that if you dreamed of a child, some great spiritual change would be about to take place under favourable circumstance.
Nietzsche deals with this idea in relation to the ‘three transformations’ in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche wrote about the process of spiritual transformation. He believed there were three distinct phases of self-actualisation, represented by:
The camel — the hump on its back represents your burdens, conquests and scars
The lion — in this stage you want to be free and be lord of your own desert
The child — you can’t be fully mature until you recapture the serious play which defined your youth.
Child As Angel
Children often appear as angels in Christian iconography. (This is why cherubs have wings.) But as noted in the tweet below, cherubs have a certain creepiness to them. This is because of their history as scary creatures.
The Kewpie dolls (and related merchandising) were clearly modelled on classical images of cherubs.
The Ideal Child Of The Imagination
When parents are expecting a child, the child as a personality exists only in the imagination. This lasts for a few years into parenting. I remember the words of a mother whose own child had died saying that one of the most difficult parts of this grief was, to her, seeing preschoolers. The reason she gave? This is the time in a child’s life when anything at all is still possible. We have so many hopes and dreams for our young children. We never imagine that they won’t make it to adulthood.
This theme tends to be covered in work for adult readers. The short stories “The Child” by Ali Smith and by “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry are macabre tales about how adults become disappointed in children.
However, look outside the English speaking world and you occasionally find a story for kids with this exact theme: An exploration of the difference between what a parent hopes for and what they actually get. An example is Ivory Coast picture book Le Bébé de Madame Guénon [Mrs Monkey’s Baby] published 2009.
A monkey mother worries about her friends’ reactions to the beautiful baby she has just given birth to. Will their compliments be sincere? And will their judgment be fair? Visits and compliments do not appease her anxiety: she must do everything to make her baby even more beautiful! …The story plays on the animal’s parade and the repetition of visit scenes, but its gist is indeed the terrifying anguish of mothers who dream of an ideal child.
As Diane Purkiss points out in her book Troublesome Things, ideas about the child changed in the Romantic era (approx, 1800-1850), when childhood became a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life. Childhood became the opposite of work. It was thought that the very happiest way to spend a childhood was safe, carefree in the country.
But the Romantic invention of the child as the holy innocent coincided with growing child poverty, urbanisation and child prostitution.
While Wordsworth and Dickens were extolling the purity of the child, actual children were working from dusk til dawn. Victorians were faced with reconciling this harsh reality against their imaginary, idealised version of childhood.
1840s England was especially worried about idle children, especially street children. This was a class and race issue. It was thought that without something to occupy children, they would get up to mischief.
Child As Cherub
Children originate in the Hebrew Bible as kerubim and often appear as cherubs in Baroque grotesque.
Putto is an Italian concept similar to the cherub but is not religious in origin. (The plural is putti.) The main difference is whether or not the cherubic creature has wings. Whereas all cherubs have wings, not all putti have them. In Baroque art the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God.
Some fauns are also depicted as cherubs but with hooves.
These characters are almost always boys. Significantly, the Italian word putto comes from the Latin word putus, meaning “boy” or “child” — boy as every child. (Boys are regular humans but girls are extra.)
Interestingly, the word cherub comes from kerub. Kerubim were completely different from today’s cherubs — imposing winged creatures who existed to guard the thrones of Gods and kings as well as the Mesopotamian Tree of Life. These Kerubim are described in the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament). They are scary chimeras, each with a different head: lion, bull, eagle and human. These kerubim later became symbols for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (New Testament).
This is interesting because scary mythical creatures are quite often evolved by storytellers into something much more tame and pleasant. In this case, scary winged creatures become chubby-cheeked children. In the case of scary femme-coded mythical creatures, storytellers turn them into sexual objects. Sirens are an excellent case study of this. Witches, too, are often rendered as sexy rather than scary old hags in modern storytelling.
The witch/kerubim genealogy together demonstrate how women have been disempowered, alongside children, across the history of myth: Sexually alluring young women have had their scariness stripped away. Likewise, cherubim have had their adult-sized ferocity stripped away. Iconography without ferocity is more comfortable.
Freud’s View Of Children
Influential psychoanalysts have influenced our collective view of the child.
Erich Fromm succinctly summarises Freud’s thoughts on children in general. See what you make of this:
An assumption Freud makes about the nature of dreams is that these irrational desires which are expressed as fulfilled in the dream are rooted in our childhood, that they once were alive when we were children, that they have continued an underground existence, and have come to life in our dreams. This view is based on Freud’s general assumption of the irrationality fo the child.
To him the child has many asocial impulses. Since it lacks the physical strength and the knowledge to act on its impulses, it is harmless and no one needs to protect himself against its evil designs. But if one focuses on the quality of its strivings rather than on their results in practice, the young child is an asocial and amoral being. This holds true in the first place for its sexual impulses. According to Freud, all those sexual strivings which, when they appear in the adult, are called perversions are part of the normal sexual development of the child. In the infant the sexual energy (libido) centers around the mouth, later it is connected with defecation, and eventually it centers around the genitals. The young child has intense sadistic and masochistic strivings. It is an exhibitionist and also a little “peeping Tom.” It is not capable of loving anyone but is narcissistic, loving only itself to the exclusion of anyone else. It is intensely jealous and filled with destructive impulses against its rivals. The sexual life of the little boy and the little girl is dominated by incestuous strivings. They have a strong sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and feel jealous of the parent of the same sex and hate him or her. Only the fear of retribution from the hated rival makes the child suppress these incestuous wishes. By identifying himself with the commands and prohibitions of the father, the little boy overcomes his hate against him and replaces it with the wish to be like him. The development of conscience is the result of the “Oedipus complex”.
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
If Freud seemed to hate kids, bear this in mind: During the Victorian age, it was widely thought that children were wholly ‘innocent’. Children had no sexuality and were considered incapable of doing or thinking ‘bad’ things.
This was Freud trying to swing that pendulum the other way.
Jung’s Divine Child Archetype
If you’re reading a story with a child in it, and the child doesn’t seem to be a rounded person, functioning more like a bearer of ideology and ethics, this is Jung’s Divine Child archetype.
Jung noticed that all around the world we find stories about amazing children who survive against the odds:
Baby Jesus in Christianity
Child Moses in Judaism
Heracles in Greek tradition
Horus in Egypt
But the Divine Child archetype has a reach in culture outside the stories of myth and religion. Mei from Studio Ghibli’s Totoro is an excellent example of the Divine Child archetype.
How is the Divine Child different from a regular child? We might invoke Northrop Frye here, who placed characters on a continuum from heroic to stupider than the audience. The Divine Child is basically a regular kid with the ability to come through against all odds. We love stories like that.
The Divine Child can’t easily be plotted on Northrop Frye’s continuum because they are both vulnerable and invincible at once. Stories starring the Divine Child are reassuring because there is a contract with the audience from the start — although this character is sufficiently vulnerable to make a good story, their secret superpowers will allow them to win out in the end. This story will end happily.
Jung considered the child as coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness. If you dream of a child that’s meant to indicate some great spiritual change is about to take place under favourable circumstances.
The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?
Shaun Tan makes use of this trope in “The Lost Thing” (adults don’t notice what children do) but inverts it for “Rules of Summer” (in which children are too busy arguing and watching TV to really enjoy the magic of a summer childhood).
There is some realworld truth to the idea that children see things adults cannot. Professor Alison Gopnik specialises in child psychology. In this podcast from All In The Mind, Gopnik explains exactly how children are better at noticing than adults. Babies and young children are built to explore the world and learn about it, whereas adults have better control of our focus. Therefore, as humans grow older, we become less good at learning about the world and better at executive functioning. Our powers of observation diminish accordingly.
Child As Heroic Figure
The heroic child liberates the world from monsters. A lot of picture books feature this kind of child. Mostly they are ridding their own minds from imaginary monsters rather than saving The World, but within the world of the story these monsters do exist.
A child is a small person. He lingers small just for a while, then he becomes an adult. He grows up without even noticing it.
Beatrice Alemagna, What is a child?
Child as Coward
Go back to the Ancient Greeks, however, and they thought that cowardice separated adult from child: Adults were brave, children were cowardly. Socrates pointed out that our fears originate in childhood, and that we fear death because the child in us is frightened of hobgoblins.
In other words, if an adult is frightened, it must be the ‘child within’, not the actual adult. In many cultures and subcultures, fear is not an acceptable emotion for an adult to express. The closest we can come is to attribute fear to an inner child.
Ancient thinkers really did think that fear was a demon, and in order to escape fear, one had to escape actual demons.
Child As Eternal Life
Alchemy is an ancient art practised in Ancient Egypt, China, India and more ‘recently’ in medieval Europe. Alchemy concerned with two main things: working with real substances and working on one’s own spiritual / personal development / enlightenment. It was highly secretive and full of symbolism. At the heart of this art is the belief that there exists a mysterious legendary substance called the philosopher’s stone. This object is said to transform base metals such as lead into gold.
In Alchemy, the child wearing a crown or regal garments is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone. Important: the gold itself isn’t just gold — the gold symbolises enlightenment and eternal life.
It makes sense that children become associated with eternal life because if it were possible to never grow old, we’d probably remain as children. Although disease and circumstance does take the life of children, we associate death with old age.
The stand-out example of Child as Eternal Life is of course Peter and Wendy. J.M. Barrie did something interesting by flipping dominant ideas about the tragedy of failing to become an adult. Since antiquity, failure to become an adult had been seen as a tragedy. We see this in Greek and Roman mythology. To remain childlike is a tragedy because to remain a child is to remain forever dependent upon others. But then J.M. took that idea and flipped it — now, to become an adult was the tragedy because adulthood meant you lost your true self. It’s interesting to observe that this fantasy of perpetual childhood has been left behind (for now) to languish in the 20th century. This article explains that since copyright expired on Peter and Wendy in 2008, we’ve seen a surge of retellings in which to remain a child is rendered, almost unanimously, as dark and creepy. Peter Pan is now the villain.
Woman As Child
Patriarchy works by rendering women as children in the public imagination. Until very recently, women were considered children in the eyes of the law. It’s not difficult to find evidence of this view right across storytelling.
To make a more universal statement, however, the hero’s journey provides a classic example of the difference between men and women across mythic stories. Men leave the house, encounter a variety of friends and foes then eventually prove themselves in battle. He’ll have weapons of some kind at his disposal.
The female corollary is childbirth. The heroine of these stories never leaves home. She has no weapons at her disposal, entirely vulnerable to her own physiology. The pregnant and birthing woman’s vulnerability renders her childlike. In both stories, the man and the woman come close to death. Both offer up their bodies for the sake of some greater good. But because the hero gets weapons, gets to make decisions, he is afforded symbolic autonomy.
Take a close look at how weapons are used in stories, who gets them, who uses them. Next, consider the genealogy of modern gun culture.
Header image: William Blake’s David Delivered out of Many Waters, c.1805. It is an illustration to Psalm 18, in which David (at the bottom of the image with his arms stretched wide) calls out to God for salvation from his enemies. Christ appears above, riding upon seven cherubim (angels), not one as in the text.
“Psychology” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, redolent with sexual tension which unexpectedly morphs into something else at the end. As expected from the title, the bulk of the story comprises a character’s interiority. After first setting the mood, Mansfield gets right into a woman’s feelings. Yet do we feel we know her? We must read between the spaces, what I call ‘Mansfield Gaps’. Everyone fills the gaps differently in a lyrical short story; this is my interpretation.
Katherine Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Mansfield’s stories, when taken as a whole, show that there are many pitfalls in love.
“Psychology” is an exploration into the emotional variability that goes hand in hand with intimacy. This variability is also pronounced in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.
Fear of Engulfment
This is all related to what commentators have called Fear of Engulfment. An excellent example of a Fear of Engulfment story is “The Frog Princess“, in which a young woman is terrified of being trapped by matrimony and the ensuing (forced) pregnancy. This is a fear specific to people with child-bearing capacity, and many stories have cropped up to try and assuage this fear, or to persuade young women that everything will be all right, or at least, that they are not alone in this particular fear.
Is “Psychology” a Fear of Engulfment story? Quite possibly. A woman of reproductive age risks much in an era lacking reliable birth control, let alone social welfare payments for unwed mothers. Then there’s the intense social ostracisation.
Safer instead to develop a taste for The Erotics of Abstinence, replacing the sensual pleasures of sex with that of cake, augmented with a nice cuddle with your Auntie Virgin neighbour.
What did Katherine Mansfield think about human psychology?
William James was a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion. Previously it had been thought that a person’s emotion influences behaviour. Modern psychologists now know that emotion is more of an interacting cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors.
VITALISM, MODERNISTS AND CHARACTERISATION
Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self(which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?
For Mansfield, the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future. The self transforms moment by moment under the pressure of a past which breaks through into the present, and also by a future, essentially unknowable.
VITALISM, THE MODERNISTS AND TIME
In this way, vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would tip a personality into the realm of dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another.
By this view it’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that first reaction will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.) Bertha in “Bliss” is another stand-out example.
Here, too, in “Psychology”, Mansfield’s unnamed playwright spends most of the story erotically charged at the thought of an impending sexual encounter… then suddenly shifts this eroticism into something else, directed at her older female neighbour who happens to drop by with flowers, and who is portrayed as a lonely, non-sexualised eccentric.
NARRATION IN “PSYCHOLOGY”
As many critics have agreed the stories in narrational parallax are [Mansfield’s] greatest. They attempt to epitomise the complicated and multifarious world within a narrow space from a variety of positions in order to create an image of an Impressionist atomistic modern world.
Apart from the juxtapositional parallactic method of using more than two perspectives, the stories “Psychology” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” are worth mentioning, because here only two equally important perspectives are contrasted with each other and sometimes even combined into a hazy, oblique one. The contrasting or juxtaposed perspectives are often roughly similar in their degree of limitation and reliability. In “Prelude” and “At the Bay”, Linda’s and Beryl’s visions are both deluded, in their fantasies and distorted views, although they themselves regard their visions as invested with superior wisdom or social or marital respectability. No perspective is authentic or authoritative, but through the narrator’s ironic modulation between various contradictory perspectives the image of the world is confused and blurred.
The world is depicted as fragmentary, momentary. It lacks a centre. The narrator is merely a medium through which reality flows into words. Mansfield’s ironic use of juxtaposition and contrast suggests that man’s experience of the world is multi-faceted and that is what marks this particular modulation as Impressionist in concept. In “At the Bay”, ironic narrative juxtaposition is employed, contrasting the preoccupations of the different characters, Kezia, Beryl, Linda, Mrs Fairfield, Stanley, and Jonathan with the minor ones. Juxtaposed to their restrictive views are the narrative intrusions, the detached philosophical and pastoral framing by the narrator, and occasional general narrative comments.
the author’s intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.
The effect of these ‘shafts of light’ by means of ‘the coloured glass’ suggest the different moments of great intensity, varying in significance according to the perspective from which they are seen. The reader is led to consider the preoccupations of the different characters, sometimes from both an oblique abstract view and sometimes from one which identifies closely with the characters’ situations. This is one of the impersonal and objective ways in which Mansfield was able to reconcile intrusive narratorial passages with the restrictive assumptions of Literary Impressionism.
Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren
SETTING AND SYMBOL WEB OF “PSYCHOLOGY”
FIRE AS EMOTIONAL STATE
As you read “Psychology”, notice how Mansfield uses fire as a metaphor for desire. The verbs could equally describe the feeling in a lover’s heart.
He ‘came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.’
‘Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light.
‘She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade’
‘Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered‘
‘That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn’t they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores.’
Also take note of the colours in this story. Mansfield emphasised colour and related it to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something.
Colour images fall into two basic categories:
Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and
Images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state.
Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)
The orange of the lamp and the flame in this room, the red chairs, the blue of the chair and teapot — these are complementary colours. Why complementary? The playwright’s two types of intimate experiences are are equally complementary, meaning they are opposites but also perfectly matched.
If we crudely divide selves into public, private and secret, Mansfield was especially interested in the secret self, and in this story she uses the actual phrase ‘secret self’, showing that she must have thought in these terms.
Their secret selves whispered: “Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?”
The exact nature of the ‘secret self’ is left to the reader’s interpretation. Clearly, from the body language, from the fact that a man is visiting a woman’s private rooms, checking they won’t be disturbed, these two are getting ready for some kind of erotic experience together.
But why does the playwright hold back? That part is left for the reader to extrapolate. I am taking the era into heavy account, as well as Mansfield’s own life. Biographers believe that Mansfield had at least one abortion. Penetrative sex with men was risky for almost any young woman living in a pre-birth control era.
It seems the playwright of “Psychology” wants an erotic experience with a man, but without the masculine, patriarchal, high-risk version of sex, which is almost certainly the kind he expects.
The playwright and the writer are romantic opponents. He smiles in ‘a naive way’. Why naive? Perhaps he came for the transcendent experience with cake, not realising the playwright is getting far more out of this moment than high tea.
POTENTIAL, TRANSITIONAL SPACE
What does it mean to be a ‘romantic opponent’? Much has been said about the mind-meld that takes place in this particular story, referring to how two minds become one.
Donald Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who came up with a concept known as ‘potential’ or ‘transitional’ space. At first I wondered why the man is talking about a little boy. Which little boy? (Is he into little boys…?) But no, commentators have gone into that.
…touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy’s head… I love that little boy
Apparently the little boy is to be coded as a ‘symbolic object’. The (non-existent!) ‘little boy’ exists in the transitional space between the man and the woman. This space both separates and unites them. When the man imagines he touches the boy’s sleeping head, he sees it happening only inside his head. Touching but not touching. This is how Mansfield creates both distance and closeness between two characters at once.
NEIGHBOUR AS SECONDARY ROMANTIC OPPONENT
The virginal neighbour may not in fact be virginal. Mansfield’s style of narration moves in and out of a main character’s head — it’s up to the reader to decide which details are veridical fact and which are character interpretations. ‘Virginal’ is how the neighbour strikes her.
But this ‘virgin’ drops in with flowers quite often. In Mansfield’s other stories, for instance in “Carnation“, flowers are connected to eros, including between women. When we offer another person flowers we are encouraging them to enjoy a sensual experience, be it from colour, smell, texture of the petals. An offering of flowers feels almost like a check: “Are you capable of enjoying a sensual experience? How about one… with me? At some point? Maybe?”
Has the playwright already realised this about the neighbour? Doesn’t really matter. She realises it later, I think.
By the way, the violets, like the ‘little boy’ are thought to be another ‘transitional object’ which distance the two women as well as bringing them together. ‘Even the act of breathing was a joy’, she says. I have no idea what it’s like to live with tuberculosis, especially while being a smoker (as Mansfield was) but I can imagine Mansfield felt a special pleasure in easy breathing.
It’s clear the playwright has invited the writer to her room, and made sure they won’t be disturbed (though she does have that neighbour inclined to pop in without notice). The playwright must trust this man sufficiently to respect her boundaries. He is not the ‘sexual conquering’ type:
For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn’t as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter — not did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals.
Nothing suggests this is a well-thought-out plan, but the playwright’s plan is this: She will enjoy the frisson of a man in her private room. She seems to want what these days may be called a queerplatonic relationship with the man.
Queerplatonic has been used to describe feelings and relationships of either/both a nonromantic or ambiguously-romantic nature, in order to express that they break social norms for platonic relationships. It can be characterized by a strong bond, affect, and emotional commitment not regarded by those involved as something beyond a friendship.
“if you’d picture romance with taper candles over dinner, and sexual relationship as a queen bed, I would try picturing the queerplatonic as string lights over tea and a bunk bed with tin can-and-wire phones between them. The same, but not.”
Mansfield tended to leave anagnorises off the page. They happened between the gaps.
In the gaps of “Psychology”, the playwright does seem to realise something, though in true modernist style, she probably doesn’t fully understand it.
The stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn’t time to glance back.
She seems to realise that she can have a rounded and satisfying emotional-sexual experience with a combination of hot guy followed up with a cuddle from her virginal older female neighbour. She’s getting one type of erotic stimulation from the man, and another complementary (though completely different) sort of care from the neighbour.
On the page, it is the neighbour who realises something. “Then you really don’t mind me too much?” she asks showing that, until this moment of shared tenderness, she’d been doubting her value in the playwright’s eyes.
Perhaps the playwright and the neighbour will forge a closer friendship after this beautiful embrace.
It’s also possible that once the playwright has come down from her erotic high, lit by her time with the man and seeping into her moment with the neighbour, the playwright will feel uncomfortable with the neighbour — who seems to want more — and shrink away. Earlier in the story she has compared herself to a snail, who retreats into its shell, so I think this extrapolation is equally likely.
Header painting: Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman
Psychic numbing is at play when a story about one empathetic character trapped in a concentration camp is more likely to induce tears than a documentary offering an overview of Nazi Germany, even though the mass murder of many should logically be more upsetting than the murder of an individual.
Psychic numbing is why the vast majority of stories focus on one main character, perhaps alternating points of view, but focusing on one at a time. Increased popularity of the close third person viewpoint, replacing a more omniscient point of view favoured by writers of the 1800s, suggests modern storytellers are more aware of this human tendency.
Think of the novels and films that have brought you to tears. Chances are, those stories were about an individual rather than an entire population.
Think of a time when you were affected by someone’s situation in real life. More likely than not, that person seemed alone in the world.
Garry Frost from the New Zealand/Australian band Moving Pictures is the writer of the song “What About Me?” Frost was in a corner shop one day and saw a young boy with autism trying to buy something. The boy was struggling to communicate what he wanted and kept getting pushed to the back of the line.
Saddened and appalled by this, Garry Frost went on to write the iconic song.
While storytellers understand the phenomenon of psychic numbing in order to tell resonant stories with empathetic main characters, we should all be aware of this cognitive bias. We can’t exactly live happily in a world of constant bad news without an ability to turn off empathy. We’d be emotional wrecks without it.
Unfortunately, the terrible downsides of this human ability can be catastrophic. See The Arithmetic of Compassion, a website which exists to combat the negative consequences of psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and the prominence effect.
Header painting by Sir Luke Fildes – The Widower 1875-76
Academics who study different cultures have come up with various ways of taxonomising those cultures. Some of those grand theories are pretty well-known among laypeople. I’m familiar with the axes of individuality, collectivism, e.g. family oriented vs individualistic. You also get hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.
Recently I listened to cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand talk about her theory of ‘loose’ vs ‘tight’ societies on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.
This spectrum refers specifically to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. We don’t often recognise the rules that are all around us until someone breaks them.
LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE
Are you living in a tight or in a loose society?
Would you avoid crossing the street when the little flashing man remains red, even if there are no cars coming?
Are you fined for littering, chewing gum or for leaving dog poo on the street?
Are you currently dressed in almost identical clothing to the people around you?
Do the city clocks each display the same time?
If so, you’re probably in a tight culture.
Gelfand tells us that the most successful societies tend to sit somewhere between loose and tight.
It’s not just societies we can describe as loose or tight, but each of us living within our society sits at a slightly different point along the spectrum. Situations also vary in tightness — a job interview is a ‘tighter’ situation whereas a party with friends is a ‘looser’ situation.
This metric is independent from other variables like economics and political leaning. Tightness tends to be positively correlated with collectivism but there are many tight, individualistic societies e.g. Switzerland. Brazil is the inverse — they value family but have looser norms.
Looser cultures have more tolerance for difference. This includes tolerance for people of different races and religions. Looser cultures are more open to change, more creative and also have more crime.
Tight cultures are more ethnocentric, have more cultural inertia and less creativity.
EXAMPLES OF LOOSER SOCIETIES/contexts
New York, USA
Public parks (tighter in Pakistan than in the USA)
Rural areas in China
EXAMPLES OF TIGHTER SOCIETIES/contexts
North Carolina, USA (honour cultures tend to be pretty tight)
Singapore (known as the ‘fine country’ — you can get fined for chewing gum)
Urban areas in China
Why do some countries evolve tighter? It depends on how much threat that culture has endured historically, whether from chronic natural disasters (Japan) or from war, or from population density. Singapore is so tight to allow so many people to live together. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive. However, diversity can override population density when it comes to settling at a point on this continuum. New York is also densely populated but unlike Singapore is loose. Mobility is another lever towards looseness.
Freedom to break rules is not just a geographical thing — it’s also a socio-economic thing. Within the same societies, richer people tend to value individuality while poorer people tend to value conforming to social rules. This is because when rich people break rules, the rule breaking itself is interpreted differently, with far more leniency.
NEW ZEALAND VS JAPAN
I love Gelfand’s theory of culture — it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in New Zealand, rarely leaving New Zealand until the age of 17 when I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan. The hardest thing to adapt to was the tightness of Japanese society. I found the differences fascinating:
In New Zealand no one cared if we walked down the street eating a sandwich. In Japan however we were given strict instructions not to eat in public. An exchange student had the previous year got into big trouble for eating bread at the school train station.
In New Zealand I had worn mufti (free choice) clothing in senior high school. In Japan, my host mother requested I avoid wearing my very comfortable, bright red corduroy trousers because ‘people would talk’. In New Zealand, if you’re feeling a bit chilly you put on long sleeves and long pants. In Japan, there are set days when you are supposed to switch from summer to winter clothing and vice versa.
In New Zealand, small talk has no particular script. There are certain safe topics, such as the weather, but there is not the stock of ‘set phrases’ that has evolved in Japanese. When you write a letter in Japanese, it is mandatory to open with a poetic phrase about the weather. It is also mandatory to include two pieces of paper in the envelope even if you’ve only written on one.
I could list many, many more examples of the differences between New Zealand and Japan’s social norms. Overall, I think the extremely circumscribed lifestyle required of Japanese people is what ultimately sent me back to live the rest of my adult life in the West. Fascinating as these differences are, I prefer living in a looser society long term. These days I live in Australia, which I imagine is similar to New Zealand, leaning loose.
Tight and loose are dynamic constructs. It’s possible that after the mass shooting incident in Christchurch recently that my hometown has veered a little tighter than before.
Tight/looseness is a concept Gelfand prefers to reserve for describing societies rather than individuals because the terminology can get confusing once we start using the same word to describe both. (That’s what happened to the word ‘collectivist’, which is applied to both societies and to individuals.) When describing individuals, be mindful of an important distinction — we’re referring to mindsets rather than ‘personalities’.
Psychologists can do experiments that make people tighten up — all we need is a perceived threat and we tighten up. However, it takes a lot longer for tight mindsets to loosen up. Psychologists are currently trying to work out a way of loosening up a society that has become too tight to allow for adaptability.
SOCIAL NORMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”
During her interview with Carroll, Gelfand mentions picture books, which got me thinking about whether picture books, as a corpus, swing loose or swing tight.
Elmer is the story of a patchwork coloured elephant. Do you remember how Elmer ends? Hint: The story does not end with Elmer painting himself grey in order to fit in.
Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.
Other examples of picture books in which the reader is encouraged to break the mould:
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch
Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds
A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
Gelfand uses American muppet characters to illustrate various loose vs. tight personalities, with Bert (or Ernie and Bert) at the tight end, Animal at the loose end.
Bert doesn’t even want to play a simple guessing game. Animal, on the other hand, performs Bohemian Rhapsody on stage and doesn’t bother getting the words right.
In 1990s Japan, it’s telling of the tightness that there was a TV game show in which the contestants had to perform a pop song from memory without getting a single word wrong.
The following is a topic for someone’s PhD, but I put it to you that people who write for children and who are drawn to children’s publishing tend to swing loose, compared to their surrounding culture. The big publishing houses in America cluster in New York, which swings loose. If they were clustered in Alabama, we’d probably see children’s books swing slightly tighter.
Instead of looking at the geographical spread of publishing houses, safer to look at the stories themselves. What is the dominant ideology regarding following the rules? Gelfand has noticed many picture books place emphasis on Being Yourself. But who, exactly, has the luxury of being themselves?
In tight cultures such as Japan, children are taught to be keen self-monitors, to look at their own actions and be aware of how they are fitting in. Structure and conformity is prioritised in these societies.
In loose cultures, children (and adults alike) need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. In loose cultures we are going to encounter a lot of unexpected behaviours and weird situations. Picture books such as those listed above seem to have a message which teaches children to be comfortable with ‘weird situations’. To encounter a patchwork elephant is the ultimate weird situation, picked as metaphor for looseness by David McKee.
MIGHT SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT A CHILD’S RESPONSE TO A PICTURE BOOK?
Socio-economic difference in regards to social norms can be seen in children by age three. Working class parents teach their children that rules are important. Upper class kids are more likely to laugh when puppets in a lab break the rules.
I refer you now to the great corpus of carnivalesque children’s books. With Gelfand’s research in mind, might carnivalesque stories be decidedly middle class?
SOCIAL NORMS AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
The ideology of looseness = good persists right through the age-range of children’s books, intensifying in young adult literature. Below is a rare critique of this ideology, by someone who lives in New York (a loose city), but whose biography shows was educated at a private girls’ college in Pennsylvania (possibly tight):
“Not like the other kids” is a dangerous ideology, and it’s one that constantly gets peddled, especially to the kinds of teens who are choosing to spend their free time reading YA novels. Out of all the toxic ideas I believed as a teenager, this is probably the one that I’m still struggling the most to get away from. And it’s not one I’m happy to see repeated in literature, or in the communities discussing literature.
But the protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist if they were just like all the other kids. Would they?
Gelfand has a tight-loose mindset quiz that you can take on her website. (As would be expected for someone who grew up in New Zealand and later experienced Japan, I scored ‘moderately loose’.)
More on some of the books listed above…
PEARL BARLEY AND CHARLIE PARSLEY BY AARON BLABEY
Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.
SUNDAY CHUTNEY BY AARON BLABEY
This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.
Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.
Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)
A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.
I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.
Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.
The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.
WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR WORLD? BY BOB GILL
This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.
I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.
(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)
NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED BY MO WILLEMS
I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.
In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.
LUKE’S WAY OF LOOKING BY NADIA WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATED BY MATT OTTLEY
Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.
One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.
Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.
Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.
GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE BY GILES ANDREAE ILLUSTRATED BY GUY PARKER-REES
The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.
This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.
LA COSA PIU IMPORTANTE BY ANTONELLA ABBATIELLO
The most important thing for the rabbit is having long ears, but the giraffe doesn’t agree: it is better to have a long neck to reach the most supple leaves on the top of the trees, isn’t it? That’s how a passionate discussion among the animals of the forest starts, during which each one of them celebrates their own main feature as the best that one could have.
Meanwhile the pictures consequently modify the appearance of the participating animals bestowing the praised feature to each of them. It is only thanks to a wise owl that the animals are persuaded to stop their crazy game of imagining themselves all the same, and each one finally starts to feel important for their own peculiarities. … [This book] represents an invitation to look at diversity as a richness.
Picture books as listed above teach children ‘You are fine the way you are’. Closely related: the instruction to just be yourself. Underlying this message is the ideology that there is such a thing as the One True Self.
Is there such a thing? And even if there is, might these ideas stop being useful after a certain age?
Act Like Someone Else
In an interview on the Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams [milkshake duck], dismisses the common advice to ‘just be yourself’ whenever you’re faced with a difficult situation in which you don’t feel confident. Instead, he advises to act like someone else. He argues that everyone acts all the time, according to how they think they are expected to perform.
What do you think of this advice?
Do you think you have an ‘essential self’?
If so, when does this essential self come out? Are some people better at acting parts than others?
How do you think you are at acting the role that is expected of you? Do you think that people who can act the part end up doing better overall than those who can’t/don’t?
Does the expectation to act different parts according to circumstance vary from culture to culture?
We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works so we embrace it.
All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin, page 2
The Problem With Expressive Individualism
In research on American high schools, one finds the idea that American schools are intertwined with notions of “expressive individualism” – the idea that human beings should find out and be true to who they really are on the inside. Might this also contribute to school shootings?
Suburban high schools, in particular, are seen by the middle class as places to accomplish expressive projects. Sociologist Robert Bulman points out, for example, how Hollywood films set in suburban settings focus on student journeys of self-discovery, while urban school films focus on heroic teachers and academic achievement. In the same vein, many suburban school shooters see what they are doing as acts of self-expression.
Reading stories of school shootings, one often finds moments in which the shooters claim that something inside, whether hatred or frustration, needed to find expression. An example of this is the manifesto left by Luke Woodham, who shot two students in 1997. “I am not spoiled or lazy,” he wrote, “for murder is not weak or slow-witted, murder is gutsy and daring.” The school became the place where Woodham thought he could express the gutsy and daring person he found on the inside.
Hollywood films share ideologies in common with children’s stories. Individuality as prized in humans is one example:
Parents and schools should place great emphasis on the idea that it is all right to be different. Racism and all the other ‘isms’ grow from primitive tribalism, the instinctive hostility against those of another tribe, race, religion, nationality, class or whatever. You are a lucky child if your parents taught you to accept diversity.
What does it mean to act ‘out-of-character’? I mean, they’re fictional, right? However they act must be who they are. Yet audiences and critics will sometimes feel that a fictional creation is acting out of character.
Likewise, the storytelling trope of the mask, much utilised in transgression comedies and thrillers, suggest that our true selves exist; if not immediately visible, they are hidden just below the surface. Very few narratives exist in which a character finds happiness at the end of the story while continuing to wear the mask.
I was once reading through a list which described common problems in short story submissions, by someone who reads a lot of amateur short stories. One plot they see a lot: A calm, sensible, normal character suddenly snaps. Maybe the main character is on a train, another passenger is smacking gum, the main character gets really annoyed with this, perhaps they’re angry about something else; they transfer the violence and whop the other passenger over the head. The end.
PROBLEMS WITH THE ‘THEN-HE-SNAPPED’ ENDING
It’s not saying much of interest about humankind.
It’s been done.
(Supposedly) People just don’t work like that. A character who commits a violent act will have a history of violence. This needs to be foreshadowed, otherwise the reader will feel they wouldn’t really act like that.
The example above is an extreme example of characterisation and plotting done badly, but you’ll see it in milder form if you hang around writing groups long enough.
But focusing on the third problem, is it really the case that there are ‘restrained people’ vs. ‘violent people’? Is there no situation on earth where you, personally, would not snap?
THE FOLK PSYCHOLOGY OF ENDURING CHARACTER
Why does an audience does expect fictional characters to have some sort of ‘enduring character’? Writers are influenced equally by the following folk psychology:
That people have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption:
Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.
Who lies also steals.
Who steals an egg will steal an ox.
Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.
Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.
If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behaviour should be easy. A single action will reveal an underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behaviour on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself.
FROM EXPLAINING SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR: MORE NUTS AND BOLTS FOR THE SOCIAL SCIENCES BY JON ELSTER
But of course, it’s not possible to predict behaviour. If it were, we’d live in a Minority Report society.
Folk psychology is demonstrably false.
also John Elster
All sorts of psychological experiments have been carried out to show that humans are not rational, though we do aim for rationality. I won’t summarise those here. Basically, we are irrational humans with unstable traits and little in the way of enduring character. Psychologists know that the best predictor of how a human will behave is not what sort of ‘character’ they have, but rather what sort of situation they are placed in.
Unfortunately, this idea is really hard to rely upon when writing narrative. Audiences have a more Manichaen view of human nature than most would care to admit.
The audience expects characters to have ‘character’. (I mean, it’s right there in the word.) Any storyteller thereby faces a balancing act: The creation of characters whose traits are believably stable, but not so stable as to seem unrealistic.
THE RULES OF CHARACTERISATION — AS DESCRIBED BY A SOCIOLOGIST
This is where the humanities overlap with sociological science:
The acts and utterances of fictional characters have to be intelligible. [Intelligible = it has to make sense to the audience. See its subcategories below.]
The author has to meet the twin requirements of fullness and parsimony. By ‘fullness’, a writer might talk about ’rounded’ characterisation. We often hear about that. The concept of parsimony is less explored among writers. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. It must ‘feel like it fits’. Don’t overcomplicate your character motivations, in other words.
The work must flow downhill, minimizing the appeal to accidents and coincidences. Coincidences that happen in real life often don’t work in fiction. This is a well-known phenomenon among writers. If you tell an experienced critique partner that your story is ‘based on something that happened in real life’ their heart may sink. So often, real life incidents, no matter how interesting, don’t work as fiction because they contain events that seem like contrivances when presented as fiction. When unbelievable turning points are pointed out, the beginner writer may say, “But it really happened!” as if that counts for anything. Elster encourages writers to respect the fact that readers are not finely attuned to probability theory. ‘The overall plausibility of a scenario depends much more on the plausibility of its weakest links than on the number of links. I believe the author should respect this particular quirk of the readers, since it prevents him from resorting to facile but unlikely coincidences.’
The work must offer a psychologically gratifying pattern of the buildup and resolution of tension. This blog is all about the aforementioned ‘psychologically gratifying pattern’. You can find it explained here.
SUBCATEGORIES OF INTELLIGIBILITY
Elster also explains that intelligibility can be absolute or relative. Intelligibility can also be global or local.
Absolute intelligibility: Can any human being behave in this way?
Relative global intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this particular fictional person consistent with the overall character the author has already set up?
Relative local intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this fictional person consistent with earlier behaviour the author has already set up?
The requirements of absolute and of relative local intelligibility are crucial constraints on authorial rationality. But relative global intelligibility is not a constraint. In fact, if an author lets relative global intelligibility constrain the work, it may be seen by the audience as an aesthetic flaw.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be fully paid up social scientists in order to understand all this, because TV Tropes explains it in layman’s terms:
Real people will not always behave in the most expected way, and indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a fictional character to behave any more consistently. Depending on the general circumstances, immediate situation, and who is around, the mildest individual can just snap.
Some types of stories require a hero who acts uniformly bravely, as in a thriller, or uniformly comically, as in a sit-com.
So-called literary fiction can overcome the audience expectation that character is global. Dostoyevsky is known as an author who disregarded the folk psychology of character consistency. His characters change their behaviour depending on the situation they are in, which is the most ‘real’ depiction of humanity available to us in a work of fiction.
Can you think of more modern stories in which characters behave according to the situation rather than according to some folk psychological concept of global character?
The Expectation Of Character Consistency In Children’s Literature
It’s unlikely your first example is from the world of children’s literature. Audiences may have less time for local versus global intelligibility in stories for children:
Consistency implies that a literary character cannot have contradictory traits. Neither can characters behave in a manner incompatible with what has already been revealed about them, in description, actions, or the narrator’s comments. Normally we place a higher demand for consistency on literary [fictional] characters than on real people. Since children’s literature is generally didactic, we place still higher demands for consistency on children’s literature characters. Characters must be understood from the text alone; therefore, any radical deviation in the way a character is presented will be perceived by readers as an artistic flaw.
Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature
Folk psychology is something we must resist, in our real lives and in our reactions to fiction, because it is hugely liberating to understand that situations rather than enduring characteristics are key to behaviour. It is especially important when coming to grips with the situations of historically marginalised groups.
“Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.
For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter.Significantly, McCullers still liked this story after it was unearthed, and even though she had clearly grown more sophisticated as a writer. Many writers look back on their early work and cringe. Eleanor Catton can no longer enjoy The Rehearsal, for instance, saying she no longer writes in that style.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “SUCKER”?
Sucker is the nickname of a gullible 12-year-old boy — symbolically nicknamed, of course. Later in the story, Sucker will lose this insulting nickname, which will signal the shift in power dynamics. Sucker idolises his older cousin, Pete, who is not very nice in return. They have grown up in the same house, more like brothers than cousins. The age of twelve is pretty magical, in storytelling and in real life — people change a lot around this time. And so does Sucker in this story. He realises that his cousin Pete is not a good role model.
NARRATION OF “SUCKER”
You might expect such a plot to have been written from Sucker’s point of view, but no. This is all narrated by the sixteen-year-old cousin and reads like a catharsis in which Pete wrestles with his feelings of being adored while adoring someone who ignores him. Shit travels down, as they say.
Although Pete is sixteen at the time the story takes place, he must have had a little time to process all of this by the time he’s written it down. Storyteller narrators are like that — the reason for writing the story is to learn something. In the act of writing itself, they learn something. The Anagnorisis in such a story therefore occurs throughout the entire plot, and you’ll typically find wise observations scattered throughout.
The arc of looking up to someone and then realising they’re not worth your effort is well explored in literature and film. Go back to Vladmir Propp, who listed the plot point in every single classic fairytale. (See step six, in which the main character is ‘tricked’ — often into trusting the untrustworthy Opponent.)
So McCullers made an excellent choice to examine this dynamic from the idol’s point of view. We hear less about the trials of being adored.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSFERENCE
Shit travels down. That’s everyday speak for what psychologists call ‘transference‘. Freud came up with it. Transference describes a situation in which the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person.
In the case of “Sucker”, Pete is rejected by a girl he likes. So he deals with this highly uncomfortable feeling by rejecting his younger cousin in turn.
There are gender issues here, too. Boys, more than girls, are culturally conditioned to expect love and romance. Think of all those stories and computer games in which the ‘reward’ is a girl. Enter the teenage years. A few boys are so shocked to learn that a girl’s time and attention is not a god-given right that they feel a sense of injustice where they should simply feel sadness and disappointment.
Pete’s treatment of Sucker shows that he is trying to restore his own version of worldly justice by treating someone else as he has been treated.
Although Carson McCullers kept growing as an author, she demonstrated a preternaturally mature understanding of human psychology when she wrote “Sucker” at the age of seventeen. I can see why she always liked it.
Robert Phillips (1978) said of Carson McCullers’ characters that they seem fine on the surface but suffer from an “inner freaking-out”. They are “spiritual isolates of circumstance”. Themes of rejection (and unrequited love) are seen over and over, in both her novels and in her short stories. (Worth pointing out because the short stories are qualitatively different from the novels.)
Pete is at the mercy of his own feelings of unrequited love toward a girl at school called Maybelle. Because of the environment in which he’s been brought up, these uncomfortable feelings are expressed as a silent, inward rage which must come out. Since he doesn’t have access to Maybelle, the target is Sucker. Sucker’s admiration for Pete only reminds Pete of his own admiration for Maybelle. Pete therefore has a strong Moral Shortcoming, treating his cousin very badly.
Pete is uncomfortable with being admired. This is probably because he doesn’t especially admire himself. He describes himself as a poor student. He feels Sucker is very stupid for admiring him. Stupid people are annoying.
Maybelle is the romantic Opponent. Sucker is the proxy for the romantic opponent, since Maybelle is not there to heap shit on.
Proxy romantic partner is strongly suggested at various points — the boys share a bed; Sucker’s wrists look thin and white like girls’ wrists. Maybelle’s hands are similarly ‘little and white’. When Pete dreams of Maybelle, he hears Sucker’s voice — the characters become conflated. This is a kind of coitus uninterruptus trope.
When Maybelle finally musters the courage to tell Pete she’s really not interested in him (I suspect she’s been trying to avoid hurting his feelings until now), Pete wakes up in the middle of the night squeezing Sucker’s arm really hard. Then he tells Sucker he’s never liked him, in a reenactment of what Maybelle has said to him.
By the time he narrates this tale,storyteller character Pete has already achieved the following wisdom: “If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care… it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire”.
So how does the Anagnorisis phase work in a story like this, narrated by someone who has already had quite a few epiphanies, sprinkled like aphorisms throughout?
Basically, it comes much earlier. We are told of Pete’s Anagnorisis at the beginning, in fact.
But you could argue that Sucker is the main character of this story. For Sucker, the Anagnorisis comes in the expected place, right after the Battle. He realises Pete is not a worthy object of his affection and hardens up like the ‘man’ he is expected to be.
The reader can see that in the two or three months since this all happened, Pete has come to an understanding about how he treated Sucker badly. For him, the outcome isn’t bad. It’s doubtful he’ll do this exact thing to anyone else. He has started to call Sucker by his real name, Richard. This indicates a new respect. But the dynamics haven’t disappeared — they have been flipped. Now that Sucker doesn’t care about Pete, Pete suddenly cares quite a lot about Sucker.
It seems he hasn’t realised this yet, though the reader does. His Anagnorisis is only partial, as in all coming-of-age stories.
In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.
First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.
Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.
The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.
Then, the following detail stuck out to me:
She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.
— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”
Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.
A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.
Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.
What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.
Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.
Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.
And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.
So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?
I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.
We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.
This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.
Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.
“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single cafe scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.
A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down.
STORYWORLD OF “A DILL PICKLE”
“A Dill Pickle” was published in October 1917. Also in October 1917: a Revolution happened in Russia when Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. Tsar Nicholas II was executed along with his family the following year. 74 years of communism followed civil war.
The world was watching Russia. Vera’s beau keeps mentioning Russia, eventually mentioning a ‘Mind System’, but nothing about any actual political upheaval. He even insists that Russia is free from class distinctions. Ha! This is a man who focuses on small things, unable to see a bigger picture. His fastidious nature is magnified as a result. If he really understood — or even felt — the social upheaval going on in the world of 1917, he wouldn’t mind paying for cream. He is petty and, despite his privilege, dangerously apolitical.
We don’t know where the story is set, though the characters speak English and I imagine them in a London coffee house. Mention of ‘St James’s Street’ could refer to this street in London. Put yourself in street view and you’ll see there’s still a cigar shop there today! (I was surprised to see that.)
Although the coffee house where they meet in “A Dill Pickle” is decorated in faux-Japanese style, an authentically Japanese coffee house would unlikely offer a jug of cream, let alone a tall plate of fruit. All of these details feel like an ‘everywhere/nowhere’ sort of setting, which adequately reflects Vera’s romantic limbo.
Vera is named — the man is not. The man is presented as a type — an archetype. He is an upperclass white man (we can easily deduce this) with serious social shortcomings, but whose privilege has meant that over the past six years he has ‘done well for himself’. This man is exactly the sort of man Vera feels she should be marrying. She’s of the same social class, or was. When Vera mentions she had to sell her piano, we see she’s living in genteel poverty. She has less money than is required to live comfortably in her natal class. She is also desperately lonely.
Vera wants a male partner, presumably a husband. This was expected in 1917. If she doesn’t want this deep down, it is still expected, and there will be heavy social penalties for remaining single. We don’t know how old Vera is, but six years have elapsed since she last saw this man, which indicates she’s probably in her mid twenties, at least, and it’s high time she was married. “The older one grows…” (I can’t imagine a 25 year old would be complaining of cold with regards to age, unless she doesn’t have enough to eat, which is possible. Perhaps she’s more like 45.)
Vera’s plan has taken place prior to the opening of the story: Due to social pressure and loneliness she has decided to give an old beau another chance, to see if he’s changed to the point where she can seriously consider dating him now. She’ll make it as informal as possible — they’re meeting for coffee and fruit, not for dinner. That way she can make a quick getaway if everything turns to crap.
(“A Dill Pickle” feels a bit like an older, literary example of that TV reality series Back With The Ex, in which no one actually ends up back with the ex, not that I’ve watched the entire thing, or anything.)
As he spoke, so lightly, tapping the end of his cigarette against the ash-tray, she felt the strange beast that had slumbered so long within her bosom stir, stretch itself, yawn, prick up its ears, and suddenly bound to its feet, and fix its longing, hungry stare upon those far away places. But all she said was, smiling gently: “How I envy you.”
The conversation starts badly and gets worse. (I go into that below.) The final straw is when he launches into a lecture on a ‘Mind System’ he’s apparently learnt in Russia. (Men who go abroad, return home and talk incessantly about What They Have Learned must have been dime a dozen back then — humorous short story writer Saki also took the mick, for instance in “The She-Wolf“.)
In the past when they had looked at each other like that they had felt such a boundless understanding between them that their souls had, as it were, put their arms round each other and dropped into the same sea, content to be drowned, like mournful lovers. But now, the surprising thing was that it was he who held back.
Vera has learned that this guy’s gotten even more like his terrible former self. He’s no good for her, despite looking pretty good on paper. (He’s well-travelled, can afford caviar — though he complains of the cost — and he speaks in the same upper class dialect as she does.)
The reader is behind Vera, probably. We have only just met him. So after Vera leaves we are helped along with our own revelation about the character of this man. Astounded as he is, he asks the waitress for the bill right away. He’s not going to dwell on this woman. We extrapolate he’ll get over her quickly. Then he asks that he’s not charged for the cream, which points to an unattractive degree of stinginess in someone from his class. Money matters to him more than human relationships.
She had buttoned her collar again and drawn down her veil.
Given the era, Vera may have remained alone forever. An entire cohort of men her age were killed during the wars, skewing the gender balance. When she draws down her symbolic veil, what does that mean? Mansfield might be referring to the bridal veil. Another short story of hers is called “Taking The Veil”, about a young woman about to become a Bride of Christ. This tells us that Mansfield definitely considered the symbolism of the veil, as a two-way shield. Vera has clearly closed herself off, at least for the time being.
ANALYSING THE CONVERSATION
KNOWING SOMEONE, REALLY KNOWING THEM
The man doesn’t recognise Vera at first, though she recognises him immediately. This suggests he never really knew her. Or, it could be that Vera is wearing a later fashion. Women’s fashions change more obviously than men’s. But when the man exclaims “I didn’t know you”, we will learn, like Vera, that he never knew her in the first place, and is unlikely to ever know anyone. He’s too fixated on petty issues.
Despite six years elapsing, and despite him failing to recognise Vera by appearance, the man is, later in the conversation, very keen to crack on how very well he knows her. For example, he ‘knows’ how much she smokes, and though they both sit at this very table smoking the very same tobacco, his smoking is a luxury whereas hers is a ‘habit’. That puts her below him, in his eyes.
When we are in the limerence phase of love, we have a strong tendency to see only the similarities between us and the object of our affection, and to ignore all the ways in which we are different. “Oh, you like Coldplay? I also like Coldplay! We must be soul mates!!”
“And then the fact that you had no friends and never had made friends with people. How I understood that, for neither had I. Is it just the same now?”
He is the one with the ego problem, but in desperation he ascribes that problem to both of them, as if they’re both equally narcissistic:
we were such egoists, so self-engrossed, so wrapped up in ourselves that we hadn’t a corner in our hearts for anybody else.
Nope, that’s all him.
When a romantic possibility keeps telling you how very similar you are to them, they may be trying to manipulate the rate at which attraction more naturally grows. This is a man who would like to be regarded as a ‘limerant object’, to use the terminology of Dorothy Tennov. He longs to be adored in a romantic way, without offering the same in return. He may be on the narcissistic spectrum (a Mansfield speciality).
“What a marvellous listener you are. When you look at me with those wild eyes I feel that I could tell you things that I would never breathe to another human being.”
(Note the use of ‘wild’ eyes. He gleans a hint of the beast within her.)
The ‘you’re not like other girls’ speech:
“Before I met you,” he said, “I had never spoken of myself to anybody. How well I remember one night, the night that I brought you the little Christmas tree, telling you all about my childhood.
Recently I came across the term ‘depressive demon nightmare boy’ to describe the trope of the strangely attractive man with major psychological issues. This guy’s MO is miserableness. He is brooding, petulant, damaged and damaging. Though he is not supernatural, the man in “The Dill Pickle” fits this trope:
And of how I was so miserable that I ran away and lived under a cart in our yard for two days without being discovered. And you listened, and your eyes shone, and I felt that you had even made the little Christmas tree listen too, as in a fairy story.”
Hamlet is the standout O.G. of the depressive demon nightmare boy trope.
Here’s another warning sign:
“I felt that you were more lonely than anybody else in the world,” he went on, “and yet, perhaps, that you were the only person in the world who was really, truly alive. Born out of your time,” he murmured, stroking the glove, “fated.”
The man ascribes to the myth of the ‘one true love’. Or at least, pretends to, invoking ‘fate’, along with many, many stalkers and manipulators across history I’m sure.
FEMALE ACCULTURATION AND REPRESSION OF PHYSICAL SELF
For her part, Vera is playing typically feminine games. According to ‘civilised society’, real ladies are not permitted to have bodily functions. Toileting, sweating and even eating are considered unladylike. So when the man asks what she’d like, she is well-practised in not seeming eager, as if she really needs sustenance. Ladies are never greedy. ‘She hesitated, but of course she meant to’. Later, Vera feels a ‘hungry beast’ stir inside her. Contemporary television is full of characters with a ‘beast’ inside them. Nick Lowe’s The Beast In Me could have been used for any number of theme tunes apart from Tony Soprano’s: Don Draper’s, Walter White’s, the list does go on but they’re mainly men.
Occasionally though, you get a female described as ‘hairy on the inside’, as Angela Carter put it. Mostly, female characters described in this way are written by female authors, who fully understand the thin veneer of feminine civility (hence the closing veil reference!) concealing pent up rage. Unlike men, however, woman-beasts only need to walk out of a cafe to really buck the system. (Meanwhile, Tony Soprano goes on a killing spree…)
It’s well-documented that men interrupt women more they interrupt other men.
Early studies on interruptions and related phenomena seem to indicate a larger tendency on the part of men to interrupt in cross-sex conversations while in same-sex conversations no significant differences were found.
More broadly, people who consider themselves higher in the social hierarchy interrupt more often.
The participants in a conversation use a number of strategies to achieve their conversational goals. One of these goals may be to dominate other participants of the speech situation. The question whether gender or status and power is the motivating force for conversational behaviour has been resolved in favour of status and power in the literature. Most studies find that in mixed talks men tend to be more dominating than women.
One of the obvious strategies for achieving this goal, as we have seen, is the use of interruptions. Their use is generally explained by the relative power of the participants which derives from their social status. The higher incidence of interruptions, thus, is seen in the relatively high social and economic status of men.
The man interrupts Vera regularly, but because his manners dictate he offer the opportunity for her to finish whatever she started, he doesn’t see this as a problem. Manners aside, he doesn’t listen to her. Vera is old enough to know exactly when it’s happening. We don’t necessarily notice ‘normal’ patterns of speech when we are younger, because gender assymetry is the water we’re swimming in.
Despite constantly interrupting Vera, the man comments on how beautiful her voice is. This feels icky, aside from the false compliment. For him, women function as ornaments — the beauty of voice stands in for physical beauty, reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid“. He is not interested in the content of Vera’s words; he chooses only to listen to their melody. Speaking-as-background-noise, in other words. Even in a courting situation, when stakes are high, he’s not listening to his date. This does not bode well for a future partnership of equals. He’s even happy to admit he doesn’t listen to anything she says. She taught him the names of the flowers at Kew Gardens, which he has triumphantly discarded as irrelevant information rather than as a shortcoming on his part.
SORT OF LIKE GASLIGHTING BUT NOT QUITE
Initially, Vera recalls that afternoon at Kew with an overriding negative memory. The man descended into absurdity that day, waving wasps away at the tea table. But when he recalls how wonderful the day was, she decides to go along with his better memories rather than stick with the one incident which has tainted hers. This isn’t gaslightingper se, but this is a relationship in which one partner is inclined to submit to the other’s ‘correct’ take on events. We witness Vera trying her darnedest to see the good in him — his optimistic view of the afternoon is far more pleasant than hers, after all. In some ways she might be better to learn from his half-glass-full outlook on life…
But then she recalls a similar memory in which he says, “I wish I had taken poison and were about to die — here now!” He says this in a moment of happiness, and Vera reminds herself that he’s not such an optimistic type after all, that she can’t necessarily take anything away from his ‘rosier’ outlook on life. A partner who speaks of death and killing themselves at the possibility of a romantic relationship coming to an end is engaging in manipulation and coercive control.
ATTRACTION TO… PRIVILEGE (NOT TO THE MAN)
Vera acknowledges that ‘he was certainly far better looking now than he had been then….Now he had the air of a man who has found his place in life, and fills it with a confidence and an assurance which was, to say the least, impressive. He must have made money, too.’ My interpretation: He’s a white man of privilege, and despite him doing nothing outstanding to earn any of these riches, he’s been swept along in that particular tide. His upper class attitude is underscored by his use of ‘little man’ in reference to the tobacco merchant. Mansfield regularly used ‘little man’ in her stories to indicate a superior, classist attitude.
He ‘casually’ mentions ‘When I was in Russia’. Travel in those days was not as it is today. In 1917, war travel aside, visiting Russia really was exotic. Such adventures would put the man at an elevated level of worldliness, at least in his own mind. (Travelling to far-flung places doesn’t make you worldly. Developing yourself as a person and cultivating relationships makes you worldly.) He lists all the countries he has visited, thinking of travel as an achievement rather than as a privilege, then announces his plans to travel to China ‘when the war is over’. This is a man who is not part of the war. He is waiting around for it to be over. He is a privileged draft dodger, probably. This is certainly the reading a 1917 audience would have ascribed.
The man is wholly unaware of the concept of privilege. When Vera reveals that she had to sell her piano, he simply cannot understand why. “But you were so fond of music,” he wondered. He cannot imagine poverty. He has never experienced it.
“That river life […] is something quite special. After a day or two you cannot realize that you have ever known another. And it is not necessary to know the language—the life of the boat creates a bond between you and the people that’s more than sufficient. You eat with them, pass the day with them, and in the evening there is that endless singing.”
He thinks that by surrounding himself on a luxury cruise, away from the war, with other members of his class, that it is the seclusion itself which creates the bond. It’s the privilege, dude. It’s the very privilege which banded you all together on that refuge riverboat cruise in the first place. He’s got cause and effect ass-about.
Vera understands this perfectly and ‘she shivered, hearing the boatman’s song break out again loud and tragic, and seeing the boat floating on the darkening river with melancholy trees on either side’.
THE DILL PICKLE
To the man, the offer of a dill pickle from a servant to his masters symbolises equality. In reality, this offer represents false equality — another kind of veneer. A dill pickle cannot possibly bridge the socio-economic gap, not least in Russia of 1917, ffs, when an actual revolution was going down.
Vera thinks she doesn’t know what a dill pickle is, but her description of the red chilli in the jar suggests she knows exactly what they are. She is still doubting her own take on things:
although she was not certain what a dill pickle was, she saw the greenish glass jar with a red chili like a parrot’s beak glimmering through. She sucked in her cheeks; the dill pickle was terribly sour. . . .
As reader, I’m waiting, waiting, for her to realise what a turd this man is.
As title of the work, “The Dill Pickle” may have other meanings attached.
Then there’s the ubiquity of dill used to flavour food throughout Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Ukraine. The man is a self-described expert on Russia, but his expertise as confined to his own little boat, as a pickle is confined to its jar.
There’s also the phallic symbolism, but it’s easy to see phallic symbolism in everything vaguely penis shaped, so I’m not sure how far to go with that. This man has the appearance of manliness — symbolised by the phallus — but so does the dill pickle. The dill pickle is also vaguely comical, in the same way bananas are.
ASYMMETRY IN A RELATIONSHIP
Vera remembers the man’s childhood dog whereas the man had forgotten Bosun entirely. This snippet of conversation demonstrates the extent of asymmetry in their relationship. She knows things about him; he blunders on, knowing nothing and no one, not even himself. Vera has basically been fire doored, with access only one side.
Failing to understand his own self, let alone his former girlfriend, the man tries to win Vera back by launching into a lecture about a Mind System he studied in Russia. Goodness knows what that refers to. I imagine there was a popular psychological theory doing the rounds at the time, maybe something akin to neurolinguistic programming.
Sure enough, Vera is not disclosing her true feelings to the man. She smiles when she doesn’t mean it. “Not a bit,” she lies, denying he said something to hurt her. Is this a type of lying, or is it prudent?
The man feels like the 1917 version of a fedora wearing MRA, who wonders why women don’t like him.
He sat there, thunder-struck, astounded beyond words. . . .
Such men fail to understand their own part in a relationship and that bro-culture casts women as liars. The theory is, that if women were straight-up about their interest or lack of interest in a man, men would know where they stand and do a much better job of being a true partner.
But women have our own personal safety — both physical and emotional — to take care of. He has a history of making scenes in tea houses.
What, exactly, is one’s obligation when leaving a date? My answer: No one owes anyone anything. Katherine Mansfield has provided a valuable script which applies equally to modern dating. Use your intuition. If your date is truly terrible, extend basic civility, although it may mask your fear.
Then get the hell out, pull down your metaphorical veil and Don’t. Look. Back.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Mansfield was interested in probing the kinds of uncertainty that undermine (and overturn) some men’s and women’s claims to equal power. She does it here in “A Dill Pickle” and she also does it in “Something Childish But Very Natural” and in “The Stranger“.