“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.
Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.
Does a story (especially a movie) that makes us cry really offer an audience cathartic healing? Researchers say not. Studies show no improvement in mood after this kind of crying.
Professor Jennie Hudson is the director at the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Sydney, and told Jesse Mulligan at RNZ that after this kind of crying, most people report either no change in mood or a slightly worse mood than before. So much for catharsis.
So why do others report an improvement in mood after crying, in general? Professor Hudson explains that it’s all about what you do during and after your crying session. If the crying leads to increased connection with others, then your mood will improve accordingly. Crying has the evolutionary function of improving social bonds, so long as the people around the crying individual respond in a helpful way to the expression of vulnerability.
Another factor in reported improvements of mood after crying: Holding the tears when all you want to do is cry definitely makes difficult emotions feel worse. The research is clear on that.
WHO CRIES AND HOW OFTEN?
The gender gap is especially interesting.
Women cry on average 2-5 times per month. This wasn’t surprising to me, as the cultural narrative shows that women cry often.
Men cry on average once every two months. This statistic surprised Professor Hudson, and also surprised me.
A few years ago I read the first of Larry McMurtry’s Houston novels, Moving On. (Terms of Endearment is the most famous of that series.) What really started to irritate me as I ploughed my way through this gigantic novel: A few of the female characters were constantly crying, especially Patsy Carpenter. It really is constant. It feels like a writer’s tic, like Stieg Larsson and his coffee drinking characters.
I am far from the first to notice McMurtry’s tendency to write female characters who cry. When asked, he said that as far as he was concerned, when he writes women who cry frequently he is writing social realism. Growing up, he was surrounded by women who cried.
That aside, is it really true that people cry in shifts? If a character is crying, do we really think we don’t have to? Is there another evolutionary adaptation going on here, in which people rallying around a crying person spring into action rather than sympathy crying (in the same sense as ‘sympathy vomiting’)?
HOW OFTEN SHOULD FICTIONAL CHARACTERS CRY?
Although Larry McMurtry’s Patsy Carpenter annoyed the hell out of me because of all her on-the-page crying, research findings suggest McMurtry was in fact writing social realism. Unlike most writers, he chose to include the crying. Storytellers always leave things out — going to the toilet, travelling from A to B. It should be noted that McMurtry has also written men who cry, especially in his book from the same series, unsurprisingly called Duane’s Depressed. However, the macho men of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove do not cry. (None of them are on-the-page queer either, another unbelievable omission.)
After learning that men cry once every couple of months I conclude that fictional male characters cry nowhere nearly enough. If men really are crying this often, and if writers put male fictional characters through their paces, as they always do, then we should see a lot more on-the-page crying, especially from our masculo-coded characters, and especially in stories reaching for realism.
Before that happens, we need to have a few cultural reckonings about crying and empathy and likeability. Alain de Botton points out that we love people when we know their vulnerabilities and accept them regardless, not because we admire their strengths. Do we apply this to fictional characters, too?
Captain Awkward offers the following, relevant to this discussion because crying is an expression of strong emotion in general (not just sadness and grief):
The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go.
“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.
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.
ANGELA CARTER’S RE-VISIONING
Once Angela Carter gets hold of the Erl-King story, she gets rid of the daughters and instead sexually objectifies the Erl-King, handing the gaze to our narrator. (She also inverts the gender of the male gaze with various other tales in her Bloody Chamber collection.)
Most readers coming to Carter’s short story will be at least somewhat familiar with Goethe’s original, though it stands alone. This is a prospective retelling, though familiarity with Goethe’s ballad illuminates Carter’s feminist take.
I came to Carter’s “Erl-King” expecting she’d do more with the misty, windy environment, but she does much more with the autumn leaves. I thought there’d be a horse but there isn’t. Familiar with many of Carter’s other works, I thought the story might be about the Erl-King’s daughters, but my expectations were wrong.
I own an out-of-print copy of the collected short stories of Angela Carter and I think the image on this 1996 cover might depict “The Erl-King”. The character manifests a 1990s version of femme-androgyny. They are crowned like royalty. There’s a forest in the background, and the character becomes one with the dropped foliage in the foreground. This character is part human, part forest; betwixt female and male; neither real nor unreal (like any fear); both powerful and vulnerably lying back; unmistakably inviting our gaze.
CARTER’S TREATMENT OF TIME
Carter’s re-visioning takes place in a fairytale world, with a forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).
Unlike classic fairytales, Carter does give us some specificity with the time. The story opens with a rainy day in late October. This accounts for the crunchy leaves of Goethe’s ballad, of course. “Withered blackberries withered like their own dour spooks”. Blackberries are paradoxically symbolic, being both delicious and a pest of a plant, covered in thorns. Here they indicate that summer was a forest cornucopia, but now — in another example of liminality — summer is turning into winter. (The in-between seasons have liminal potential.)
The autumnal light is personified (striking the wood ‘with nicotine-stained fingers); winter is subsequently personified (it ‘grips hold of your belly and holds it tight’). The little stream has ‘grown sullen’, the trees make sounds like the taffeta skirts of women lost in the woods, and so on. This is a story in which the setting is a character in its own right. Carter takes this storytelling technique to its extreme, because The Erl-King equals the forest.
But when does this story take place, exactly? It works on ancient, fairytale time, which turns back on itself, repeats with each season (the underlying reason why Carter mentions season), and note that although Carter places us firmly in a particular season, ‘grass grew over the tracks years ago’, which reminds me of the timelessness of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. Clearly, time works differently through the gates of this forest portal: because ‘once you are inside [the wood] you must stay there until it lets you out’. There is no specificity of time in these details.
Also, the story begins in present tense and later switches to past tense, which is another way of making the switch from iterative (kairos) to singulative (chronos). (It’s done a bit differently in most children’s stories.) Kairos is all about the time of antiquity whereas chronos describes modern, linear time. Kairos is sometimes switched out for the phrase ‘mythic time’.
Notice the story opens with second-person narration, unusual outside the genre of pick-a-path adventures. In general, audiences don’t have much patience for lengthy passages of second person narration. Carter doesn’t stick with it for long — just long enough to make us feel as if we are the main characters of our own story. This forest is the subconscious, and every single one of us has one of those — this story is about all of us, and no one in particular.
The second person narration ends at mention of Little Red Riding Hood, which reminds us that this is a fairytale world. “She will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.” This is the perfect metaphor for the deep, dark subconcious; though the veridical world is nothing like our dreams, our dreams are nonetheless real to us, because we experience them as real while asleep; our fears and desires guide our actions in a very real way.
Little Red Riding Hood turns into a ‘character’ called ‘the interloper’.
Then the unseen character becomes ‘I’ before switching back to ‘you’: ‘Erl-King will do you grievous harm’, but this time the second person address is clearly ‘universal you’, something dished out as eternal advice.
SPATIAL HORROR OF CARTER’S “ERL-KING”
Writers use a variety of tricks to produce discomfort in the reader and no writer I’ve ever seen has a larger toolbox than Angela Carter. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. What’s in her toolbox?
MISE EN ABYME
Carter uses mise en abyme in “Peter and the Wolf”. She uses it here too when describing how the woods ‘enclose and then enclose again’. This mise en abyme effect is repeated in Carter’s description of the stripping of the heroine, who has several layers; first her clothes, then another layer, her ‘last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, peralised satin, like a skinned rabbit’. Then the mise en abyme reverses as the Erl-King dresses her again.
the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveler walking toward an invented distance
There’s something very Escher about that.
I am not afraid of him; only afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes hem Afraid of falling down.
Falling as a bird would fall thorugh the air if the Erl-King tied up the winds in his handkerchief and knotted the ends together so they could not get out.
The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes
THE FOREST SETTING AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE REAL WORLD
“The Erl-King” is basically an evocation of setting, but this is no ordinary forest: This is a forest of the imagination, and an allegory for how it feels to be a woman straddling that impossible dichotomy between ‘virgin’ vs ‘whore’. That’s the well-known feminist reading.
LIMINALITY AND GENDER
Carter’s Erl-King transgresses gender lines:
He goes out i the morning to gather his unnatural treasres, he handles them as delicately as he does pigeon’s eggs He makes salads He is an excellent housewife.
Carter wrote “The Erl-King” over 40 years ago in the midst of second wave activism. Fast forward to 2020 and I propose the virgin-whore dichotomy has lessened a little for women, at least in some cultures and subcultures. But there are many outworkings of liminality. These days the word ‘intersectionality’ is widely known. ‘Liminal’ in allegory might equal ‘intersectionality’ when applied to social justice activism. Carter’s liminal, feminist, gender expansive “Erl-King” remains relevant as ever.
THE GENDER OF THE NARRATOR
The Erl-King’s gender is not very important to the narrator. Commentators have assumed the narrator is female. For example, Marina Warner calls our narrator-guide ‘the heroine’, because she embodies femme-coded characteristics. This is a fair conclusion because this story is clearly a critique of prison-like matrimony. Doves settle on the Erl-King and those rings around their necks are ‘wedding rings’.
There are other intertextual clues that tell us the narrator is female. The Erl-King keeps other femme-coded characters in cages and captures this narrator. We traditionally associate birds and cages with femme-coded characters, no doubt about that. (And no story stands in isolation from its cultural context, etcetera.)
I suspect Angela Carter was very familiar with the trope of women compared to birds (and also cats). If you spend half a day looking through classic art from Europe it really stands out — young women and girls with birds, birdcages, birds all around them. In literature, women are often compared to birds via metaphor and simile. This is two-fold: A human being with an affinity for birds embodies appropriately gentle feminine attributes. Also, birds are small and vulnerable, much like women-and-children (I mindfully hyphenate that phrase).
But what if the story is more gender expansive than that? If The Erl-King transgresses gender roles, might our narrator be of any gender when re-read in the age of marriage equality?
Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly go back to Ancient Rome, when sexual identity was not contingent upon a person’s attraction to a particular gender/s, but instead on how much ‘control’ people were able to exert over their impulses (sexual, economic and so on).
Our modern focus on gender as a main determinant of our orientation and identity is very new in the history of humankind. (Michel Foucault went deep into this.) But what if we instead divided people into ‘those turned on by satin sheets’ or ‘my orientation is feather boas’ or whatever? What might we call someone turned on by their awe of personified nature? The narrator in this story is clearly aroused by the forest, which they regard as alive, personified throughout the entire story, evinced by Carter’s choice of imagery. Might attraction to ‘the power of nature’ not just as easily function as an orientation in its own right? And if you are part human, part forest, do you even have a gender? Reading this story in 2020 makes me want to throw the boundaries of gender identity and sexual orientation out the window.
Although Carter’s “Erl-King” is a lyrical exploration of setting and character (one and the same in this case), does it have a structure to speak of? First requirement: a character shortcoming.
Before looking into any moral or psychological shortcomings we need a main character. This is an example of a story in which a viewpoint character (the narrator) looks on and describes another character in great detail, in which case the very concept of ‘main character’ becomes moot.
Warner describes the narrator’s main shortcoming thusly:
Like Goethe’s poems, Carter angles the terror through the fascinated eyes of the Wellings prey. The heroine is in thrall despite herself to the woodland spirit’s feral, eldritch [sinister or ghostly] charms.
So let’s call her ‘the heroine’. We might also call her the ‘victim muse’, a Gothic archetype of the Romantic era.
The heroine may be a victim of Stockholm syndrome, in which a person falls in love (or in this case, lust) with their captor.
[A]nxiety about sexuality and the imagery of engulfment are also combined in [The Bloody Chamber]. This is particularly visible in “The Erl-King” … In the story, the protagonist dwells on her attraction to a fae figured called the Erl-King. The Erl-King captures women who stray into the woods and transforms them into birds that he keeps in cages. Despite this danger, the protagonist allows him to seduce her.
In “The Erl-King”, Angela Carter creates a man who literally transforms a woman into a bird, but this is allegory for how men typically consider women: As both gentle and vulnerable.
Is this heroine both gentle and vulnerable? I argue no, not until The Erl-King turns her into a bird and puts her inside that cage. She is brave. You have to be brave (or stupid, I guess) to enter a creepy forest all the while knowing you might not come out alive. She is also fully in touch with her erotic side, slightly wild. He tames her via the metaphorical equivalent of marriage.
So at the start of the story, the heroine/victim muse is basically horny, driven by a baser instinct. The forest is so overwhelming that she is sexually in awe of it. ‘Nature’ is her orientation. I’m reminded of a scene from Melancholia.
‘Desire’ in Carter’s “Erl-king” is both narrative and sexual. Apart from communing with nature, the narrator doesn’t want anything.
This is because they are written in the Romantic style.
In tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire is less important than mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about creating an active participant, giving them a goal then showing the audience how they go after it, foiled at every turn. Instead, Romantic characters are tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.
Angela Carter retains Romantic characterisation in her re-visioning. Like Goethe’s ballad, we know nothing about what the characters want. We don’t know where the father and son had been, for what purpose. We don’t know what the Erl-King wants with the boy (and it doesn’t bear thinking about). I suspect contemporary audiences of Goethe would not have even asked why the Erl-King wanted the boy; nor would they have asked why Rumpelstiltskin wanted a firstborn in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Babies, especially boy babies, were considered desirable alongside gold. Everyone wants gold and everyone wants a baby. This is assumed fact.
The heroine knows that the Erl-King (nature) could kill her. She seems to believe in some kind of reincarnation and tells us ‘He could thrust me into the seed-bed of next year’s generation and I would have to wait until he whistled me up from my darkness before I could come back again.’
He wields a magic over her. When he beckons, she comes, both literally and sexually. He beckons her to his cottage in the woods where he vampirically sinks his teeth into her neck, draining the life force out of her.
Angela Carter, as Anton Pieck does his illustration above, does not create an outright hideous Erl-King. Pieck creates a pretty regular old man. If Angela Carter’s Erl-King is hideous, this is because of his chimerical one-ness with leaves and the earth. But chimeras throughout the history of art are often depicted as sexually alluring characters. (Take a look at some of the classic art in this post.)
Carter uses the colour green to connect the Erl-King to the fairy realm — fairies and green are closely associated throughout folklore: ‘Eyes green as apples. Green as dead sea fruit.’
Driven by her awe of nature, the narrator enters the subconscious/forest, follows the Erl-King, enters his cottage and lies on his bed.
To call this a ‘plan’ is a bit of a stretch. Whatever it is, it’s the Romantic equivalent. This narrator is under some kind of influence bigger than themselves. Awe and horniness are both forms of arousal, and it seems a legit theory to me that sometimes they become conflated. I suspect this is what goes on in the minds of pyromaniacs, both awed by their own ability to create catastrophic damage and also sexually aroused by it (accounting for the young male demographic skew), though it’s a point of pride that I will never fully understand the urge to light murderous fires at the peak of an Australian summer.
All of Carter’s pre-introduced moments of spatial horror culminate at the climax of “The Erl-King” — the description of the Erl-King’s eyes, a blend of claustrophobia, warped perspective and the whirlpool effect.
By comparing his eyes to a mirror, Carter even manages a fresh take on mise en abyme. Note how she plays with warped perspective:
What big eyes you have [RED RIDING HOOD REFERENCE]. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face [MISE EN ABYME, MIRROR]. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped [CLAUSTROPHOBIA] in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic. He winds me into the circle [WHIRLPOOL] of his eye on a reel of birdsong. There is a black hole in the middle of both your eyes; it is there still centre, looking there makes me giddy [DIZZINESS], as if I might fall into it [VERTIGO].
Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you.
I looked up ‘reducing chamber’ wondering if it were a real world contraption but it appears to be a fantasy technology invented by Carter, perhaps a riff on the decompression chamber utilised by scuba divers. The ‘chamber’ is another type of cage.
Now the reason for all of this spatial horror becomes apparent:
I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty. I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds but I — I shall be dumb, from spite.
Welp, the narrator is beholden to him now. Captured by a rush of love hormones, he might as well have locked our narrator in a cage using allure alone, though she entered into this arrangement supposedly of her own volition, knowing her fate full well.
This uneasy combo of choice versus being drawn in reminds me of something said by James Flynn (before he became so controversial) when asked in an interview why young women keep having babies if children so clearly make poor women’s life worse. His response was that procreation is a human impulse, and we should not expect anyone to restrain it in the face of economic logic. Also, for the least privileged women of all, having children is a logical way to live a meaningful life, far more logical a choice than a privileged outsider often assumes.
In Angela Carter’s lifetime, matrimony for women, despite its restrictions, was the safest, most logical way for many women to live their lives. Matrimony itself was an allure as much as a gilded cage.
The narrator secretly plans to kill the Erl-King and tells the reader exactly how she means to do it. It involves cutting off the Erl-King’s hair. But will she? Does she have a hope in hell against this supernatural creature who can shrink people and stuff them into bird cages? Doubt it. If this were ever going to happen, I’d expect Carter would show it. She didn’t exactly shy away.
There is no escape from patriarchy, even if there is escape from matrimony in individual cases.
Our narrator will eke out a living imaginatively, ie., by imagining how she might kill her captor.
A related take:
The reflection [in the Erl-King’s eyes at the climax] could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.
The narrator is also comforted by the fact they are not alone. Take for example the cock robin, whose plumage implies it has been stabbed in the heart. (Note how Carter also used the ‘wedding’ ring around the pigeon’s neck — part of its plumage — for symbolic reasons.)
Robins have long been illustrated dead with their legs in the air, as you can see in the collection below.
Surface reading: The narrator is terrified of a sexual encounter with the Erl-King but because they’re under some kind of magic spell, they’re required to go through with it anyway.
A feminist reading: The struggle is between the narrator’s wish for freedom from the patriarchal nature of partnership with a ‘king’ (archetypically identical to ‘father’ in fairytales), and their simultaneous sexual attraction to these king-fathers.
When we consider this story and its place within a real world that still runs by the rules of patriarchy, Carter illuminates the relationship between sex, gender, power and entrapment.
People who have come out of emotionally abusive relationships often explain that love for a coercive controller acts as an invisible cage. This story is the perfect allegory for that. An episode of Dear Sugar Radio features an episode called Emotional Abuse, and Steve Almond mentions another short story which also makes an excellent allegory: “Runaway” by Alice Munro.
Header painting: Moritz von Schwind, Illustration to Goethe’s Poem “Erlkönig”, 1849.
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on […] Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive.
Best cure for loneliness is solitude.
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.
Edward Hopper was influenced by a number of artists including Martin Lewis.
Phil Lockwood, who used to teach art in Sheffield, took Hopper’s famous painting of the lonely American diner and zoomed out to offer a peopled view. Do you think he’s removed the loneliness, or is it still there?
Artist David Inshaw’s image below has a loneliness to it.
Images of young women and girls with their backs turned to the viewer, contemplating a single building in the middle distance are reminiscent of a famous 1948 painting called Christina’s world by painter Andrew Wyeth.
Artists and filmmakers have been creating pastiches of this lonely work since then.
And here are some men alone on an open plain. Archetypal scenes of the Western.
Another artist who 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 explains 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 AND THE MOON
In images and stories about loneliness, the moon often features large in the background. This connection goes back a long way. “To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is an ode to the moon, functioning as a symbol of loneliness.
A companion to Shelley’s poem would be the children’s book Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel.
Why might the moon be so connected to loneliness? When we are far from loved ones and look up at the moon we know that those separated from us are also seeing the same object. The moon is one of the few objects which can unite humankind. I speculate that this feeling is related to a psychological experience known as The Overview Effect.
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
“I’m lonely,” she said. The old gardener pushed his cap back on his bald head and stared at her a minute. “Art tha’ th’ little wench from India?” he asked. Mary nodded. “Then no wonder tha’rt lonely. Tha’lt be lonelier before tha’s done,” he said.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
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.
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli is a picture book which ostensibly ends happily because a lonely man is appreciated by his wider community despite the revelation that a box of chocolates from a secret Valentine was not meant for him at all. However, I’m not consoled by this ending. Mr Hatch is your classic ‘appreciated outsider’ who is clearly in want of a lover.
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.
Eleanor OliphantIs Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a popular contemporary novel about a thirty-year-old woman so lonely she attempts to take her own life. The ideological issues of this novel are covered in detail here. (Is there something lonely-sounding about the name Eleanor? Cf. Eleanor Rigby.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is often compared to Eleanor Oliphant. She does something very odd to avoid scrutiny as an unmarried woman nearing middle age. But was she ever really lonely? The Convenience Store Woman partners up with someone she doesn’t even really like, and immediately discovers she is now accepted by mainstream society. No one cares if they’re good together; they only care that she’s partnered. Now they can regard her as Normal.
I’d like to read a story that ends with this particular anagnorisis, and Convenience Store Woman comes pretty close to it:
There are far too many absolute cinnamon rolls who are unhappily alone, and waaaaaaaay too many selfish jerks celebrating golden wedding anniversaries and stinking up R/relationships to ever conclude that romantic love is distributed fairly according to merit.
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.
The song by Charlotte Cardin below is about the specific loneliness of being the ‘other’ girl rather than a guy’s ‘main girl’. Stories generally feature, centre and create empathy for ‘the main girl’, and Cardin wanted to tell the other side for a change.
“And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.
The Haunting of Shirley Jackson: Emily Alford on the hazards of loneliness seen in Shirley Jackson’s books and the ways recent film adaptations have missed the mark.
RELATED TO LONELINESS
Adronitis: Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
Anecdoche: A conversation in which everyone is talking but no one is listening.
Exulansis: The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
Kenopsia: The eerie, forlordn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
Nodus Tollens: The realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body, inhabiting only one place at a time.
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
The concept of universal childhood is a Romantic abstraction which ignores the real conditions of children’s communication across borders. There is no ‘world republic of childhood’ in which the conditions are in any way on a par with one another…The vision of the universal child, the same the world over, refuses to acknowledge difficulties and contradictions in relation to childhood, offering in their place a glorification of the child, cast in the role of innocent saviour of mankind in a tradition which reaches back to Rousseau’s Emile with its creed that with every child humankind receives another chance for positive renewal.
Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan
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.
If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.
Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)
Child as Idle Mischief Maker
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.
Child As Other
Granny bit her lip. She was never quite certain about children, thinking of them – when she thought about them at all – as coming somewhere between animals and people. She understood babies. You put milk in one end and kept the other end as clean as possible. Adults were even easier, because they did the feeding and cleaning themselves. But in between was a world of experience that she had never really enquired about.
“Psychology” (1919) 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.
What makes a horror or thriller story ‘psychological’? Aren’t the entire suspense genre psychological, to some degree? I set out to investigate.
A label to say: This Is More Than Just Gore!
With a few notable exceptions, the label “psychological horror” is most often used to describe what something doesn’t have rather than what it does. A lack of exploding eyeballs or sloshing eviscerations must mean that the scare is psychological, right? Saying that a story is “psychological horror” seems like it should mean it gives the reader a true creeping sense of fear, but all too often it just means the [story] doesn’t feature violent organ failure.
So, story makers will slap that label on if they want to signal hidden depths to their story. With that established, let’s get a bit deeper. How deep can we get?
Raison d’être of a Psychological Thriller
Psychological suspense stories encourage us to ask questions about our own lives.
Can you really trust your husband? (Gone Girl)
Can your partner’s good points outweigh their terrible points? (Big Little Lies)
Can you really trust your nanny? (Girl On The Train)
How far would you go to achieve your dream? (You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)
We think we know people, but how much do we really know? (Most of them)
What is a perfect life? Does a life that looks perfect from the inside feel perfect from the inside? (The Couple Next Door, Big Little Lies)
A Brief History Of A Psychological Suspense Story
The origins of the modern psychological thriller stretch all the way back to 1938, when Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was published and became popular. But the genre goes back further than that and can be found in fairytale — Rebecca happens to be based on the Bluebeard story.
A common early trope of popular psychological suspense involved what is now called ‘the woman in peril’.
I write psychological thrillers. In this genre, the female experience has so often been portrayed as damaged—obsessive, delusional—that I fear readers have come to expect emotionally unstable women. In the psychological thriller genre, men are often antagonists, but rarely are they shown to be emotionally vulnerable. Given that I know as many men who can be ruled by their emotions as women, it’s curious that we don’t see more of them on the page. Surely it’s not doing either gender any favours to ignore the emotions of one and exaggerate the emotions of another?
The ‘woman in peril’ has been replaced by something just as insidious: Film, book and tv shows rotate around darker and darker crimes committed against women. Sexy mad women fill our consciousness and stalk our air waves. The idea of the ‘crazy woman’ who either did it or deserved it has taken hold.’
We have yet to enter the age of suspense stories in which men are allowed the full range of emotions, and in which the emotional expression of women becomes part of their strength.
Common Features Of A Psychological Suspense Story
The threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family. The hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child.
Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected.
The pacing is a bit more deliberate than in non-suspense genres, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly.
Twists are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another.
Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational.
The psychological subgenre of thriller demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases. The psychological subgenre of horror demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without gore.
In fact, see my post on Thrillers. The psychological thriller is of course a subset of Thriller, so everything in that post applies. See also my post on Horror.
Alternating points of view are popular. Gone Girl and Girl On The Train both employ this technique.
In young adult fiction, Robert Cormier used alternating points of view a number of times, for example In The Middle Of The Night, After The First Death.
Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia is another example.
Hattie Hoffman has spent her entire life up to this point playing different parts — the straight-A student, the dutiful daughter, the civically-minded teenager. So when she’s found stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, her small town is torn apart by the tragedy, as well as the idea that Hattie’s killer might be hidden in their midst. But things aren’t always as they seem, and as the local sheriff seeks out the murderer, he finds out that Hattie had some dark secrets, unseeable from the surface. Told from alternating perspectives — Hattie’s, the sheriff’s, and a high school english teacher who has secrets of his own — Everything You Want To Be is a chilling and mesmerizing look at the final year of a young woman’s life.
An unreliable narrator — or a potential unreliable narrator — is almost compulsory. Part of the reader’s fun work is picking out bullshit when we hear it. This is of course the same reason why multiple points of view are so popular. Of the storytellers presented to us, whose do we trust?
More Common Tropes In Psychological Suspense
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson — After a car crash, Chrissie develops a form of amnesia in which her short-term memory is wiped every morning upon waking. She’s unable to form new memories. And so, every morning, she must relearn who the man sleeping next to her is — her husband, Ben. One day, she finds a notebook that she’d been hiding. Within, she finds a foreboding message: “Do not trust Ben.” And it’s written in her own handwriting.
The Girl On The Train — the protagonist has memory black outs because of her heavy drinking.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch — “Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before being knocked unconscious by his unknown abductor — and wakes up to a new life as someone else. His wife has been swapped out for another woman, and he doesn’t have a son anymore. In this new version of existence, he’s not just a college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved a truly remarkable, game-changing feat. But which version of Jason Dessen’s life is real, and which one is the dream? That question is at the heart of this suspenseful thriller, which also asks how far we’ll go to get what we want — and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
The Girl Before by Rena Olsen — Claire Lawson’s life with her husband and daughters is running along smoothly — until one day, a squad of armed men break into her house and tear her away from her family. The last thing she hears is her husband commanding her to say nothing. From there, the book spirals back to Claire’s past: a tumultuous youth, escaping her family, falling in love with the son of her adoptive parents. But Claire’s history is full of dark secrets, some of which she doesn’t even remember herself. The more she finds out about herself, the more it becomes possible that the past could ruin her life as she knows it.
Related to periods of memory loss are periods spent away, convalescing, while the rest of the world moves on without you. I have heard former inmates say in interviews that coming out of prison feels like this. Technology in particular moves far more quickly than anyone can anticipate.
After The First Death by Robert Cormier
Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer — Bella’s vampiric pregnancy
The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer — As Alex, or Casey, or Juliana, or whatever her name is at the moment, can tell you, it’s not easy to be on the lam. A while ago, this secret agent learned a bit too much about her employers, and now they’re hell-bent on killing her. She lives in a state of paranoia, running from location to location and name to name. Soon, she gets a call from her boss, calling her in for one last mission. She’s not sure who to believe, but still, she goes along with the kidnapping of a schoolteacher, Daniel Beach, who’s supposedly involved with the design of a virus intended to wipe out the human race. Only problem with Mr. Beach? He’s irresistibly attractive, and doesn’t seem to be much of a villain at all.
MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST
Complicated and terrible (but passionate) marriages have made a big comeback since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is similar to the hired-nanny stories — the person we should be most afraid of in the whole world is also the person we’ve let into our homes (and hearts).
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison — A picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife. Similar to Gone Girl.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — As with Gone Girl, the marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you.
Neighbours can also be dangerous.
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena — Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all: the gorgeous home, the loving relationship, the beautiful baby girl. But one night, while they’re at a dinner party next door, a horrifying crime is committed. Investigators pounce on the case, but the more they delve into the details of the Conti’s lives, the clearer it becomes that the couple has a trove of skeletons in the closet, and secrets that they’ve been keeping — from the world, and from one another.
Rosemary’s Baby is the classic film version of this trope — neighbours take a young pregnant woman under their wing with the aim of turning her unborn baby into the devil.
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.
“Don’t write about Man; write about a man.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
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
In Medieval times, people believed that individuals had a predetermined life path. You could learn your destiny by connecting with God. Some modern people still think in these terms.
LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE
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.
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
Carla’s lunch box is filled with odd delights like the Olive, Pickle and Green Bean Sandwich, the Banana-Cottage-Cheese Delight, and the unforgettable Chopped Liver, Potato Chips, and Cucumber Combo. To Carla, they are delicious and creative lunches, but her teasing classmates are unconvinced and abandon her at the lunch table to eat her bizarre sandwiches alone. One day, however, tables turn when Buster—the worst tease of all—forgets his lunch on the day of the picnic and Carla thoughtfully offers him her extra sandwich. Her own spirited nature helps Carla teach her classmates that “unusual” can actually be good.
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?
On the Mindscape podcast interview, Sean Carroll quips that ‘all those stories about Hollywood rich kids who refuse to follow the rules are just the truth’.
Gelfand responds that the socioeconomic-looseness relationship is, like many things, curvilinear.
In The Giver, Lois Lowry uses the motif of a mirror (and a character’s lack of interest in it) to signal that the individual is less important than the group.
Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.
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.
A parent/child inversionin which the child wishes to eat vegetables while the parents (who are zombies) hate them.
Mo Romero is a zombie who loves nothing more than growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. Tomatoes? Tantalizing. Peppers? Pure perfection! The problem? Mo’s parents insist that their niño eat only zombie cuisine, like arm-panadas and finger foods. They tell Mo over and over that zombies don’t eat veggies. But Mo can’t imagine a lifetime of just eating zombie food and giving up his veggies. As he questions his own zombie identity, Mo tries his best to convince his parents to give peas a chance.
The child eventually ‘comes out’ as being different (a veggie eater), and feels like an LGBTQ metaphor which I wasn’t expecting. Maybe we’re supposed to read it as coming out as a vegan? I guess readers will apply their own interpretation to this supernatural plot. The message? It’s okay to be who you are. No matter what, your family will accept you.
This isn’t the same advice given to teens, of course, who are well advised to do whatever they need to do in order to keep safe before they can escape the many bigoted families who are still in plentiful supply.
SPORK BY KYO MACLEAR AND ISABELLE ARSENAULT
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? This notion is very Western.
I loved Sean Carroll’sinterview with Joseph Heinrich at the Mindscape podcast. They talked about the WEIRDness of the West. (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.) The discussion drove home to me just how Western my readings of narrative is. They put into words a few ideas I’ve been nascently interested in myself, such as how in the West, we’re obsessed with the notion of the ‘one true self’. To behave differently in different situations is considered two-faced (in a bad way), but in non Western cultures, this is considered necessary. In tentpole stories from the West (ie. Hollywood), a ‘happy’ outcome is for a character to learn who they ‘really are’, as if the ‘one true self’ is even a thing.
A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word
Yiyun Li, Chinese born American writer who emigrated to America age 23
Main aspects of a WEIRD person:
WEIRD people are individualistic rather than relational, focusing on individuals’ attributes and aspirations instead of thinking about relationships between people (leading to overconfidence and a tendency to self-enhance rather than to humility). A lot of emphasis is on creating a unique, high-value individual self. This kind of thinking pushes us into going to the gym and reading interesting books.
WEIRD cultures are much more interested in guilt. (If you don’t do well, it’s clearly your own fault.)
Analytic rather than holistic thinking. Looking for categories, assigning properties rather than looking at background relationships in context.
A concern with impartial principles over the kind of in-group loyalty and social relationships that govern so much social structure.
WEIRD people are more future-oriented, or more willing to extend their selfhood to other places and times and act in a way that benefits the future self. (Deferring gratification is a Protestant thing.)
On the topic of time, WEIRD people think about time in absolute sense. Many of us learned to read time on a clock with numbers, where the hand moves around the clock. That’s actually a number line, a linear number line that’s been wrapped around in a circle.
WEIRD people think that there is virtue in being the same when acting with different sets of people, whereas non-WEIRD societies take for granted we would act differently in different circumstances. Non-WEIRD people have classifactory relationships, evident in customs such as calling someone ‘uncle’ who is not your uncle. This reminds you to treat this guy as you’d treat an uncle, rather than as you’d treat a same-age friend. WEIRD cultures valorise the ‘single unified self’ that behaves the same way to all different people in all different circumstances. There is popular discourse about finding your true self. “It’s somewhere in there. If I can just find it, I’ll be happy.” In contrast, non-WEIRD cultures consider it wise and sensible to not always present the same face in a different situation.
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.
Much of the world’s most popular memoir and fiction — from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — centers on the idea that we might go out into the unknown and come back having found our singular, definitive self. Motivational speakers build brands on that idea.
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.
Philosopher John Locke on personal identity. Locke once said that if you took a Prince’s memories and implanted them into the brain of a cobbler, the cobbler would be the Prince, because memory is what makes the person.
Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don’t stand out–under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes–for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.
But the delicate scales of popularity suddenly shift, and Stargirl is shunned for everything that makes her different. Somewhere in the midst of Stargirl’s arrival and rise and fall, normal Leo Borlock has tumbled into love with her.
In a celebration of nonconformity, Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity–and the thrill and inspiration of first love.