Donnie Darko is a 2001 film set in 1988, in a fictional Virginia town called Middlesex. This genre blend of drama, mystery and science fiction is precisely ambiguous enough to generate much discussion about what is meant to have happened. This is ideal ‘cult-following’ material. Note that Donnie Darko didn’t make much of a splash when first released, but achieved its cult following subsequently.
Today I offer my own take on What Happens in Donnie Darko — nothing that hasn’t been said before — but I’ll also come at it from a storytelling point of view. What makes Donnie Darko a satisfying story? Why do viewers who love this film really really love it?
“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.
When men cry in fiction, the tears are almost always because someone died, or because it’s a comedic scene and his tears are supposed to be funny. If someone else is offering a crying male character emotional support (rare), that person is almost never another man. However, I’m talking about Hollywood here. Men cry more in drama from East Asia, especially in KDramas.
Examples of men crying on screen
Lord of the Rings
Field of Dreams
The Handmaid’s Tale
Silver Linings Playbook
Schindler’s List (Oscar Schindler)
Wings of Desire
Good Will Hunting (“It’s not your fault.”)
Big Eden (“You won’t tell me who you are”)
Biutiful (Javier Bardem’s character, reflecting on giving his daughter his ring)
Lady In The Water
Suicide Squad (Floyd Lawton sheds tears over the fact that his daughter writes him every day despite knowing what he does.)
Sorry We Missed You
Da 5 Bloods
Six Feet Under (David and Nate)
The Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford crying when he has had to set his ice machine on fire with the bandits inside)
Moonlight (“What you cry about?”)
Hostiles (Jonathan Majors’ character is wounded and has to stay at a hospital while the rest of the outfit keeps moving. Bale’s character knows it is likely goodbye forever even when they both survive.
The Walking Dead (Rick finding Lori and Carl)
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Devilman Cribaby (many examples)
The Normal Heart
Hell Or High Water (Jeff Bridges crying after shooting a bank robber who shot his partner)
Call Me By Your Name
Signs (the dinner scene)
The Thin Red Line
Captain Phillips (the ending)
Breaking Bad (Jesse)
Reign Over Me
Emma (2019) (Mr Knightley)
Ordinary People (1980)
And in stories for child/family audiences:
Tangled (Rapunzel’s father cries in front of her mother before they release the lanterns.)
Cinderella (2015) (the prince sobs, tells his father he loves him and they hug each other)
Superman and Lois, episode 9 (Clark cries at the pain his son Jordan is going through because of his developing powers and then Jordan comforts him.)
Billy Elliot (Billy Elliot’s dad e.g. crossing the picket line to try and raise the money to send Billy to his dance academy audition.)
Bend It Like Beckham (The dad supporting his daughter)
Doctor Who (Wilfred Mott e.g. the Van Gogh episode)
Avatar: The Last Airbender(Iroh and Zuko reunite)
Quantum Leap (though Sam was in the body of a woman in a beauty pageant)
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (Will cries and says “why didn’t he want me?”)
Koe no katachi (A Silence Voice)
My Hero Academia (Mirio Togata cries because Class 1-A’s school festival concert is so good that it makes Eri smile for the first time)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Spock cries in sick bay after his meld with V’Ger, and tells Kirk, “This simple feeling is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.” He and Kirk hold hands.)
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Series Finale (“Why can’t I do this?! I’m failing you…”)
Glee (Finn in season one because his girlfriend is pregnant)
Stand By Me (River Phoenix)
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 use the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere. Carter inverts the gaze and turns 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 real-world 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 BALLAD
The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them is utilised frequently in stories. This variety of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of narratives, if only because the child is proven correct about The Scary Thing, 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 removes 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 again 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 symbolic forest both protective and scary, and in a place which runs on mythic time (kairos) rather than linear time (chronos).
THE SYMBOLISM OF SEASONS
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.)
Carter personifies the autumnal light (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.
CHRONOS AND KAIROS
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 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’. Apart from ‘autumn’, 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 about 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 subconscious; 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 discomfit the reader and Angela Carter has a massive toolbox. Her stories are full of spatial horror. She is constantly working to disorient. So, 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, pearlised 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 me. 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 unimportant to the narrator. Commentators generally assume 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 The Erl-King 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.)
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?
THE CASE FOR A GENDER EXPANSIVE MAIN CHARACTER
Okay forget the here and now, let’s briefly revisit 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 recent 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.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE ERL-KING”
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.
ROMANTICISM AND CHARACTER DESIRE
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.
ERL-KING AS CHIMERA
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.
THE REDUCING CHAMBER
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.
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.
These images feel like the openings to Thomas Hardy novels, which open with an image of a lonely character moving within a scene.
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. Until now, most research on loneliness has focused on social isolation. Yet social isolation and feeling lonely aren’t the same at all. Loneliness most often derives from the experience of feeling like you are different from the people around you and also misunderstood by them.
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 than a lonely/not-lonely binary 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.
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 Oliphant Is Completely Fine
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
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.
Everyone is very busy denying the last time they were lonely, but trust me, it happens. It isn’t just being a solo act, though that contributes; I know women and men who stand in their back yards, safe in the bosom of their family, at the height of their careers, and stare up into the old reliable silver-maple tree, mentally testing its capacity to hold their weight.
“Glory Goes and Gets Some” by Emily Carter
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.
So often in books, or in movies, one character looks at another character and understands in a precise way what that person is feeling. So often in real life, one person wants to be understood, but obscures her feelings with unrelated words and facial expressions, while the other person is trying to remember whether she did or didn’t turn off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs.
Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
“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.
22 year old Jena Chung plays the violin. She was once a child prodigy and is now addicted to sex. She’s struggling a little. Her professional life comprises rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice; her personal life is spent managing family demands, those of her creative friends, and lots of sex. Jena is selfish, impulsive and often behaves badly, though mostly only to her own detriment. And then she meets Mark – much older and worldly-wise – who bewitches her. Could this be love?
When Jena wins an internship with the New York Philharmonic, she thinks the life she has dreamed of is about to begin. But when Trump is elected, New York changes irrevocably and Jena along with it. With echoes of Frances Ha, Jena’s favourite film, truths are gradually revealed to her. Jena comes to learn that there are many different ways to live and love and that no one has the how-to guide for any of it – not even her indomitable mother.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing explores the confusion of having expectations upturned, and the awkwardness and pain of being human in our increasingly dislocated world – and how, in spite of all this, we still try to become the person we want to be.
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.
WORDS RELATED TO LONELINESS
Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.
A conversation in which everyone is talking but no one is listening.
The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.
The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.
The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.
The realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.
The frustration of being stuck in just one body, inhabiting only one place at a time.
Books about Lonelinessfrom the University of Miami Picturebook Database
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these are the marks of childhood and adolescence […] The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth … surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?
C.S. Lewis, 1966
One of the oddest things we do to children is to confront them with someone else who is also eight, or ten, or seven, and insist that they be friends … What concerns me is the misconception that people are fossilised at any particular point in a lifetime. We are none of us ‘the young’ or ‘the middle-aged’ or ‘the old’. We are all of those things. To allow children to think otherwise is to encourage a disability — a disability both of awareness and communication.
‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect ideology of Romantic literature and criticism. These ideas have been applied to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with — like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet — would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’.
History and Culture in Understanding Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt
What exactly is a child?
The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.
Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries.
The Renaissance change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.
The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]
This had changed by the mid-18th century.
Adults were beginning to think of themselves as fundamentally different kinds of creatures from those who were their children. The child was no longer thought of as a little adult. Childhood was conceived as a special and vulnerable stage; adult hood was defined in reversed terms.
Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, 1993
The following passage from Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva, is an interesting glimpse into how just 100-200 years ago, children were seen as pure and untouchable. The idea that any adult could be sexually attracted to a child and cause them harm never crossed anyone’s mind in such a culture:
Two recent biographies of Lewis Carroll have portrayed him in two radically different manners, both strongly deviant from the standard view proposed in a biography written in 1899 by his nephew. One of these paints Carroll as a pedophile, based on his ostensibly pathological interest for little girls. The other biography, going back to Carroll’s unpublished diaries, points out that the “little girls” in question were in fact around twenty-five years old, and that they used to visit Carroll unchaperoned, which in the eyes of his contemporaries was highly immoral. Apparently, the myth of the author’s interest for “little girls” was deliberately created by his family to hide what they regarded as inappropriate, while children were considered pure and innocent and therefore suitable as a cover. For us today, pedophilia is certainly a worse offence. This is a good example of how facts about an author can be interpreted differently. Our understanding of Alice in Wonderland can be affected by our understanding of the author’s views on children.
A different but related idea
I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.
When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.
Should children be treated differently?
A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.
Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.
Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.
There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.
Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.
Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.
All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.
When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)
When can you leave school?
When can you work?
It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.
Child As Symbol Of The Future
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.
The Imaginary Child is a concept to describe the way pro-natalists want every adult to procreate in order to save the nation. This concept is widely understood in places such as Romania, which is facing a decreased birth rate and widely publicised census. The concept of The Imaginary Child has real social consequences for those who choose not to have children, impacting heavily on the GRSM (gender, romantic and sexual minorities) community especially. Even when queer people do procreate, their queerness is blamed for falling fertility rates, and fear of the ‘Queer Apocalypse’.
Child As Angel
Enlightenment philosopher John Locke famously said that the child is a blank state (tabula rasa, “white paper”). Children gradually fill with knowledge on the road to adulthood.
Romantic poets and philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth romanticised the tabula rasa child as a natural, pre-rational human. The Romantics thought that childhood is “the sleep of reason”.
These are 18th and 19th century ideas, but continue to influence the present. The idea that children are blank slates can be unsettling as well as comforting. The Spanish painter Francisco Goya suggested in the title of a famous work: “the sleep of reason produces monsters“.
Children are an example of a symbolic paradox. We find them familiar but also weird. They live in our families but seem also to live on a separate plane. Our own children are like ourselves but sometimes disturbingly different. Marina Warner points out that these contradictions around the child come from the “concept that childhood and adult life are separate when they are inextricably intertwined”. I’m sure this has something to do with what Julia Kristeva said in her famous essay on Abjection. Humans have real trouble accepting things when categories don’t have firm boundaries.
Children aren’t as rational as adults but at the same time they are thought to have insight that is lost to adults.
Partly this is because children notice things which adults have long since learned to ignore.
Although adults can beat children at most cognitive tasks, new research shows that children’s limitations can sometimes be their strength.
In two studies, researchers found that adults were very good at remembering information they were told to focus on, and ignoring the rest. In contrast, 4- to 5-year-olds tended to pay attention to all the information that was presented to them – even when they were told to focus on one particular item. That helped children to notice things that adults didn’t catch because of the grownups’ selective attention.
Children notice what adults miss, study finds: While adults focus their attention, children see everything in Medical News Today
The superpower of noticing is heavily utilised in children’s literature. One of the few advantages children have over adults: Noticing. Children (or child stand-ins such as mice) will often solve a mystery simply by noticing what adults have failed to see right there before them.
Their observable, active fantasy life, and their fluid make-believe play seem to give [children] access to a world of wisdom.
Hermelin is a noticer. He is also a finder. The occupants of Offley Street are delighted when their missing items are found, but not so happy to learn that their brilliant detective is a mouse!
What will happen to Hermelin? Will his talents go unrewarded?
In Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel The Tricksters, the main character’s mother (Naomi) is reading a book by the beach, even as her own daughter is being led by a creepy newcomer who won’t let go of her hand. The wish to enjoy some solitude on a big family holiday is relatable to any parent, and obliviousness works well as a plot device: to plunge the young adult main character headlong into danger, where she’ll have to find her own way out again.
“Pass on by!!” Naomi shouted as they hesitated. “Don’t give me any news or ask me any questions or tell me anything.”
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan, in which the ‘lost thing’ is a robotic creature as well as ‘the ability to really see what’s around us’.
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan, in which the ‘lost thing’ is a robotic creature as well as ‘the ability to really see what’s around us’.
A snowy day, a trip to Grandma’s, time spent cooking with one another, and space to pause and discover the world around you come together in this perfect book for reading and sharing on a cozy winter day.
One winter morning, Lina wakes up to silence. It’s the sound of snow — the kind that looks soft and glows bright in the winter sun. But as she walks to her grandmother’s house to help make the family recipe for warak enab, she continues to listen. As Lina walks past snowmen and across icy sidewalks, she discovers ten ways to pay attention to what might have otherwise gone unnoticed. With stunning illustrations by Kenard Pak and thoughtful representation of a modern Arab American family from Cathy Camper, Ten Ways to Hear Snow is a layered exploration of mindfulness, empathy, and what we realize when the world gets quiet.
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
The Ideal Child Of The Imagination
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.
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
The Kewpie dolls (and related merchandising) were clearly modelled on classical images of cherubs.
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.
Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.
Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.
Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.
Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.
A ten-year-old girl is determined to find her missing neighbor, but the answers lead her to places and people she never expected—and maybe even one she’s been running away from—in this gorgeous debut novel that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.
Guinevere St. Clair is going to be a lawyer. She was the fastest girl in New York City. She knows everything there is to know about the brain. And now that she’s living in Crow, Iowa, she wants to ride into her first day of school on a cow named Willowdale Princess Deon Dawn.
But Gwyn isn’t in Crow, Iowa, just for royal cows. Her family has moved there, where her parents grew up, in the hopes of jogging her mother Vienna’s memory. Vienna has been suffering from memory loss since Gwyn was four. She can no longer remember anything past the age of thirteen, not even that she has two young daughters. Gwyn’s father is obsessed with finding out everything he can to help his wife, but Gwyn’s focused on problems that seem a little more within her reach. Like proving that the very strange Gaysie Cutter who lives next door is behind the disappearance of her only friend, Wilbur Truesdale.
Gwyn is sure she can crack the case, but when she does she finds that not all of her investigations lead her to the places she would have expected. In fact they might just lead her to learn about the mother she’s been doing her best to forget.
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