Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern by Richard Yates Analysis

Festival 1934 by Daniel R Celentano

Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is a short story by Richard Yates, the first in his 1962 collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The story of the new kid in school is very popular in children’s literature, which is of course written for children. But what might a New Kid In School story for adults look like? This is it.

Richard Yates himself was often the new kid in school. His parents divorced when he was three years old. Much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences.

I was also often the new kid in school, because my father worked for the New Zealand post office, and throughout the 1980s small toll exchanges kept being shut down and centralised. So our family had to move from smaller towns to increasingly bigger ones. I went to six primary schools in all. I identify with Vincent in this story because on my first day at the first of my new schools (I was almost six) I decided to put my hand up for news. I was of course selected, and I remember standing there in front of everyone and having no idea what to say. I didn’t even understand the concept of news, a new tradition for me at this new school.

So I made something up. None of the lies I told struck me as wrong, and I enjoyed it very much because the kids all laughed at my stories. Even the teacher laughed.

One day I reported that our neighbour’s chimney had caught fire. The firemen had come to put it out. This was all true, and my classmates listened in awe. But then I said the fireman’s hat fell down the chimney. I felt a little bad when my classmates all seemed to believe this too. Unlike Vincent, my teacher never told me to stop lying. He just laughed along, and I was often picked for news. Every single time, I had no idea what I was going to say until I got up there. Little of it was true. But the following year something must have happened to me developmentally because in my new classroom with a new teacher I would never volunteer for news. This new reticence continued until I was in senior high school when I again found my voice — this time, not lying.

A New Kid In School story written for adults can be more realistic than one written for a child audience. Everything about Richard Yates’ “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” rings emotionally true, including the climactic act, which would not pass the gatekeepers in a story written for kids, but which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in schools. We often say that the girl code is impossibly complex and full of pitfalls, but in this story Richard Yates shows us that the unspoken rules of boys are equally complex and exclusionary.

Another reason why this adult version rings true is because Yates’s omniscient, insightful narrator allows the reader understanding of the teacher’s actions. Miss Price is as rounded as the child main character, Vincent, nicknamed Dr. Jack-o’-Lantern. In contrast, most children’s stories make use of teacher archetypes, with rare examples in young adult literature bringing a teacher in as a rounded main character.


I’m guessing this story is set in 1932, which is when the Dr Jekyll a Mr Hyde movie came out. In this adaptation more than in the 1941 release, the teeth as described by the children in this story are a prominent feature of the main character’s monstrous alter ego.

Richard Yates was born in 1926, which would make this a story set in the time of his own early school days. If Miss Price had been married, she may have been forced out of a teaching job, opening the way for someone ‘who needs it’ ie. a man. Miss Price is quite a forward-looking teacher for the era, probably because of her age. By inviting the students to the front of the class to share their own news she is engaging in what was then known as a Progressive education style, which is less chalk-and-talk teacher-centric. (Also for this reason, the story could be set later. But I don’t think it could be set any earlier.)

The school of “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” is somewhere in commuting distance of New York, in the outer boroughs.

If I’m right about the timing of this story, what else was going on in America in the early 1930s? These were the dark days of the Great Depression, which hit America badly. Fourteen million people were unemployed. The world was preparing for another world war, though the children are busy with their own small factions to understand any of what’s happening in the wider world. It is likely that a kid like Vincent has had to move because his adult caregivers have been forced out of work, and have possibly found new work (hence some of his clothing items are new, some are old).

absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest

Vincent Sabella reminds me of Wanda Petronski of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Sabella is a Sicilian last name, and the new kid is speaking in an accent unfamiliar to his classmates, perhaps because he is a recent immigrant, perhaps because he has grown up around recent immigrants, speaking English as a second language. Vincent’s new classmates probably don’t know the scary connection between Italians and the mafia, but they seem to have absorbed some of the xenophobia of their dominant culture.



Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952
Tom Lovell, The Second-Grade Mind, 1952

Vincent Sabella’s strength is also his shortcoming, and this is partly what makes this short story masterful. He is desperately lonely. We know from the omniscient narration that he comes dangerously close to burying his head in his teacher’s lap. But this is not how the other boys see him at all. His isolation is what makes him a mysterious figure. Vincent will face a dilemma. We can’t call this a moral dilemma, because he is too young to really understand what he is doing and why he is doing it. But the adult reader can see that Vincent can either remain an outcast among his peers by following the code of conduct set down by their teacher, or he can have a shot at being included by his peers by following the code of the playground.

In both Eleanor Estes’s story for children and in Richard Yates’ story for adults, an immigrant child is ostracised by white, middle class children for being a liar (or perceived as one, in the case of Wanda Petrowski). Certain demographics are more likely to be seen as liars. The playground code in this white microcosm of society is complex for the uninitiated: Writing rude words on a wall in chalk: Admirable. Lying to peers: shun-worthy.

We can guess that the rules of Vincent’s New York world are quite different. There, bigging yourself up is probably an expected part of masculinity. It seems to me that Vincent is indulging in a particularly masculine form of storytelling — the tall story — when he tells his ‘lies’ to his peers. The tall story is more popular in some cultures than in others. Here in Australia it is an historically masculine tradition, told to mates in the bush, and the understood code around the tall story is that your narratees know you’re spinning a story. The rule is: believe nothing, lest you open yourself up as gullible. The more ridiculous the story, the more obvious the lie.

Vincent has told a ridiculously improbable story, but has made a huge social faux pas by assuming the kids in his new school would understand he is telling a tall story. He has already seen Nancy ‘lie’ by saying “Well” when she knows she’s not supposed to open that way. The minor untruth in that case is that Nancy never reveals to Miss Price that she knew all along not to say it. But Vincent will take that cue and run with it.


Vincent wants some friends. This connects to his underlying need: To avoid loneliness. Many stories have this exact desire — this part of a story doesn’t need to be sophisticated at all. All New Kid At School stories start from a place of loneliness.


The children in the class are presented to us via the omniscient narrator as both highly recognisable and not especially empathetic.

The opponent of Miss Price is interesting because this story is an excellent example of a story in which the opponent genuinely wants the best for the main character. Again, the omniscient narration is an excellent choice for this particular story because the reader sees exactly why Miss Price behaves as she does. As adults, we probably put ourselves in her shoes. But because we’ve all been children, we can equally put ourselves in the shoes of the children.


Importantly, Yates doesn’t let us inside Vincent’s head in the way we’re allowed inside Miss Price’s head. The story plays out before us, and we are as surprised as anyone else when Vincent’s plans take shape. ‘Plan’ is a loose term to use here because I imagine Vincent doesn’t ‘plan’ things out so much as follows his childlike, desperate instincts. Although we aren’t afforded a glimpse into Vincent’s motivations, Yates has given us enough to work with: We understand exactly why he does what he does.

This illustration was for Life Magazine , January,16, 1919 by William Gratz. Writing on a wall has long been the only avenue of discontent for the powerless, perhaps since caveman times.


Vincent has two main opponents, the kids and the teacher, so we see two struggle scenes, the first with Miss Price, which is ironic because it’s the exact opposite of what Vincent wants. The second struggle takes place in the conversation with the other boys, in which Vincent lies he’s had the ruler on his knuckles. When Miss Price walks past and is very nice to Vincent, she unwittingly reveals him to be lying yet again. By being so nice, she has ruined Vincent’s shot at social capital.


Miss Price remains oblivious to what she has just done. We have earlier been told that children are a mystery to her, though I suspect boys are a mystery to her — she probably understands girl culture quite well. This is why Yates has chosen a young female teacher instead of an older, more experienced one. A male teacher may or may not have understood the rules of boyhood better and almost certainly would not have treated Vincent with so much motherly care. The complicated proto-sexual feelings these boys have for their pretty teacher is also important to the ending. Vincent epitomises the adolescent confusion of boys: Their teacher is both motherly and sexually appealing. These feelings together are supremely uncomfortable for them, and Yates shows this beautifully throughout the story by making use of juxtapositions. Finally we face the biggest juxtaposition of all: The loving care with which Vincent draws a lewd image of Miss Price.


Yates can end his story as Vincent draws the image of Miss Price because he has given us enough information to extrapolate that Miss Price will be completely baffled by this act. She has already considered the fact that Vincent is a trouble child and she is out of her depth and will need to bring in outside help. That was for a lesser crime. So we extrapolate that this is now going to happen, and Vincent has unsuccessfully tried to fit in at his new school. The story probably won’t end well for Vincent.

This is where a similar story but written for children must end differently. Any child starting at a new school eventually finds friends and does reasonably well. At the very least, they find the inner strength to get through continuing tough times at school.

But Vincent Sabella has now branded himself as a sexual deviant, and in conservative 1950s America, he is doomed. This is a tragic story because as readers we’ve had our hands held by the narrator, and we know that Vincent does not deserve what’s coming to him.

This is especially true when we consider the longer historical view. Yates wrote this story decades after it is (probably) set, and the situation for Italian immigrants trying to settle in allied power countries was very grim throughout World War 2. After first being ostracised by his white classmates at school, Vincent may well have found himself ostracised later in life as an ‘enemy alien’. To avoid that, he may have gone to fight on behalf of America as a young man. Many Italian Americans fought on America’s behalf. This can’t have been easy, fighting for your country and also against your ancestral land. Vincent will have always felt like an outsider.

Header painting is “Festival” 1934 by Daniel R Celentano, set in East Harlem’s Little Italy, New York — “a lively scene, evoking the scents of tasty Italian food, is overshadowed by the immense natural-gas tanks at the right that once blighted Manhattan’s immigrant slums,” according to the Smithsonian website.

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The Snail Under The Leaf Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

 Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.

The best visual representation of this concept is by Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan:

Shaun Tan

But in this post I feel a little bad about dismissing snails, so I include art in which the beauty of snails comes to the fore:

I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)


The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.


Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.


American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.

Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.

Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)

Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.

This is a scene from a completely different story — Hell or High Water. The horror comedy cartoon series utilises a scene highly recognisable from other types of story.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.

Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of young adult books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.

The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

Get Out, a 2017 film. A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.

The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.
The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.

Anyway, if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT


The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.


Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.


This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)


Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf

Everyone knows that magic and trouble go hand in hand…

A dangerous spell cast over an unsuspecting village.
An enchanted painting locked in a hidden room.
A desperate race against time to break the spell before it’s too late…

It should have been a fresh start for the Widdershins. Finally free from the misty gloom of Crowstone and beginning a new life. But all is not as it seems in their postcard-pretty village. Their neighbours are acting strangely, and why do they flinch at the mere mention of magic?

The Widdershins sisters have their own secret: a set of enchanted nesting dolls with the power to render their user invisible. The sisters must use their wits – and their magic – if they’re to break the dark hold over the village, and save one of their own . . . but have they met their match this time?



If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). 

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT
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Home » Richard Yates

Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature

sunny home literature film

Homes are an outworking of the characters who live inside. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For my notes after reading Gaston Bachelard, see Symbolism of the Dream House.


The famous Farnsworth House is a square construction made mostly of windows and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It’s in Plano, Illinois.

In real life, people who build these houses tend to be well-off and have environmental aspirations. When a house has this much glass you’re living ‘at one with nature’. You’re also respecting the environment by refusing to build something garish. From a distance, the house hardly interferes with the natural landscape, with the trees reflecting off the windows, and the lack of a pretentious, gabled roof. (I’m not sure about their energy efficiency rating, though.)

In fiction, however, the glass house generally spells doom for you and your family. If you are a fictional person reading this, I advise against purchasing a house made mainly of glass.

Farnsworth_House_by_Mies_Van_Der_Rohe_-_exterior-8 1
Illustration by Bertels in Saturday Evening Post 8 April 1961 glass house
Illustration by Bertels in Saturday Evening Post 8 April 1961


The glass house in the movie Lake House (with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) is based on the Farnsworth architecture. The character who lives in this house is an architect, and in movies, architects can’t live in ordinary houses. Here, the house is ‘at one with the water’.

Lake House house


One of the families in The Ice Storm — The Carver family — live in a very nice house with a lot of glass. They could be enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner, at their beautiful table with lots of food, under the cover of glass but still enjoying the late autumn scenery. But the 14-year-old daughter is far too astute to be fooled by appearances — on the other side of that ‘glass’ people are starving. The meaning of Thanksgiving is built on abuse, she points out.

In the following clip, we hear how Connecticut was the first place to really embrace the glass house, but a lot of the time they weren’t ‘beautiful’ — they simply functioned like fish bowls. In the glass house, the irony is that the family can’t see each other. This glass house juxtaposes with another main house, which is a 1950s colonial house. This was also an archetypal architectural time, but would be a little less cold. The colonial house is the key party house, which makes the key party seem even dirtier.


Into The Forest (2015) is set somewhere in Canada, but more ‘correctly’ somewhere in fairytale world. Viewers who expected mimesis were utterly disappointed that these young women were able to sustain themselves by finding berries in the woods over a long winter. This is the stuff of fairytales, and I code it as such.

The difficulty is, these girls live in the present, or actually in the near future, probably. The father has purchased a partially finished house with large, glass walls and transplanted his daughters to their forest haven. Then the outside world breaks down — a Doomsday Prepper’s dream.

The girls are suddenly alone and vulnerable. The house which seemed like a haven is now a target for predators. They end up boarding over those massive glass walls, first putting makeshift curtains up, then realising this will never be enough.

This house is an interesting mixture of ‘cold glass house’ and ‘warm, cosy house’. The house itself is a character in the movie, and therefore has its own ‘character arc’. For the house, the film is a tragedy along Gilbert Grape lines.

Into the Forest glass house

For a similar film about a family who must survive in a kind of fairytale utopia after calamity hits Earth — or America — see A Quiet Place. One garnered excellent reviews; the other did not. I have my own feminist theories about why.

Apartment Dwellers on New Year’s, 1948, John Falter; 1910-1982
Apartment Dwellers on New Year’s, 1948, John Falter; 1910-1982


Wiener-dog (2016) is an indie film which connects four short stories via the travels of a dog who never finds a permanent home. The first household we meet is desperately unhappy. Sure enough, they live in a house with walls made mainly of glass.


Bruce Wayne’s residence is also a big glass thing. You can explore it using Google Street View. In the film there is an underground lair where criminal activities occur.



The vampires live in a glass house in the middle of the forest. You’d think they’d want a bit more privacy, wouldn’t you? But the forest itself provides the walls and curtains. In contrast to the more homely vibe emitted from Jacob, the Cullens are a cold, stand-offish clan, and so the house made of glass is fitting.

If you’re wondering where the house from the films is located, it’s a slightly complicated story:

The Cullen House is supposedly located in Forks Washington.  But as we have learned, most of the filming for the original Twilight movie was done here in Portland and the surrounding area.  For New Moon and Eclipse they used another home in Vancouver BC area. For Breaking Dawn 1 and 2 they broke down the house in Vancouver and loaded it on semi-trucks and transported it to the Louisiana sound stage where those films were made. It’s amazing that it is still so easily accessible for Twilight fans.


Because a house made of glass is such an ostentatious statement — while ironically seeming to fit into the surrounding landscape unobtrusively — this building, which exists only to house cars, is comedic in itself.


Annie Proulx’s short story “Negatives” is another example of the ostentatiously glass house used to symbolic effect.


Illustrations for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov


Despite their terrible sleep hygiene, you won’t find light-filled rooms in House Of Cards.


Mad Men is equally dark as House of Cards in many ways, but well-lit rooms are quite usual in this series. Mad Men is an snail under the leaf setting. Don Draper has everything he could possibly want… from the outside looking in.

California is the flip side of New York — New York is wintry and studious while California is light-hearted and beachy.


But even on the East Coast, the light-filled kitchen scene here only highlights how down-and-out Betty Draper seems. Her mood contrasts equally with the upbeat innocence of their children.



Krystin Ritter is actually the perfect fit for dark stories and her look has been utilised thusly in Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones. You won’t find many light-filled homes in those series. But here she is in a light-hearted comedy, bathed in a white, welcoming glow.



Here’s another Pinterest-worthy white kitchen in a light-hearted series.

Trophy Wife kitchen


Though the title of this series suggests a kind of hell, the home is filled with natural light. This is a safe house in some well-off suburbs.

Suburgatory living room


The opening of Gilmore girls shows the main characters drinking coffee inside Luke’s, but at night, with all those fairy lights. In that case, the dark forms a cloak of reassurance and cosiness. During the day, Luke’s is always a place of refuge, even when he goes out of his way to be gruff.


Emily and Richard’s house has no natural light at all — a cold house from another age. What age is that, exactly?

The Centennial encouraged the founding of many so-called patriotic societies, such as the Sons (now defunct) and the Daughters (still active) of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants. This new interest in genealogy was due partly to the Centennial itself, and partly to efforts by the established middle class to distance itself from the increasing number of new, predominantly non-British immigrants. This process of cultural authentification was fortified by furnishing homes in the so-called Colonial style, thus underlining the link to the past. Like most invented traditions, the Colonial revival was also a reflection of its own time–the nineteenth century. Its visual taste was influenced by the then current English architectural fashion–Queen Anne–which had nothing to do with the Pilgrim Fathers, but whose cozy hominess appealed to a public sated by the extravagances of the Gilded Age.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski

Emily Gilmore belongs to Daughters of the American Revolution. She herself is clearly racist and her big, cold, Colonial home is an outworking of Emily herself.

In contrast we have Lorelai’s house, which we often see from the outside bathed in sunlight. The contrast between Emily’s house and Lorelai’s house is the archetypal cold colonial vs warm and sunny dichotomy. We are meant to feel at home in one and not in the other. The expectation that warm, cosy houses are full of food is overturned by the writer in (what I believe) to be an attempt at subverting the patriarchal expectation that women must be good at cooking.


In Emily’s house there is plenty of light, but it comes from those Gothic chandeliers and expensive mood lighting, not through the windows. This house is an island unto itself. Nothing’s coming in that Emily hasn’t put there her very self.

Emily and Richard dining room table

What is also striking about these handsome interiors is the absence of so many of the things that characterize modern life. We look in vain for clock-radios, electric hair dryers, or video games. There are pipe racks and humidors in the bedrooms, but no cordless telephones, no televisions. There may be snowshoes banging on the cabin wall, but there are no snowmobile boots by the door.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski


The difference between the ‘cosy, colonial’ house and the cold, inhospitable house made mostly of glass is exemplified beautifully in Nashville, TV series, written by Callie Khouri.

(I’ve only seen the first two seasons, so my commentary is only on that…)


Here’s Juliette’s house from the outside: square, modern, white. Perfectly manicured. Juliette is nouveau riche but she grew up in a trailer with an exploitative mother. This ghost continues to haunt her into the present.

Though these windows are covered in net curtains (probably to diffuse the light for the sake of filming), it’s significant that Juliette lives in a glass house. The whole world is watching her every move. There is no real boundary between Juliette and the public.

Juliette herself is small in stature, but her house is enormous. This juxtaposition emphasises her loneliness.

Juliette is young and so her tastes are modern.

This house is basically a modern castle. Where else do we find castles? In gothic fiction. These traditional castles have dungeons and hidden passages and are surrounded by gloomy forests and this isn’t that kind of castle, but it is still almost part of the female gothic tradition, in which the character inhabiting the space graduates from adolescence to maturity.

The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts. It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute “features of the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture”.

Does that sound like Juliette? Another feature of the female gothic is the threatening control of a male antagonist.

The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore, prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the disability of being female.

Juliette is definitely vilified due to her gender — the way she is set upon by the public when she is implicated in the Wentworth break-up is one example.


This house recently went up for sale for about 16 million dollars. In contrast, the house used to film Juliette Barnes’ house went for just over 2 million.

Rayna has plenty of money, though it’s clear from the pilot that she is ‘cash poor’. She has married a ‘trust fund boy’ and lives in a house typical of the one percent. Exactly the sort of house we’d expect a middle-aged country singer from Nashville to live in. But this is a warm house compared to the white cube owned by Juliette.

Inside Rayna’s house we see Maddie’s bedroom. Teenage bedrooms are easy for set designers to get wrong — there’s too often an unlikely mixture of fan posters on the wall. But the set designers have avoided that altogether with Maddie by hanging up some artwork — perhaps her own as a child, which has been framed?

The Bluebird Café is another example of the ‘Warm House’, and the café, too, can be warm or terrifying.


Deacon is your archetypal difficult man, the silent type with addiction issues but brimming with talent. Deacon, we are led to believe, would rather be living in the woods, just him and his guitar. This personality type — reflected in his niece — explains the backstory of why he never sought fame when he was younger, riding on the coat tails of Rayna.


Okay so two young men lived here too, but I only ever see Scarlett cleaning the kitchen, so I’m calling the sunny, warm and retro-vibe kitchen an outworking of her.


How much would fictional houses cost in real life? from CNN Style

Houses which inspired writers from Poets and Writers

At TV Tropes:

  1. Big Fancy House
  2. Big Fancy Castle
  3. Cool House
  4. Old Dark House
  5. Horrible Housing
  6. Cardboard Box Home
  7. Bad Bedroom, Bad Life
  8. Lonely Bachelor Pad
  9. Non-residential Residence


Unique 143-year-old listed home in concrete and glass seeks new family

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Home » Richard Yates

A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates Analysis


Written in the early 1960s, “A Glutton For Punishment” is about a man who gets the sack from an unspecified office job in New York City. He considers keeping this information from his wife.


In this post-Mad Men era, it’s impossible to  read Yates and not envisage scenes from Mad Men.

Yates’s revival might simply be one example of our current fascination with mid-century America. Another example — or cause — of this fascination is Mad Men, which recently won the Emmy Award for best drama series, and has replaced The Wireas the show serious-minded people watch seriously and write about seriously in serious-minded publications.


The hustle and bustle of New York, in which everyone seems to have somewhere to go, contrasts against the aimlessness of Walt as he struggles with what he is to do and where he should go now that he is between jobs.

New York 1962

Walter Henderson works on Lexington Avenue. Here’s a photo from the mid-seventies:

Lexington Avenue 1975

This collection, first published in 1962, pinpoints, like a lepidopterist, a particular epoch in American history – the postwar world of dissatisfied veterans, young men swaying uneasily on the lower rungs of the career ladder, married to unsatisfactory women without whose typing job they would be destitute; ambitious but miserable young writers trapped in inappropriate jobs; unglamorous pre-dinner martinis, jazz bars, teachers despised by their pupils….can describe a world, and the state of mind it creates, so economically, so persuasively, that you stay your hand even as it reaches for the full bottle of paracetamol or opened razor.

from The Guardian Review of Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness


If you’ve read Yates’ most popular novel, Revolutionary Road, you may feel that the character of Walt is familiar — to me he seems like a mish-mash of the two main male characters of Revolutionary Road: Frank Wheeler and Shep Campbell. Like Frank, who gets up before his wife each morning so that he can compose himself into the man he thinks April needs him to be, Walt is careful to shield his inner turmoil from his wife. But Walt’s life situation is more like that of Shep, who has a big family to care for, weighing down on him, and a wife who he has started to view as unattractive.

In a short story, characters — even main characters — must be painted with a few deft strokes. In this case, we get to know Walter first as an uncoordinated, rather melodramatic boy. When we meet him as an adult, our view is coloured by what we know of him as the boy, but we are told that underneath the show of manhood, he is still the same boy:

He had become a sober, keen-looking young man now, with clothes that showed the influence of an Eastern university and neat brown hair that was just beginning to thin out on top. Years of good health had made him less slight, and though he still had trouble with his coordination it showed up mainly in minor things nowadays, like an inability to coordinate his hat, his wallet, his theater tickets and his change without making his wife stop and wait for him, or a tendency to push heavily against doors marked “Pull.” He looked, at any rate, the picture of sanity and competence as he sat there in the office.

In just one long sentence followed by a short one, we learn all about adult Walt that we need to know. Note how deftly the following information was inserted, seemingly as an aside:

  • He is one of the All-American privileged, with a university education and in good health
  • He is married
  • He has middle-class interests such as going to the theatre


Gender is a performance, learned around the time of adolescence.

To this female reader, A Glutton For Punishment seems to be first and foremost a story about the performance of masculinity. Femininity, too, is a performance, and people who perform their gender most carefully do seem to find each other. Walt’s wife performs femininity on the couple’s first date, when she waits at the top of the library steps just so her date will have to greet her by climbing up to her pedestal. This is the foundation upon which their relationship has been built, even though they have shared their secret motivations about that first date since getting to know each other. In some ways, nothing has changed. Walt sees his job as the breadwinner and protector of his family. When his wife sees through his mask of composure, she is no longer attractive to him — what he seems to want from a relationship is one-way support: It is his job to shield the woman from life’s stressors, such as firings. It became a matter of individual performance, almost an art, Yates writes of the childhood game of falling down dead, but he is equally describing the man’s role in a marriage.

These adult roles are learned at some time during childhood. For Walt, his adult-socialisation began in earnest when some older boys laughed at them for playing their falling-down-dead game.

The idea of mystique in a long-term relationship may be alluring, but you can’t keep it up.

Though we tend to think of women (Marilyn Monroe types) when we think of mystique, or perhaps because of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique which, not co-incidentally, was published just one year after this collection of short stories. Just as women were told that the pinnacle of happiness could be found in immersing themselves fully in home and family, men at this time had equally rigid expectations heaped upon them: Their role was to support this single breadwinner lifestyle. Just as women were expected to hide their longing for autonomy and professions, men were expected to completely mask their emotional vulnerabilities, even to their wives.

There are privileges that come with masculine autonomy, and with great privilege comes heavy responsibility.

We see this time and again on Mad Men — a male worker is fired and his female secretary is reassigned. The female secretaries, of course, earned very little in comparison to the men, all of whom play in a high stakes game. When Walter Henderson tells his secretary not to worry, that they’ll find her another position, the juxtaposition between their situations is stark: She seems lucky because she will have a job tomorrow; on the other hand, she will never be more than a secretary. Her real job is no doubt to find a husband and start a family.


Two Eras Of A Character Make For A Fuller Character Study

Many stories either dive straight into the action of the story or keep any backstory for chapter two. (Or in a short story, backstory tends to be dished out in small quantities and the author hopes it’s sufficiently interesting so as not to interfere with pacing.) A Glutton For Punishment is quite different because we meet the boy before we meet the man.

There are several reasons why this story structure has been chosen:

  1. Boyhood comes before manhood, so this is a logical sequencing
  2. This is a story about masculinity, and the era before the masculine performance is significant as a counterexample — a boyhood in which ‘falling down dead’ was no more than a game.

The Ending Matches The Beginning To Present A Clear Juxtaposition

From the beginning: Then the performer would stop, turn, stand poised for a moment in graceful agony, pitch over and fall down the hill in a whirl of arms and legs and a splendid cloud of dust, and finally sprawl flat at the bottom, a rumpled corpse.

The final sentences: His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he’d done all day. “They got me,” he said.

There’s much that is comical about the description of the nine-year-olds’ game of falling down dead: Back then, it ‘was the very zenith of romance’. Then there is the slapstick-type description of the actions and sounds made by the boys. This of course exists to contrast with the adult reality of getting fired while a breadwinner; an altogether more serious challenge.

Humour, too, serves as juxtaposition against the sadness.

Yates is often called a ‘depressing’ writer, but most of these stories are as equally humorous as they are sad.

Angela Meyer at Crikey

Just the right amount of telling versus showing

It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that when writing a short story you must show every single thing, but this story is a prime example of what is best told rather than shown. Take the sentence that segues us from the childhood era to the present:

But he had occasion to remember [the childhood play scene], vividly, one May afternoon nearly twenty-five years later in a Lexington Avenue office building, while he sat at his desk pretending to work and waiting to be fired.

We are not shown much of his firing, and not told why he is being fired, because this is not the interest point of the story.


A Glutton For Punishment is the fifth story in Yates’ collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, which was published very soon after he wrote Revolutionary Road. This story is very much from the world of Revolutionary Road.

Written from close third person point of view, focusing on the character of Walt. This allows the reader to empathise mostly (if not entirely) with Walt. We are inclined to empathise with a character who suffers some misfortune right at the beginning of a story — and of course this is not the beginning — we as readers have no idea what has prompted the firing. If we’d been let in on the extent of his incompetence, we may feel less warmth towards him, and more annoyance.

One of Yates’ biggest strengths is the way he gets you in so close to the characters – so close you can hear their thoughts and plans and see their hearts ticking – yet simultaneously at a distance so that you may see how they are perceived in the greater scheme of things. Yates suggests both compassion and pity through this kind of writing – and not just for the characters on the page, but for the person sitting next to you, and even for your own stupid, small (and often joyous) existence.

Angela Meyer, Crikey


While Mad Men is the more obvious TV analogue, in which Don Draper has literally stolen another man’s identity — a metaphor for the way in which men of mid-century America were forced to cultivate both a public and private, hidden self, I would like to consider for comparison a very popular TV series with a modern setting.

Perhaps it’s partly because the main characters share the same first name, but Walter Henderson from A Glutton For Punishment faces the same challenge to his masculinity as Walter White of Breaking Bad, especially the Walter White of season one (before he ‘breaks bad’):

  • Walter Henderson gets the sack for poor performance; Walter White is under-utilised, underpaid and disrespected by his students.
  • Walter Henderson hides his sacking from his wife, hoping to work things out on his own; Walter White hides his diagnosis of lung cancer from Skyler, hoping the same.
  • Walter Henderson feels he walks around with a thin veneer of calm, but his lack of co-ordination sometimes betrays him; Walter White is an intellectually clever science geek who is disrespected by alpha male types, exemplified by characters such as Hank. Walter Henderson…was a slightly, poorly coordinated boy, and this was the only thing even faintly like a sport at which he excelled.
  • Both of the Walts have wives who can see when something is wrong. This annoying astuteness makes the wives less attractive to the men (and in the case of Breaking Bad, to much of the masculine viewing public, also). Though the eras are different, the household roles are the same: both of the Walts keep out of the kitchen, supporting stay-at-home-Moms who look after the family. (I have wondered why Skyler isn’t working outside the home in the lead up to her second birth — this is a plot convenience rather than a realistic one, given that the family is struggling to make ends meet.)

Of course, Walter White takes a lot longer to admit defeat than Walter Henderson does — in fact, it takes five seasons of action before he admits that he is motivated by the need to prove his masculinity, and therefore his worth, to himself.

Walter White and Skyler

The first section of A Glutton For Punishment is about the innocent fun of childhood games, and the way in which children sometimes process the issue of death (and general failure) by incorporating dramatic scenarios into their free play. In this respect, the first part of A Glutton For Punishment is reminiscent of All The Dear Little Animals by Ulf Nilsson, in which a small troop of children go to great lengths finding dead animals and giving them funeral services.

All The Dear Little Animals


Looking  back on your own childhood, did you play games which now seem a little off-kilter? What life issue were you trying to come to terms with by playing these games?

Is there a part of your childhood self that you feel is masked most of the time, but which sometimes reveals itself in certain situations?

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Fun With A Stranger by Richard Yates Analysis

Norman Rockwell school teacher

Some short stories exist mainly as character studies. Fun With A Stranger (1962) by American author Richard Yates is one example.  The story paints a portrait of a particular kind of old-fashioned school teacher. The reader feels empathy for everyone involved, from the young pupils to the teacher herself.


A man retells what it was like being a third grader in Miss Snell’s class. Two particularly memorable events happened that year: The field trip to the locomotives and the Christmas party.


The setting is unambiguously mid-twentieth-century America, and though this town is set somewhere near a place called Harmon, it’s not clear which Harmon this refers to — there are a handful — one is a ghost town. It doesn’t really matter either. There is mention of Halloween and Thanksgiving, which of course are specifically American. We can also tell from the word usage: vacation, raincoats and rubbers.

The children are off on a field trip to see ‘locomotives’, which places this firmly in a certain era, just as my own real-life primary school field trips to the tobacco and hops farms place my childhood in a certain era.

It’s significant that female teachers were paid no more than a living stipend at this time, because the reader knows that Miss Snell’s purchase of a class set of erasers was no small thing for her, even though the gift was brushed off by the narrator as a disappointment.


The story is told by an unseen narrator, but we know that the narrator writes as an adult from memories of being a pupil of Miss Snell’s third grade class. Only he could have this information. (We assume the narrator is a boy because he writes of girls as if slightly removed from them. Also, I suppose, because the author has a male name, and we tend to conflate authors with narrators.)

The familiar childhood rivalry that often exists between two classes of the same grade is used to great effect in this story. The young, pretty, exuberant and socially adept Miss Cleary is set up as the clear antithesis to the old, starchy, awkward, black hat and black coat wearing Miss Snell, whose very name sounds brusque. Since class rivalries naturally occur, this is what gives rise to the protectiveness Miss Snell’s own pupils feel towards her. The rivalry is underscored first by the Taylor twins, who boast that they are going on a field trip, and next by Grace, the girl who interrupts Miss Snell’s class on the final day before Christmas by asking for a paper plate.


Children can be more emotionally adept than the adults who care for them.

The title Fun With A Stranger won’t be lost even on modern audiences, due to the 1977 and 2005 movies called Fun With Dick and Jane, the title of which is taken from an American grade one basal reader, used in American schools from the 1930s through to the 1970s. The Dick and Jane readers were coming under heavy criticism during Richard Yates’ adulthood, mostly for their lack of diverse characters, but also because they are so very easy to parody. The stories are ridiculously simplistic, even for the youngest of readers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Dick and Jane became a bit more sophisticated.

So the title of this short story has been chosen to evoke Dick and Jane, or rather all the things the Dick and Jane series evokes: innocence, awkwardness, something that’s easy to poke fun at because of its very earnestness. Likewise, this is how we are to think of Miss Snell:

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.

Dick and Jane became increasingly out-of-touch with the children reading it. In the same way, Miss Snell started teaching when teachers typically removed their personalities from their classroom personae. The children know nothing about Miss Snell other than what she shows them in class of her teaching style. As adult readers, however, we can fill in the gaps: Miss Snell is a lonely old woman who has interpersonal issues in her private life. If she fails to relate to third graders, we assume she has no family of her own.

Fun With Dick And Jane Title Page

Affection is expressed in many ways, and not always appreciated or reciprocated.

Just like a Dick and Jane reader, there are no ‘baddies’ in this short story. In other stories the rivalries set up between groups of pupils, or between pupils and teacher, encourage the reader to side with one group over another. But because this story is retold from an adult’s point of view — and an adult who clearly has empathy and wonder for Miss Snell — the reader can see that the pupils are far more important to her than Miss Snell is to the pupils, who rush out of her class at the end of the year and never look back.


The Impression Of Imperfect Recollection

The challenge in writing as a narrator looking back in time is that of detail: How might the reader believe that all of the story necessary for an engaging story has been recalled accurately? What does Yates do to give the impression that these specific details really happened? After all, this is a narrator rather than an omniscient narrator, and a narrator’s memory is fallible.

1. Describe Habit

John Gerhardt and Howard White usually walked home from school together, and often as not….

“Hey, wait up!” Freddy would call.

If you listened to the podcast Serial you’ll have noticed this come up a lot — narrators remember past events partly because they always happened, not just because they happened on a single day.

2. Let The Reader Know That These Events Are A Summary

John Gerhardt had already made it plain to the twins once, in so many words, that he didn’t like walking home with a girl…

…he very nearly said something to the effect that

3. Pick Events That Would Be Remembered

Sure enough, the things you remember from your third grade class, if anything, were the field trips and the parties.


Richard Yates published two short story collections in his lifetime — Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. This is from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which was released just a year after his most popular novel, Revolutionary Road.

3700 words

First person character as narrator. For more on this technique see: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.


There is a short story by Noel Coward about a boy with a drunkard father who idolises his teacher. Ultimately, the teacher disappoints. I read it back in high school but can’t remember its title. Anyhow, that was a great story. (And it seems I was the only kid in the world who didn’t know the short story writer Noel Coward also wrote plays and songs! Who knew?!)


The teacher in this story reminds me very much of a teacher I had for year 9 science. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s been through an educational system will have come head-to-head with some pretty eccentric characters. I wrote a story about this teacher and asked my writing group for critique. I was interested to learn that although what I wrote was non-fiction, some of the facts that happened in class came across to the reader as ‘unbelievable’. An important lesson when writing fiction based on real-life.

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Header: Norman Rockwell HAPPY BIRTHDAY MISS JONES March-16-1956