“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, published by Windmill Books, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1969. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Steig wrote picture books in a comically melodramatic way, which is one way of appealing to the dual audience of children and adult co-readers. Here’s a useful thing about melodrama: The audience can know it’s melodrama but still be moved.Continue reading “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)”
“Snow White and Rose Red” exists in many forms but I’ll refer to a version set down by the Grimm Brothers. This is the story of a lesser known Snow White, and her sister Rose Red. There is indeed a dwarf, but he’s a different sort of dwarf from the crew we encounter in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
SETTING OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
How big is this utopian forest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)
Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.
None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”
Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:
- The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter (1910)
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)
- The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland (2008)
In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.
This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.
These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:
Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.
These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.
In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.
Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.
Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.
(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)
So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.
Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).
One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.
All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.
The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.
If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.
THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.
Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.
Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.
In this old tale, the dwarf is small enough to be picked up by a large bird.
The trope of the human picked up and carried away by a bird clearly plays into ancient fears.
With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.
Scenes of pretty young women taking care of hirsuite beasts in front of the hearth is a common scene across fairytale. Below, an illustration for a Scandinavian tale. And because it is Scandinavian, the beast is translated into English as ‘troll’.
Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.
Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.
“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”
SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH
The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.
A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave.
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.
The living person who thinks they are really dead is utilised in the comic book series House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Canadian author). Jamaica is very close to Haiti, and Hopkinson has clearly made use of ancestral belief in her original additions to the Sandman universe.
There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.
Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother.
The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.
Probably because of the Disney film, Snow White from the story with the seven dwarves is the more famous Snow White. This remains a tale for those who read fairytale collections. I think “Snow White and Rose Red” would’ve been much better known 100 years ago, which is why a soap advertisement like below worked for an earlier audience.
But the trope of the female duo (twins, sisters, friends, enemies), each with a different colour hair, remains a staple. TV Tropes call one iteration the Betty and Veronica trope. On film, TV and in illustrated books, it’s really handy to give two girls different coloured hair — the audience won’t get them mixed up. This is why the actress who plays Paris on Gilmore girls was asked to colour her naturally brown hair to blonde, to make her visually distinct from Rory Gilmore.
More widely, we seem to have a bit of a thing for dangerous bears and pretty young virgins rubbed up together. I theorise this is because the bear symbolises brute masculinity, and the virginal young woman is peak femininity, and we traditionally like to see those particular outworkings in the same room.
In this case, I don’t think for a second that a veiled sexual reading of this fairy tale is the modern one; I suspect the inverse is true — bowdlerised versions of Snow White and Rose Red have tried (with only moderate success) to erase the sexual nature of a bear coming to visit maidens in their home. However, contemporary writers such as Margo Lanagan did bring the full force of bestiality back into it, where it actually always was.
The imaginative connection between women and bears goes way back into antiquity. The Roman/Greek goddess Diana/Artemis’s spirit animal was the bear. This character is goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity.
Then there’s Callisto, Artio, Ildiko and Mielikki. All coded femme, all associated with bears.
Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877
“Feuille d’Album” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in the Bliss collection. The word ‘album’ comes from Latin, neuter of albus ‘white’, and used as a noun means ‘a blank tablet’. This is the story of a man who appears to have no personality. Because of this, a group of women become fascinated by him, imagining he has deep, dark secrets. They endeavour to find out how he lives.
NARRATION OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”
The narrative voice of “Feuille d’album” has a strong personality. This is ‘the village voice’ of a subculture of women, society ladies, with the leisure to speculate about the life of an unfathomable young man of their acquaintance.
If this story were adapted for screen, I’d love Scottish actress Shirley Henderson to narrate in one of her English accents, for example that of Edith Dubarry in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.
Although the viewpoint character is this nosy unseen narrator, the ‘main character’ is the story of Ian French. We must see her as unreliable. Here’s what she can know via the gossip mill:
- He is socially awkward in the women’s presence.
- He keeps a neat house (because some of them have visited)
- He gave an egg to the young woman who lives opposite.
- He may or may not have said “Excuse me Mademoiselle, you dropped this.” The gag is too perfect, a society tall tale (with a shaggy dog ending), and the result of many retellings.
Because she has such a distinctive voice, and feels so much a part of the society she describes, this narrator is clearly not omniscient. She is never present in Ian’s rooms. She doesn’t see him watching, scribbling things down. Therefore, the bulk of the story must be pure imagination on the narrator’s part. Highly imaginative narrators/characters are very useful in stories.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”
He is probably the son of a wealthy family, highly trained in the arts. He may have been sent to France as a ‘remittance man‘ to keep him out of the way, as he may be embarrassing, socially. (Some commentators have speculated that Katherine Mansfield might have been a remittance woman, sent to Europe because she was a woman who loves woman.)
Through my contemporary lens, I understand Ian French as autistic. At first I suspected social anxiety, but as the story progressed, a number of autistic-esque features hoved into view.
- Ian is very good at what he does, and he does that thing a lot (painting).
- He appears to freeze in social situations. Perhaps this is because he has a disability when it comes to reading social cues, and his way of dealing with this is to simply be quiet.
- He has a surprisingly well-ordered house.
- He has developed strategies to get things done on any given day. He writes himself notes, perhaps in the voice of a mother or nanny, who he still needs to hear from, if only in his head.
- He fixates on the woman with few clues. Obsessive love is common across the breadth of human experience, but Ian seems to fixate on her motherly aspects. He seems to see someone who could take care of him. The details he fixates on are unusual.
- Case in point, the egg. He (supposedly, and supposedly based on what the narrator has previously observed) really loves that egg, and he is perhaps attracted to it in a sensory kind of way. The flipside of sensory processing issues is that unexpected things can feel immensely pleasurable.
The character of Ian French was surely inspired by Mansfield’s interactions with human beings in real life, even if Ian French is a conglomeration. There is no ‘autism epidemic’ — in previous eras there was simply no name applied to neurodifference.
None of Ian’s issues would be a problem, except it appears he does want social connection, on his own terms, preferably one-on-one.
Ian’s opponents are the society ladies who speculate about his private life, epitomised by the voice of the unseen narrator. These women position themselves as allies, checking up on him, but are counterproductive when it comes to Ian finding the social connections he wants. They clearly consider him a figure of fun. We deduce that he knows this, for he turns them away whenever they darken his door.
A man who is a figure of fun is unlikely to find his people. He must find a new connection, with a person outside the social clutches of these particular ladies of leisure.
Unfortunately for Ian, we can also deduce that whatever he said to the young woman about the egg has got back to the ladies of leisure. So in fact, the object of his affection has revealed herself (off the page) to be as dismissive as they are.
Ian watches the girl until he knows her weekly schedule, then he plots a way to meet her. We don’t know he has plotted this, in the veridical truth of the story. Because of the unreliable narration, it’s possible he never talked to the young woman at all, and that the entire interaction with the egg is a comical fabrication. Nevertheless, that is the level zero story. Any metadiegetic discourse in which we’re told, “Psst, that’s not actually what happened!” is missing. We must check our own tendency to believe these stories. We must. not. listen. to this gossip. Leave the poor guy alone.
Back to the level zero story. Because Ian is so passive, the ‘planning’ comes from his opponents in the form of three women who visit his house. Notice how Mansfield is making use of the Rule of Three.
The climax of this story is the meeting with the young woman who likes eggs. The story finishes after this scene.
the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. … A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles and Ends
Until this moment, the storyteller has invited us into her gossipy world. I confess that I was expecting some sort of dark act — a stabbing, perhaps? This is entirely set up, of course. Plus there’s the history of salacious stories about women murdered by stalker men. So this climax is an example of an anticlimax, which also subverts our expectations of crime and melodrama.
The story has closed with a perspectival shift. In many short stories, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt.
These final two steps are left for the reader to ‘write’.
The plot revelation, arrived at via deduction is the part where we realise the young woman may have gone back to the ladies of leisure and told them the story about the egg, making Ian look hopelessly silly and an object of fun.
Ian has found himself in the wrong society. He may find like-minded people eventually, perhaps in the art world. I hope he did.
Header painting is byJames Jacques Joseph Tissot – Holyday. I imagine Ian stands partially hidden by the tree trunk on the leftmost edge.
Which mouse are you? Fight, flight, freeze or appease? Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) is inclined to appease, as perhaps you must, if you are small and vulnerable.
Except every mouse I have ever met is a bolshy, ‘sit on this and swivel’ type. In winter they hang out behind the dishwasher and will hurtle their brown little bodies across the kitchen, even with me, the rightful inhabitant, standing right there. Contrary to literary depictions, mice are definitely not the appeasing type. A realistic personification of mice would render them stunt doubles and heist criminals.
But what of Mrs. Tittlemouse? Mrs. Tittlemouse is the 1910 epitome of the perfect, uncomplaining housewife. She is also the epitome of a partner violence victim.
Just as rapport-building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
So do I approach this story like it’s 1910 or like it’s 2019? Well, let’s not be boring. Let’s see how this story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature has fared.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TITTLEMOUSE
Mrs. Tittlemouse is a classic domestic story, which were aimed at girls — not exclusively read by girls, of course. Stories aimed at boys tended to be adventures in which the boy character left the home, had fun away from the home, then returned at the end.
The Shortcoming of every single mouse in children’s literature ever (well, not quite) is: smallness, shortcoming, vulnerability. The mouse is the animal stand-in for the child. Within that archetype there are many variations, but vulnerability is the standout feature.
Morally, there’s no fault on the part of Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse. There is nothing in this tale which sees Mrs. Tittlemouse treating another creature badly. That’s exactly what makes the story boring. Not all main characters of children’s stories have a moral shortcoming, but the most interesting ones do.
Important: Mrs. Tittlemouse’s ‘kindness’ towards her intruders is a survival strategy:
Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
Mrs. Tittlemouse is a homebody who only wants to keep her house clean and tidy.
What does Mr. Jackson want? He wants her attention. He wants her labour, her material store, her living space. He wants to intrude; he wants her to notice him.
Mrs. Tittlemouse’s opponents comprise the various creatures who come into her dwelling, creating chaos and messing up her good work. In they come, one after another:
- A big fat spider (who mistakenly thinks the house belongs to Miss Muffet).
Notice how Beatrix Potter has made use of the Rule of Three in Storytelling. As usual she got a bit of intertextuality in there, with reference to the nursery rhyme:
Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey
Along came a spider who sat down beside her
And frightened miss Muffet away
Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey
Along came a spider who sat down beside her
And frightened miss Muffet away
In his analysis of Little Miss Muffet, Albert Jack writes:Pop Goes The Weasel
Arachnophobia is clearly not a modern compliant. Although cobwebs have traditionally been used as a dressing for wounds (and, scientifically tested, have turned out to contain all kinds of antibiotics), spiders have long been seen as malevolent. Richard III, presented by William Shakespeare as the most evil English king, is described as ‘a bottle spider’, which comes from the belief that spiders were inherently toxic — if one were dropped into a glass of water, every drop would be poisoned. It is therefore entirely understandable that this particular little girl from days gone by would have been frightened away by one…
Beatrix Potter has subverted the trope of the scary spider in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, because the spider is not scary at all. In a story with a succession of opponents, some of these will at first appear to be opponents but will turn out to be benign, or possibly even mentors. (Otherwise a succession of baddies gets boring.)
Next come the bumble bees, and finally Mr. Jackson, the epitome of unwelcome guests. (Though is he entirely unexpected? Methinks he’s intruded before.)
Mrs. Tittlemouse know exactly who he is, but when we first meet Mr. Jackson he has his back to us, which makes him appropriately ominous.
Mr. Jackson’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t hear a woman’s ‘no’.
I’ve successfully lobbied and testified for stalking laws in several states, but I would trade them all for a high school class that would teach young men how to hear “no,” and teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
Mrs. Tittle mouse ‘bundles the spider out at the window’. Then she sets about getting dinner when she discovers her main opponent, Mr Jackson.
Instead of telling him to get the hell out, Mrs. Tittlemouse gets on with pleasantries. She even offers him dinner. Then I suppose she wonders why he won’t leave.
Life is made up of challenges that cannot be solved but only accepted.Roger Ebert
Mr. Jackson is a Cat In The Hat character (or maybe we should say it the other way round). The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is now a carnivalesque comedy in which an intruder comes into a tidy house and creates havoc. He drips all over the place and blows thistle-down all over the room. He pokes through her cupboards in search of honey — he’s a bit of a Pooh Bear character.
Since Mrs. Tittlemouse is obsessed with tidying up, and therefore a boring character, Mr. Jackson meets a variety of insect foes as he explores the mouse house.
As animals are wont to do, they eventually leave of their own accord. Mrs. Tittlemouse has been holed up all that time, waiting for them to get the hell out.
It is ultimately Mrs. Tittlemouse who becomes the trickster. She saves her own abode by fetching twigs and partly closing up the front door, before they can come back.
She seems to have realised that although her small size makes her vulnerable, she can also use this to her advantage.
Mrs. Tittlemouse also seems to have realised that she only enjoys the company of other mice — all turned-out nicely and with good table manners.
Perhaps this story could not end in any other way, but when Mr. Jackson turns up, gatecrashing the mouse party, Mrs. Tittlemouse hands him acorn-cupfuls of honey-dew through the window even though her door is too small for him to come in.
This is a story of archetypal appeasement: A character ignores your boundaries, so you do the bare minimum to pacify them. You hope they won’t retaliate or become violent if only you give them a little.
This is terrible advice.
Mr. Jackson clearly understands he is not wanted, yet he demonstrates highly troubling persistence.
And so the story ends, and apparently all is well in the world. Everyone is happy. Mr. Jackson can still enjoy reciprocation from the target of his attention.
But with that jerk right outside, can Mrs. Tittlemouse be truly happy? Can she ever be truly free?
If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to.Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Pair this children’s picture book with “The Little Governess“, a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, likewise about a female character who is obliged to be ‘nice’ to a man who invades her space. In the case of the little governess, she is out on a mythic journey, but the case of Mrs. Tittlemouse shows another reality: Women don’t have to even leave their homes in order to suffer the imposition of entitled men. Therefore, it’s not up to the woman to take measures to avoid such men, such as avoiding public (male coded) spaces.
Certain animals are coded as industrious and others as lazy. Another animal coded as industrious when anthropomorphised is of course the bee.
Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.
Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbours are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures — and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?marketing copy
Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!from the Teachers’ Notes issued by Candlewick Press
In common with Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the marketing copy centres Mercy’s opponent, Eugenia Lincoln. The educational notes centre the story-specific opponent. Either way, this story is about Mercy’s opposition, and I believe this is key to making these stories work. Mercy is too pig-like to make a sufficiently interesting character in her own right. Her Desires are basic; her Plan is always the same — to follow the joy. A character like this exists for her cute-appeal, but must be surrounded by very interesting opposition, and the opposition must make plans sufficient for a story.
NARRATION IN THE MERCY SERIES
This aspect of Mercy influences the narration, as well. The Mercy books are split into very short chapters (about 2000 words divided into 15 chapters = 133 words per chapter). Focal character changes with the chapter:
Chapter 1: Mercy and the Watsons sit happily at home doing something cosy together. In this case, they are drinking lemonade on the patio. There will be something not quite right in the world. In this case, Mrs Watson has put a lot of lemons in the lemonade and this makes Mr Watson’s lips pucker. This ‘something not quite right’ is comical but also foreshadows conflict to come.
Chapter 2: Switches to Eugenia and Baby Lincoln next door. Eugenia isn’t happy that she’s living next door to a pig. They’re all outside on this hot day, and the pig is very evident. To counteract the fact of living next door to a pig, Eugenia decides they will plant pansies. Each chapter is a gag in its own right, with set-up and punch.
A joke has two parts: setup and punch. The setup raises the tension in the audience, if only for a moment, through danger, sex, the scatological–a host of taboos–then the punch explodes laughter.Robert McKee, Story
In this chapter, the set-up is that Eugenia will plant petunias. The punch is that she will make Baby do the hard work of digging.
Chapter 3: We follow Mercy through a hole in the hedge into Eugenia’s yard. Mercy eats three pansies (The Rule of Three In Storytelling), with the full understanding that she goes on to eat every single pansy.
Mercy is depicted as happy and oblivious, with her eyes closed for most of it. Mercy is more animal than human, akin to a very small child. She wants whatever good thing appears before her. First it is the violets. (Next it is the prospect of food at a children’s party.)
Chapter 4: As fully expected, Eugenia discovers Mercy has eaten all her pansies. The evidence is clear, as Mercy has pansy petals on her chin. This chapter ends with a chase scene. The look on Mercy’s face indicates Mercy thinks this is a game of chase. Eugenia’s hands are posed to look like she wants to strangle the pig.
Chapter 5: Mr and Mrs Watson wonder where Mercy has gone. Interestingly, Baby pops up to add something to the conversation. Previously she was witness to Eugenia’s chasing Mercy. Baby is very much ‘the reader’ — she turns up when the narration needs her to be there. She says what the reader would like to tell the other characters. And she appears to ‘float’ from one scene to another. The gag in this chapter is that Mr and Mrs Watson also believe Eugenia and Mercy are playing a game of tag. “They look so happy!” Baby gently tells them that Eugenia is not happy. (The reader already knows this, too.)
The point of view continues to switch like this. Then a new character comes into the fold — the wonderful Francine Poulet.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON THINKS LIKE A PIG
Mercy doesn’t have much in the way of executive functioning, so when Eugenia next door plants violets — with the express purpose of making her forget they are living next door to a pig — Mercy can’t help but eat them. But this isn’t all that interesting, so for the purposes of this story, the main character is the chicken-bodied Francine Poulet (whose last name means chicken in French.)
Francine is comically single-minded. She has grandiose notions, and she fancies herself a superhero. Her single-mindedness will be her downfall (literally).
Francine relishes the challenge of locating a pig. She exclaims that this is a ‘career expanding opportunity’.
A NOTE ON LANGUAGE
Notice how Kate diCamillo uses these multisyllabic words within very simple sentence structures. It’s important that she’s able to use the words she would like to — otherwise much of the humour would be sacrificed. Note, too, that there’s nothing in ‘career expanding opportunity’ that can’t be sounded out.
A note on Mercy’s series-long opposition:
Eugenia Lincoln calls Animal Control on Mercy. Eugenia functions as the long-term nemesis of Mercy, though Mercy remains blissfully unaware of this. Eugenia’s sister Baby is constantly trying to talk Eugenia down. She functions as the child reader, trying to persuade Eugenia that Mercy isn’t so bad. Unfortunately for Mercy, but fortunately for the plot, Baby fails in this mission every time because she is lacking in fortitude, assertiveness and is inclined to self-doubt. So the two sisters next door are an Opponent/Ally combo. This makes them especially useful.
After Eugenia calls Animal Control, Francine Poulet steps in as the main ‘Opponent’. But unlike Eugenia, Francine is a likeable character, and she is now The Main Character.
diCamillo establishes Francine’s likeability first during the phone conversation, in which Francine plays a guessing game with Eugenia. Francine is thereby set up as someone who enjoys fun.
For Francine, everyone on Deckawoo Drive is opposition, because nobody helps her locate the pig:
- The Watsons are so distraught they’re not making any sense.
- The Lincoln sisters disappear — they were only involved in the inciting incident of calling Francine in the first place.
- Stella is opposition because she has insisted Mercy wears a hat. This is the comedy mask trope, and prevents Francine from realising that Mercy is not a person (at first).
Francine is depicted as the human version of a chicken, but her plan in this story is to ‘Think like a pig.’ This is Francine’s catch phrase. She repeats it to herself over and over.
Repetition is a basic building block of comedy. Lines which in themselves are not all that funny can become funny if repeated as part of a comedy. Stand-up comedians have lines/reactions that, when repeated, become even funnier.
Seinfeld’s Kramer — how he always has a dramatic way of coming through the door
The I.T. Crowd’s Roy — “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” (both repetition and mechanical behaviour)
We see Francine look increasingly animalistic v she really does look like a chicken as she leaps over the hedge. Next she’s down on her hands and knees sniffing about. Then her beaked-shape nose is in the air. Finally she is up a tree, like a roosting chook. Normally in stories, a human character is presented as a single animal. In Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the burglar is depicted as a weasel. Here we have an extra layer — a human depicted as a chicken pretending to be a pig. A veritable turducken.
And that’s why I love the titles of the Mercy series. The titles are especially apt — of course Mercy thinks like a pig. She IS a pig, and she’s a very piggy pig, too (unlike Olivia, for instance). It is actually the Animal Control woman who ends up thinking like a pig. The title both describes Mercy and subverts our expectations. (Too many titles ruin some of the fun by spoiling the plot.)
The comedy mask comes off when Francine realises Mercy is wearing the blue hat. The reader has already realised this, if not from the preceding chapter, from the curly tail sticking out.
In lieu of a Anagnorisis we have the set-up and ‘punch’ — the big narrative punch is that Francine has caught Mercy after realising it was a pig wearing that hat.
The books in the Mercy series always end in the same way — the characters come together on stage for a bow — they sit down and eat toast.
“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry, included in Dark Lies The Island (2013). It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.
This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.
CHARACTERS OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”
The fat lady/thin lady duo is pretty common across storytelling, which is useful for Kevin Barry because the reader will quickly form expectations from that.
For instance, we expect something light-hearted:
a fat and a skinny character make up a two-character ensemble. This is usually a comedy trope, usually with the skinny character being the Straight Man, although inversions of this are seen as well.TV Tropes
Ernestine and Kit remind me of the women in Kate diCamillo’s Mercy series. Eugenia is phonetically similar to Ernestine. Her sister is Baby Lincoln. The cover below summarises their relationship — Baby is (very obviously) the childlike character while the other is a parental disciplinarian.
Typically, one woman of the pair will be motherly; the other needing to be mothered. A two-older-woman due may be religious, or may be quasi-lesbian tropes. Kevin Barry covers this possibility in this story, too, when Eugenia and Kit wonder how they are perceived by others.
How else does Kevin Barry persuade us that these are two law-abiding ladies?
- Others are waving at them. As readers we take our cue from other others within the world react to them. This way, even non-sympathetic characters can see sympathetic. Here people wave because everyone else is in a good mood and perhaps because they’ve been caught up in a vintage car rally.
- It seems these old ladies are also going to the vintage car rally at Kilmore, or to other innocuous places (like the castle).
In light of two older women on a day trip, the following sounds innocuous but only on second reading we realise the opposite meaning is intended:
‘children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.’
STORYWORLD OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”
A fine Saturday in June.
‘The world as fat on the blood of summer.’ This not only sets the scene but sets the vibe. (At this point we may assume it’s comedic hyperbole.)
Like “Beer Trip to Llandudno” this is a road trip between friends. Road trip stories are based on the classic mythic structure.
I can’t quite work out their route, because I can’t work out which places are real and which are made up for the story. (An Irish local may enlighten me.)
Notice how the women drive sedately at first, next it ‘lightly sped’, finally they’re breaking the speed limits terribly.
- A bungalow in the Midlands
- Through North County Sligo (Ireland)
- Lough Gill (a lake to the west)
- The lakeside to ride the ferry to Innisfree (an island in Lough Gill). I looked at the Google street view and wondered if there is such a thing as the ferry to Innisfree (spelt Innishfree in the story). The answer is no — ‘This pint-sized island lies tantalisingly close to the lough’s southeastern shore, but, alas, can’t be accessed. Still, it’s visible from the shore’. (Lonely Planet)
- Tully (means a small hill in Irish, but is it a real place? Many Irish place names include the word Tully…)
- Leckaun, Country Leitrim (where the young mother in stonewash denim is headed. The detail on the denim makes me wonder if this is the 1980s, but these old women are probably noticing what’s now called acid wash denim, themselves stuck in the 80s.)
- An unspecified castle
- Northern Ireland, a separate jurisdiction
- The outskirts of Enniskillen, where there is another festival
- The Asda in Enniskillen
- The midland plain
- A clump of hawthorn bushes near the side of the road. This is where the women leave the kidnapped child.
When I read Hawthorn I wondered why I got a fairytale ping. That’s right — in Sleeping Beauty it’s a Hawthorn hedge that springs up around the castle.
The symbolism in this tale is not opaque. The hedge represents [Beauty’s] hymen, the white blossoms her virginity. The odor of sex emitted by blossoming hawthorns signals that her purity will soon be a thing of the past.
There’s plenty of symbolism around the hawthorn, especially in Ireland:
Besides sex and death, Sleeping Beauty is also informed by contemporary realities and ancient beliefs about the powers of the hawthorn tree. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, dense thorny hedges were increasingly cultivated throughout Europe to keep the peasantry off land that had traditionally been used in common by serfs and nobles alike. In Ireland, at the time the story was published in 1812, these enclosures were particularly reviled, although lone hawthorns on the island were considered the home of faeries, and thus enchanted.
The hawthorn was a potent symbol in pre-Christian Europe—appealed to for good fortune, feared if harmed, and burned on funeral pyres to help waft the soul toward heaven—and later, the Church appropriated boughs of the Mayflower’s delicate white petals as devotional icons displayed during that month’s observances of the Cult of the Virgin. Many of the supernatural appearances of Mary reported by the faithful over the centuries—the so-called Marian Apparitions—place her under a hawthorn tree or perched on one of its branches.Bill Vaughn
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”
THE RULE OF THREE IN STORYTELLING
This story makes an interesting case study into when (and how) to make use of The Rule of Three. It’s often said that when telling a story three incidents feels right to the audience — set it up, show it’s a pattern, change up the pattern. In this case we have a thwarted kidnapping followed by a successful one, so Kevin Barry has not made use of this Rule of Three at all. That’s two, is it not?
So what has Barry done instead? He’s using more of a step stool.
- The women drive past a child in a stroller
- They attempt a kidnapping
- They succeed at Asda.
If we count like this, it’s a slightly different take on the same basic rule. But it’s children who are counted rather than kidnapping attempts.
“Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.The Paris Review
Here’s the log line of the film, which gives a clue to the underlying psychology of the characters:
Two ladies in their seventies drive through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. As they pass by village pubs and beaches, they imagine the terrible, immoral lives people are living today. Their one consolation is the innocence of children. This is an absurd and macabre tale about how the petty-minded destroy themselves.
The details about these ladies are marvellous.
- They’re into phrenology (‘She has a liar’s chin.’)
- They leave their tea to brew until it’s as strong as ale.
- They nibble at their scones like hungry mice
- Ernestine keeps wine gums in her bag to lure children
- Ernestine likes to leaf through power-tool catalogues, which gives her a genderless air — much like Kerry of This Country (Kerry likes steam engines.)
- They drink a lot of New Zealand wine
- Listen to classical music on the radio
- Go through copious amounts of paper towels (the reason is not given, or at least I haven’t picked it up.)
We are at first persuaded that these two are on a nice day out. Their wants are minimal. “A Cornetto would go down a treat.”
They are revealed to be judgemental, unpleasant types. Perhaps they simply enjoy judging people as a way to strengthen the bond between them?
The first question I have is, why do these two ladies want to stop in at the pub they just dissed, the one with beer kegs and drugs and a pool table?
The big reveal is their desire to abduct a child.
Ernestine and Kit want to abduct a child to fulfil their deeper desire to take an uncorrupted slice of humanity home for themselves, to keep it pristine forever and make themselves feel good about a corrupt and evil world.
Their Opponents are the children themselves as well as their parents, who obviously don’t want their children abducted.
The story is presented as habitual. Ernestine and Kit are very good at what they do. They drive around until they spot an opportunity for abduction. Then they pounce.
If caught out, they use their cover as older women to crack on they were only rescuing a lost child.
In a story like this one, where two women go on a crime spree, there will be a succession of Battles. “The” Battle is the bit that comes right before the Self-Revelation. So, the Battle where these women successfully steal a child is ostensibly the Battle they win.
But they realise on the way home that this is not the angelic child they thought it was. In fact, it stinks.
A child is not what they really want at all — a child is only what they think they want. The want to steal the children of drug addicts and prostitutes, but when they do get a child, they assume this of it, and for this very reason they don’t want it. They are stuck in a ludicrous, evil loop.
“Ernestine and Kit” is a take on a classic changeling story. Communities have believed in changelings until very recently. In the 1890s a man in Cork set his wife on fire believing she had been switched by fairies. Even now, ideas about changelings can accompany mental illness. When Ernestine and Kit realise the baby is not what they thought, it is — to them — as if the ideal baby has been switched out for an evil one.
What have people done across history when they don’t want a baby anymore? They left it in the woods, or in other out-of-the-way places: privies, roadside, dung-hills. This practice was ignored by society even though it wasn’t okay according to the church, reflecting the difference between church ideals and the realities of looking after another child.
They will never get what they want because they don’t want what they think they want, but they will keep on hunting because this is their Saturday pastime.
They do still believe there is such a thing as the angelic child, so we can be confident they’ll continue on their kidnapping exploits, forever thwarted by lack of perfection.
Unfortunately, when I see two older ladies out on a drive I sometimes think of Ernestine and Kit. More deeply, this is a story about how the realities of parenthood don’t match the idealised version of it. If we didn’t have these idealised visions of children the species would probably die out.
The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my kid’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY
When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:
I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.
I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.Mo Willems, NPR
The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.
Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Shortcoming. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.
Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)
By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:
- Drive a bus!
- Eat a hot dog all by myself!
- Stay up late!
- Real estate!
- A big, red truck!
- Turtleneck sweaters!
- A driver’s license!
This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).
The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.
In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition
- to create payoff at the end
- to give the main part of the story its narrative drive
What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)
How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.
Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:
- water it once a month
- go for piggyback rides on its back
- play tennis with it
Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three — three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.
In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.
Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:
- Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
- Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
- Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
- Resolution (what I’d call the Anagnorisis, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Anagnorisis)
- Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)
(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)
“Really, I had no idea!”
The comedic thing about this particular Anagnorisis: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.
I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.
At the end — ‘the wink’ — Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS
The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.
Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.
It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.
So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.Mo Willems, NPR
How do picture book illustrators handle the delicate issue of swearing in children’s literature? Well, Pigeon clearly utters expletives here.
Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE
The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.
The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.
In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.
The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.
One remarkable thing about Alice Munro: her ability to see aspects of psychology which only drew public attention decades later. In “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” we have a beautiful character study of a philandering man and, his self-justification for wrong-doing and what has since been called sexual solipsism. In “Queenie” Munro paints a picture of what the authorities call ‘coercive control’, or what is known in pop-culture as ‘gaslighting’ (after the 1944 movie).
Laura Richards explains the nature of coercive control here.
STORYWORLD OF “QUEENIE”
Canada, 1960s. The Byrds are popular. “Turn Turn Turn” (which uses words from the Bible) gets a mention in the story, to set the musical scene.
Chrissy follows Queenie to the Greek populated part of Toronto, which I believe is called Danforth. I can’t find any locals on the Internet who have geolocated this story, but I’m imagining Queenie worked someone like this.
NARRATION OF “QUEENIE”
In narrative terms, Alice Munro uses Chrissy in an unusual but seamless way. I’m only noticing because I’m looking for this, but she brings Chrissy back into the story whenever Queenie needs a diegetic narratee.
Here’s an example of the switch from plain ole third person narration to Queenie confiding in Chrissy. Notice how Munro doesn’t make Chrissy walk in through the door, sit down for a cup of tea — these conversations are suspended in space. Yet they work:
She found it, and she threw it all out. She never told Stan.
[THIRD PERSON NARRATION] That this was the ideal place. And then she forgot. She was a little drunk – she had to be. She had forgotten absolutely. And there it was.
[SWITCH TO USING CHRISSY AS THE OTHERWISE INVISIBLE NARRATEE] ‘I pitched it,’ she said. ‘It was just as good as ever and all that expensive fruit and stuff in it but there was no way I wanted to get that subject brought up again. So I just pitched it out.’
Chrissy is an extradiegetic narrator because a long time has elapsed since she was a part of this story, to the point where her younger self feels to her like a different person. We only get a sense of how much time has elapsed near the end:
Even I could see that, inexperienced as I was.
SYMBOLISM OF NAMES
A short while ago I analysed a wonderful film called The Wrestler and talked about the importance of names — names stand in for our identities, so when we get a new name we have a new identity. When “Queenie” opens with a paragraph about a new name, we know this is going to work similarly, and it does:
“It was more of a surprise to me to hear her say ‘Stan’ than it was to have her let me know she wasn’t Queenie anymore, she was Lena. But I could hardly have expected that she would still be calling her husband Mr. Vorguilla after a year and a half of marriage. During that time I hadn’t seen her, and when I’d caught sight of her a moment ago, in the group of people waiting in the station, I almost hadn’t recognized her.”
The rest of the story exposes the real reason why Stan insists on using Queenie’s birth name — he is a coercively controlling individual who is taking charge of Queenie in her entirety, replacing her with someone who would like to mould for himself, like a regular Pygmalion.
Chrissy’s feeling towards ‘Stan’ (rather than Mr Vorguilla) indicates how different he seems to her now that she sees a new side. He might as well be a different person entirely.
“I still couldn’t get used to her saying ‘Stan.’ It wasn’t just the reminder of her intimacy with Mr. Vorguilla. It was that, of course. But it was also the feeling it gave, that she had made him up from scratch. A new person. Stan. As if there had never been a Mr. Vorguilla that we had known together—let alone a Mrs. Vorguilla—in the first place.”
QUEENIE, STAN VORGUILLA AND COERCIVE CONTROL
This short story makes an excellent case study in how coercively controlling relationships tend to work. “Queenie” should be required reading for all young women, in particular.
- Queenie is first set up as an empathic character who with a high emotional quotient. She comforts her mother when the mother has bad dreams. Despite being no good at sport, nor academically, she is the first picked for teams and projects at school. Subverting the fairy tale expectation that step-sisters naturally fight, Chrissy and Queenie never fight. In other words, Queenie is the perfect victim for a coercively controlling older man. She has been rewarded her entire life for pleasing others and performing emotional labour. And for a girl of this era who is not academically inclined, she believes—as many really did—that her only route to success is to find a husband as quickly as possible and perform emotional labour for him.
- Queenie has absorbed a set of related culturally dominant relationship tropes which are wholly unhelpful to her in this situation: That men are not ‘normal’ (because men and women are a fundamentally different binary, in constant opposition); that jealously is only natural and that if only a woman can sufficiently please a man (with her grooming, with her care and attention) then he will eventually treat her well. In contrast, Chrissy has not absorbed these messages yet we see the older ‘wiser’ Queenie school her younger step-sister, meaning to help, but exposing her own shortcoming: She is wrong.
- Queenie puts a lot of effort into dressing in a hyper-feminine way. Though she is at ‘home’, she wears a skimpy dress, full make-up and lots of jewelry. (Munro paints the picture of a so-called ‘mod‘.) In this era especially, women were overtly encouraged to look good for their husbands at all times, otherwise risk losing them. This cultural message was exploited by advertisers.
- Coercively controlling people don’t need to be violent often, or at all. They only need to exude the impression that they could be violent at any moment. Stan doesn’t like the sound of the kettle, so Queenie goes to pains to keep him from hearing it while it’s on. These petty preferences are clearly a form of control.
- Stan goes through Queenie’s private belongings, checking up on her e.g. her purse. He controls every aspect of her life, and continues to do so obsessively, sending Chrissy Christmas cards hoping to reconnect with Queenie long after she has escaped.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “QUEENIE”
A one-star review of “Queenie” on Goodreads makes a good job of describing the surface level plot:
This was a completely boring story of a young girl who shacks up with her pervy music teacher, runs off with him, finds out he is horrible then runs out on him. Her sister never hears from her again.
From a four-star review:
This was the first time I had read Alice Munro and boy does she pack a punch! She crams an entire lifetime into 62 pages.
Yes, that is exactly what Alice Munro tends to do. ‘Lifetime in miniature’ is Alice Munro in a nutshell.
Someone at Summary Brew makes the mistake of calling this story ‘lightweight’. I see nothing lightweight about the topic of coercive control:
In this lightweight short story, our protagonist shares her childhood memories with her stepsister – Lena, affectionately referred to as “Queenie”.
Who is the ‘main character’ of this story? Chrissy is clearly the less interesting character and is therefore used as the viewpoint — bridge between audiencea and Queenie. One Goodreads reviewer says, “The narrator, Chrissy, seemed to me a well-constructed expedient to depict Queenie’s character in an in-depth and detailed way.” (I like that use of the word ‘expedient’.)
One really useful question writers can ask when drawing a character is: What is my main character wrong about at the beginning of the story? And how much will they change by the end? If a character starts out wrong and continues wrongheadedly into the future, then you are writing a tragedy. As I described above, Queenie is wrong about how good relationships really work.
“Well, of course he was wrong. Men are not normal, Chrissy. That’s one thing you’ll learn…”
Alice Munro uses the technique of giving Queenie a catchphrase which sums up her worldview. Chrissy tells us this is something we might well see on a movie poster:
Queenie believes that her life won’t begin until she finds a man, so she finds one as quickly as possible.
Queenie’s ‘romantic’ opponent is of course Stan.
Chrissy is also her opponent for holding a different world view.
‘Well you and me are very different, Chrissy. Very different’. She sighed. She said, ‘I am a creature of love.’
But for the majority of the story, Chrissy doesn’t challenge Queenie.
This is an interesting example of a story in which the plan of the ‘main character’ (I mean Chrissie) runs alongside what the reader might wish the plan to be.
For this reader, I wish Chrissie would take Queenie by the shoulders and give her a good talking to. In most films, and in many popular written stories, you will encounter a scene in which the ally confronts the main character: “What are you doing?! Don’t you know this is dangerous?!” That kind of thing.
But Alice Munro never gives us that moment. Instead, we don’t even know why Chrissy has gone to live with Queenie in Greektown. At first I thought she’d gone as Queenie’s rescuer, but Chrissie is just as naive as Queenie is at that point in their lives. She looks up to her older married step-sister and that’s just how it would’ve been. Anything else would have been unrealistic.
The would have been a long big struggle and a culmination for Queenie, which led to her leaving Stan. But we don’t see that.
The battle scene for Chrissy happens over the scene where Queenie is trying to silently and hurriedly make tea. I have previously written about the problem of ‘tea-drinking scenes’ and how writers can sometimes rely upon them too heavily because we desperately want to give our beloved characters a well-deserved break. But in “Queenie”, Alice Munro shows us that tea scenes — specifically kitchen scenes — can be chock full of tension, and constitute Battle scenes in themselves.
Chrissie realises who Stan is before Queenie does. Alice Munro describes the moment she has this revelation without telling the reader what that revelation is:
I couldn’t think. I still had the sensation of the room moving around me, though it wasn’t doing that any more in a physical way.
Half a page later we are told she’s had her Anagnorisis:
It could also have been that he sensed a change in me. People do sense the difference, when you are not afraid of them any more. He would not be sure of this difference and he would have no idea how it came about, but it would puzzle him and make him more careful.
And in case the reader still isn’t clear on exactly who these men are, we are shown an overt example of their misogyny:
‘You’d think the husband might have come forward,’ said Leslie. ‘If he was the druggist, he was the boss.’
‘He ought to brew up a special dose,’ Mr Vorguilla said. ‘For his wife.’
Via Chrissy’s narration, Alice Munro puts into words why she has included all of these relationships — for a compare and contrast exercise for the reader, who is hopefully considering what they want in a relationship (if anything at all):
My father and Bet. Mr and Mrs Vorguilla. Queenie and Mr Vorguilla. Even Queenie and Andrew. These were couples and each of them, however disjointed, had now or in memory a private burrow with its own heat and confusion, from which I was cut off. And I had to be, I wished to be, cut off, for there was nothing I could see in their lives to instruct me or encourage me.
Chrissy’s anagnorisis is completed when she goes out with Leslie. And this is the part which showcases Alice Munro’s talents. The epiphanies she gives her characters are hard-won, unexpected (in this case coming from an unexpected source — Leslie is himself a different kind of misogynist), subtle and complex.
I would have seen flaws in this, later in my life. I would have felt the impatience, even suspicion, a woman can feel towards a man who lacks a motive. Who has only friendship to offer and offers that so easily and bountifully that even if it is rejected he can move along as buoyantly as ever. Here was no solitary fellow hoping to hook up with a girl. Even I could see that, inexperienced as I was. Just a person who took comfort in the moment and in a sort of reasonable façade of life.
His company was just what I needed at the moment, though I hardly realised it. Probably he was being deliberately kind to me. As I had thought of myself being kind to Mr Vorguilla, or at least protecting him, so unexpectedly, a little while before.
When the story is nearly over it shifts abruptly in time and we are told more clearly that this is a memory, long-since passed.
I was at Teachers’ College when Queenie ran away again. I got the news in a letter from my father. He said that he did not know just how or when it happened…
Alice Munro uses the technique of sideshadowing to allow the reader (via Chrissy’s imaginings) to imagine what might have happened to Queenie:
But now something has happened. Now in the years when my children are grown up and my husband has retired, and he and I are travelling a lot, I have an idea that sometimes I see Queenie. It’s not through any particular wish or effort that I see her, and it’s not as if I believed it was really her, either.
Once it was in a crowded airport, and she was wearing a sarong and a flower-trimmed straw hat. Tanned and excited, rich-looking, surrounded by friends. And once she was among the women at a church door waiting for a glimpse of the wedding party. She wore a spotty suede jacket that time, and she did not look either prosperous or well. Another time she was stopped at a crosswalk, leading a string of nursery-school children on their way to the swimming-pool or the park. It was a hot day and her thick middle-aged figure was frankly and comfortably on view, in flowered shorts and a sloganed T-shirt.
Notice how the paragraph above makes use of the Rule of Three in Storytelling. Now we have the main sideshadow:
The last and the strangest time was in a supermarket in Twin Falls, Idaho. I came around a corner carrying the few things I had collected for a picnic lunch, and there was an old woman leaning on her shopping-cart, as if waiting for me. A little wrinkled woman with a crooked mouth and an unhealthy-looking brownish skin. Hair in yellow-brown bristles, purple pants hitched up over the small mound of her stomach – she was one of those thin women who have nevertheless, with age, lost the convenience of a waistline. The pants could have come from some thrift shop and so could the gaily coloured but matted and shrunken sweater buttoned over a chest no bigger than a ten-year-old’s.
The shopping-cart was empty. She was not even carrying a purse.
Unlike those other women, this one seemed to know that she was Queenie. She smiled at me with such merriment of recognition, and such a yearning to be recognised, that you would think this was a moment granted to her when she was let out of the shadows for one day in a thousand.
And all I did was stretch my mouth at her, as at a loony stranger, and keep on going towards the check-out.
Chrissy goes back to find her, only to her already gone.
It was possible but hardly likely that she was still in the store, and that we kept going up and down the aisles just missing each other.
What is the emotional effect of this ending? For me it’s sorrow and regret. We cross paths with people and never see them again. Sometimes we share a part of our lives with people, then never see them again. I think this was more common before social media allowed the possibility of (faux-) reconnection with people from our pasts, but in the pre-Internet world in which Alice Munro is writing, you really can lose someone forever.
From a five-star review on Goodreads:
This wonderful story reminds us that, at a certain point, we no longer look to the future hoping for excitement or novelty as often as we look into the past for comfort and reassurance, or, if we are honest, with regret. Alice Munro’s ‘Queenie’ once read, ripples through our minds, reminding us of those times, gone forever, that mean the world to us.
“The Three Strangers” is a short story by Thomas Hardy, published as a serial in 1883. The story is set in 1820s pastoral England and is one of Hardy’s ‘Wessex Tales’.
SETTING OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Reading this story now, nigh on 200 years after it’s set, this setting feels almost mythical.
This is partly achieved by language no longer in use:
- grassy and furzy downs
Then there’s the reference to an actual mythical/legendary person: Nebuchadrezzar the second lived 630–562 BC. He was the Chaldean king of Babylon from 605 until his death. I don’t know enough about the Bible to infer any other deeper meaning. But others have looked deep into it:
References to Timon, Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar are made not only because these are figures from the distant past but also because their abuses of power can be compared to that of the hangman, whose every action is lawful but derived from an inhumane system of justice.The Victorian Web, quoting a scholar named Brady.
Other, smaller things make this story feel old. For example, the description of ‘an elderly engaged man of fifty or upward’. Back then, 50 was elderly! Now it’s ‘middle aged’. Likewise, a ‘man of seventeen’ would today be just a boy.
Then there’s the ominous weather conditions, perfect for a horror setting:
Five miles of irregular upland, during the long inimical seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains, and mists
The ominousness of the rain is tempered by detail which describes the necessity of rain:
the grand difficulty of housekeeping was an insufficiency of water; and a casual rainfall was utilised by turning out, as catchers, every utensil that the house contained.
(We do the same at our Australian house, though we have four tanks, gutters and gutter guard for the purpose of collecting and storing rainwater for domestic use.)
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
As Edgar Allen Poe does in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Hardy omits the final digit off the exact year this was supposed to have happened. I wondered why Poe did this when everything else about the setting in the Rue Morgue story was so specific. Perhaps doing so was a writing convention of the late 19th century.
Though this story does not take place on an actual island, writers sometimes make use of island symbolism when describing remote buildings on land. Stephen Crane also did this in his short story “The Blue Hotel”.
It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this account, though the sky was lined with a uniform sheet of dripping cloud, ordinary objects out of doors were readily visible.
At this time in history, people really did believe that eerie things happened at full-moon — that people turned into werewolves, or that the moon could turn you mad. An ambulance driver friend has told me that, even today, full moons tend to reveal mental illness, resulting in more ambulance call-outs during a full-moon. I asked her why that is but she has no idea. I’m not even sure it’s statistically fact, but the perception still exists.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE THREE STRANGERS”
“The Three Strangers” opens with a wide angle view of the local area, written in the continuous, then switches to the singulative with:
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
A group of neighbours meet up at the shepherd’s house to celebrate a birth and a christening. It is pouring down with rain outside. (I also learned the original meaning of ‘eavesdroppings’ — literally, water which drops off the eaves and onto the ground, possibly down the wall. Before someone invented guttering, I suppose.)
A dark stranger turns up and asks to seek refuge inside. The shepherd welcomes him in. The stranger accepts mead and dries himself by the chimney.
The second stranger turns up. He starts drinking a lot and Mrs Fennel isn’t comfortable with him in the house. When they ask him what he does for a living, he replies in rhyme. They deduce he’s an executioner, come to hang the local sheep thief.
Then a third stranger turns up, this time short and blonde rather than tallish, gaunt and dark. But he won’t come in. He’s terrified by the sight of people in the room. He closes the door and runs away.
The characters stand around the ominous gray stranger in the centre of the room and someone chants as if trying to get rid of the devil. Then a gun goes off in the distance, which they know to be fired whenever a prisoner escapes from the nearby town of Casterbridge, where there is a prison.
They deduce that the terrified man was the sheep thief, and that he fled because he recognised his own executioner. The firing of the alarm gun continues at intervals.
A fifty-year-old guest advises the executioner to pursue the man, since that is his job after all. But the executioner says he needs to go home first and retrieve his staff. He insists he needs a staff as a weapon to hit his prisoner.
The rest of the men decide to take it upon themselves to catch the man so they gather pitchforks and planks of wood (staves) as weapons, light lanterns and go after him. The women stay in the house and comfort the Christened baby, who has been woken up.
The women vacate the room where the food is. The stranger who was sitting by the chimney turns back and reenters the property. He eats some of the cake. He drinks more mead. Then he is joined by the stranger in cinder-gray. After eating and drinking their fill, the two strangers go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, the men out hunting for the so-called escaped prisoner realise the executioner is no longer with them and aren’t sure what to do next. They’re having trouble navigating the land in the darkness, with its unexpected rubble and hollows.
The men eventually find the stranger they were pursuing, hiding near the trunk of an ash tree. In comical fashion (for the reader) the men confront the stranger with words they’d have heard constables say. “Your money or your life!”
The stranger allows himself to be arrested without fuss. The man take him back to the shepherd’s cottage. They arrive back at 11 o’clock. There they find two officers from the jail and a magistrate.
The constable tells them they’ve caught the escapee. But the officials don’t recognise him. It is revealed that the man they’re after is the gaunt one with an unmistakable bass voice — the man in the chimney corner.
The third stranger reveals that the condemned man is his own brother. He has come to bid him farewell. He was caught out by darkness falling and knocked on the door, shocked to see his own brother escaped from jail.
They ask for more information about the convict. The brother reveals that he is a watch-and-clock maker, when the man himself described himself as a wheelwright. The younger brother says ‘The wheels of clocks and watches he meant, no doubt’.
By the following morning, general local opinion has shifted even more in favour of the sheep thief, now for his daring escape as well as for the circumstances which led him to steal the sheep in the first place. So when they go out looking for him, they don’t look very hard. And when they do see him, they let him go.
The man was never found, perhaps escaped across the seas. The characters in this story are long since dead and the baby is now an old woman. The story has now become folklore in the local area.
CHARACTERS IN “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Hardy begins by setting up a cast of characters. He basically goes around the party and describes them.
Charley Jake — Described as a hedge-carpenter. What is a hedge carpenter? I tried looking it up online and was directed back to Hardy’s story. It seems to be specific to this story. Is it a man whose job it is to keep hedges trimmed? The word is also used in a 1905 story (in Chatterbox) and I deduce from context that a hedge-carpenter is a low-respect trade, whatever it is. Below that of a wood worker, anyhow. “‘My fingers be as full of thorns as an old pin-cushion is of pins.'”
Elija New — Parish clerk, booming voice, plays the serpent a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornet)
John Pitcher — neighbouring dairyman, the shepherd’s father-in-law
Shepherd Fennel — Master of the house where the party is being held. Married a dairyman’s daughter and therefore into this property, Higher Crowstairs.
Mrs. Shepherd Fennel — Sensibly frugal. Keeps control of her own inherited money for their future family. This probably sounded unfair to men of the time, but seems forward thinkingly feminist to my modern ears.
The fiddler — a boy of those parts, about twelve years of age, who had a wonderful dexterity in jigs and reels, though his fingers were so small and short as to necessitate a constant shifting for the high notes
Engaged man of fifty
The man in the chimney corner — a wheelwright
Oliver Giles — a man of seventeen, enamoured of his partner, a fair girl of thirty-three rolling years. Has a lot of money at his disposal.
Hardy makes use of The Rule of Three in Storytelling.
Stranger number one
He might have been about forty years of age. This makes him a generation older than Mrs Fennel though his accent tells her he comes from her parts.
He appeared tall, but…this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and that he was not more than five-feet-eight or nine. Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there was caution in it, as in that of one who mentally feels his way; and despite the fact that it was not a black coat nor a dark garment of any sort that he wore, there was something about him which suggested that he naturally belonged to the black-coated tribes of men. His clothes were of fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his progress he showed not the mud-accustomed bearing of hobnailed and fustianed peasantry.
Fustian = thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth with a short nap, usually dyed in dark colours
Stranger number two
The stranger was dark in complexion and not unprepossessing as to feature. His hat, which for a moment he did not remove, hung low over his eyes, without concealing that they were large, open, and determined, moving with a flash rather than a glance. His shoes are cracked.
He tells the party he’s fallen on rough times lately. Then he makes the most of his hosts’ generosity and asks for tobacco, then pipe to smoke it in, as well as all the paraphernalia, for despite being a smoker he has no equipment.
At this point I wonder if he’s a ghost. We’ve had two clues: He’s not of Mrs Fennel’s ‘time’, and he has not even the most basic equipment on his person.
Hardy seems to be posing a riddle for his reader: Hardy gives us clues about him, we’re to use those clues to work out who he is.
Rich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do work, and I must work. … the oddity of my trade is that, instead of setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark upon my customers. … O my trade it is the rarest one, Simple shepherds all – My trade is a sight to see; For my customers I tie, and take them up on high, And waft ’em to a far countree!
Is he an executioner? The grim reaper?
My tools are but common ones, Simple shepherds all – My tools are no sight to see: A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing, Are implements enough for me!
At this, the party come to the same conclusion I had a few paragraphs earlier. (Hardy is deliberately keeping the reader one step ahead of the characters.) They think he’s an executioner, a ‘public officer’, who has come to hang the sheep thief, who the characters have sympathy for. He was driven to steal out of desperation.
Stranger number three
The door was gently opened, and another man stood upon the mat. He, like those who had preceded him, was a stranger. This time it was a short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed in a decent suit of dark clothes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Told by a narrator long after the supposed event, this is a story in the tall tale tradition. This is not an omniscient narrator, but a local personality. So we can deduce that parts of it have been made up for colour. For instance, the scene in which criminal and executioner share stolen cake and mead together, one failing to recognise the other. It adds colour to the story to think this happens, but who was there to witness it? The room was empty, which is precisely why the men went in.
I’ve noticed lots of people say this story is narrated omnisciently. The story is narrated in omniscient style, as if the narrator can know everything.
The shortcoming of this little party is that they are overly influenced by appearance. They are unable to correctly guess at who the strangers are. They’re looking closely at shoes and body language, reading intention into body language when we can’t possibly know someone’s inner thoughts just from their demeanour.
The party wants to enjoy a Christening with merrymaking.
After the strangers turn up and the third one scarpers, their desire changes. The men jump into superhero mode and want to save the day by tracking down the supposed criminal.
Their constructed opponent is the third man, though the guy they’re after is actually the first man. They’re most scared of the second man.
They will take lanterns and weapons and find the third man in the slippery darkness. Then they will turn him in to the authorities and receive pats on the back.
The Battle is not when they find the third man — he goes happily with them (probably happy to have some shelter for the night, knowing he’ll be revealed as not the culprit, and that his brother is currently on his way out of the area.)
The big struggle is when the men get back to the cottage and have the conversation with the authorities.
They learn that they’ve got the wrong man, and that they’ve judged the strangers incorrectly.
The sheep thief gets away because he is respected for his daring. The story is passed down as an important part of local history.
Header illustration: Henry Macbeth-Raeburn’s frontispiece for Wessex Tales, Volume Thirteen in the Complete Uniform Edition of the Wessex Novels, The Fennels’ Cottage, Higher Crowstairs (1896)
“Her First Ball” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1921. Though this story is nigh on 100 years old, it’s a tale of pick up artist culture, and reminds of the ‘toolies’ who attend Schoolies Week here in Australia.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “HER FIRST BALL”
Leila has turned 18, so must now attend balls in order to find a husband. Her city cousins, The Sheridans, introduce country-girl Leila to this exciting, dream-like world.
The story opens like this…
Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.
… which reminds me of a classic writer’s problem: Where does this story begin? This is a problem faced by anyone who’s ever recounted an incident. What was the inciting incident? Peter Selgin writes about that here.
Mansfield decides to open “Her First Ball” in the cab on the way to the ball, which Leila shares with her cousins Meg, Jose, Laura and Laurie. Later she’ll include a flashback to Leila’s anxiety, as she sits on the bed pleading with her mother not to go at all.
Leila is at a social disadvantage because she lives in the country, and the fact that she lives in the country in itself speaks to a naivety below her years.
Another iconic New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, didn’t think much of this story. He didn’t accept the overarching shortcoming of Leila:
… the title by itself almost tells the story. A young country girl is staying with her town cousins who take her to a drill-hall ball. It is all very much indeed in the feminine tradition. Dresses, gloves, powder, flowers — and all the similes come tumbling out: A girl’s dark head pushes above her white fur like a flower through snow … little satin shoes chase each other like birds…. But later on we come to the point of the story. The girl, Leila, bewildered and enchanted by it all, is breathless with excitement. How heavily, how simply heavenly! she thinks. She dances with young men with glossy hair—and then with an older man who is both bald and fat. He perceive stat it is her first dance and tells her that he has been doing this sort of thing for thirty years. Then he goes on and pictures Leila herself in years to come. Her pretty arms will have turned into short fat ones, he says. And she will be sitting up on the stage with the chaperones while her daughter dances down below. And his words destroy her happiness. The music suddenly sounds sad. And she asks herself an agonising question: Why doesn’t happiness last forever? ‘Deep inside her’ we read, ‘a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed.’ And of course she hates the bald fat man.
Now I don’t know how my listeners will feel about this story, but for me it just doesn’t come off. It is, no doubt, tru e enough of many young girls, but for my part I’m afraid I can’t help making some comparisons. For instance, had any of Shakespeare’s young heroines (wonderful ones, say, like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, or Marina in Pericles)—had they encountered that elderly bald fat man, and had he told them that shocking truth—well, I don’t know, but I fancy they would have just laughed and asked him why he wanted to say anything so obvious. In other words, young female character can be made of somewhat sterner stuff, and there is something in my make-up which refuses to accept the suggestion that that particular trying moment in the girl’s life was really so important and significant as it is intended to be.Frank Sargeson, Conversation in a Train and Other Critical Writings
Sargeson seems to have forgotten the final paragraph of this story, in which Leila forgets all about it, but he taps into something that’s been a more recent conversation among bookish and film-loving types: Why do female characters always have to be so kick ass and confident? Lack of diversity among female characters is a big part of the problem with the phrase ‘strong female character’. Why do girls always have to be so damn strong? This is the problem boys have faced since forever… Is it girls’ turn now?
I can’t say I’ve had the exact experience Leila had. But I can give you two personal examples which resonate:
The first is from watching TV. Most of TV is forgettable, and the vast majority of TV dating show interactions are equally forgettable, but a few years ago I was watching that Chinese dating show on SBS when one bachelor rejected an interested young woman by telling her, “I can imagine what you’ll look like when you’re old.” She seemed taken aback and replied with something like, “I can see what you’ll look like when you’re old, too.”
I took a close look at this young woman and I really couldn’t see what he was seeing. Of all the insults hurled on that show, the accusation that she already, as a young woman in her prime, masked the shadows of ageing, seemed to me about the worst thing someone could say to another person in a dating context. (My take on it: She reminded him vaguely of someone he knows in real life who is actually old, and he blurted it out awkwardly.)
When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy who worked as an artist in the shed attached to my rented converted barn (long story) turned up one night when I was making a funny video starring my workmates. I was doing some last minute editing because I had to show it to my audience the following day. But I had run out of storage space on my laptop and I showed him what I was doing. He volunteered to pop down to the supermarket and pick up a spool of CDs.
First, I showed him what I was doing. I’d taken a video of my boss — an experienced, capable and very kind French teacher, who was speaking to her class at the time of filming, in what I assume was a fairly boring vocabulary exercise — one she’d done a thousand times. She wasn’t exactly animated. She sat hunched on her stool, with a look of middle-aged concentration.
I was the other languages teacher in our department, about 25 years younger than my head of department. Alistair next door was a young looking 39, but 39 nevertheless. Whereas women consider ourselves old around the time of our 30th birthday, he considered himself well-and-truly in his prime. “Oh. You’re hot,” he mused, looking at the video I’d made, “but I guess you’re gonna look like her one day. Such a damn shame.”
It’s worth pointing out, though Frank Sargeson was not your stereotypical privileged macho man owing to his being gay in an anti-gay era, he did not experience life as a woman, either. He wasn’t a product of a culture which tells young women that the most important thing about us is the beauty which comes only with healthy, fulsome youth, and that when our beauty is gone, there’ll be nothing at all left to replace it. (In fact, Frank was well-known for his lack of attention to aesthetics. His house was a hovel — he cared only about his vege patch.)
Having been on the receiving end of comments like that, I have more empathy for Leila than Frank did.
What about you?
By today’s standards, Laurie’s a little weird with his sister Laura, calling her ‘Darling’ and possessively telling her he’ll dance the usual two dances with her. Meanwhile, country-cousin Leila is noticing every detail, wanting to keep the rubbish tissue paper out of Laurie’s new gloves as keepsake.
Leila doesn’t know what to do, so she follows her cousins. Once at the ball, the girls go straight to the toilet/dressing area, where young women crowd around the mirror. This is exactly what it’s like:
And everybody was pressing forward trying to get at the little dressing-table and mirror at the far end.
I once wrote a short story in which this happens at a school ball, and a male critique partner expressed his skepticism, not believing that women’s toilets are like that at all. I’ve since concluded that “Her First Ball” is a particularly feminine story, more generally relatable to woman readers.
Mansfield herself sees the ridiculousness of the dressing room situation:
“How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hair-pin.”
Meg introduces Leila to her friends in a rather condescending way, turning herself into a mother hen. The girls respond with etiquette but are obviously more interested in the men, standing on the other side of the room. The men are the romantic opposition, and one man in particular.
Though Leila hasn’t got a clue what the formal proceedings are, the men all cross the parquet floor at once and fill up the girls’ dance cards. Failure to fill up a dance card felt like a serious rejection. The dance card culture lasted in New Zealand until about the 1950s, when dating started to become more informal. The wars changed culture a lot — women would have fun dancing with each other when there weren’t enough men to go round.
In 1921, the girls don’t have much say in who they get to dance with. If they don’t want to dance with someone, they’re unable to decline:
“Let me see, let me see!” And he was a long time comparing his programme, which looked black with names, with hers. It seemed to give him so much trouble that Leila was ashamed. “Oh, please don’t bother,” she said eagerly. But instead of replying the fat man wrote something, glanced at her again. “Do I remember this bright little face?” he said softly.
Because in this social milieu, it is men who do all of the choosing. It’s not up to Leila to make any plans. Instead she is swept along with the proceedings, on a treadmill (the first step on the moving walkway towards boring middle age). The ‘whirlpool’ sensation we get from Mansfield’s imagery, with ribbons flying and streamers and elongation describes most literally the sensation of being spun around during a dance, but it also symbolises being swept up into a culture of matrimony which begins with one’s first ball and ends with the women dressed in black (as the chaperones are — as a clear sign they’re not ‘on the market’ — but this is of course symbolic of death). By going to your first ball, you’re now on that inevitable decline. For Mansfield, beginnings are reminiscent of endings. She can’t enjoy a beginning without also thinking of its ending.
There’s a flashback to Leila’s boarding school, where she learned to dance but under completely different conditions — staid and without the sexual tension Leila had not anticipated.
In the brief moment where her designated partner doesn’t come to collect her, Leila thinks melodramatically that she’s going to ‘die’. But then he does come and they make small talk as they dance. This hooks into the ‘treadmill towards death’ idea.
The second dance partner also opens with a comment on the floor. Leila wonders if this is customary. Like the previous one, this young man asks if Leila had attended a certain party the week before. The conversation with the second young man is revealed to be exactly the same as that with the first. This is significant. The night now has a fatalistic feel to it — as if everything is playing out according to some supernatural rulebook — the characters might be automatons, and there’s something creepy about robotic behaviour. (That’s why they’re used so often in horror.) Within the world of the story, these boys attend many balls, saying basically the same thing to most of the girls, and are bored by it. This juxtaposes with Leila’s excitement at the novelty, serving to emphasise it. (This boy takes her to eat an ‘ice’ — a novelty people had fridges and freezers in their homes. Such products had to be delivered right before they were consumed.)
Now that Leila has experienced two identical interactions, she’s expecting the same again. So are we, due to the Rule of Three in Storytelling, but at the same time, we know our expectation of sameness will be subverted.
Leila’s third dance does not go as the first two did. The old fat man turns out to be even older than she thought.
As reader, I am annoyed with this man. What the hell is he doing, inserting himself into a social event designed for young people? He reminds me of the 29-year-old men who insist on attending Schoolies Week year after year after year. (Here in Australia these men, mostly men, often in their 40s, are known as ‘Toolies’.)
This guy seems to get off on shit-talking to young women — the younger and more naive she seems, the more he enjoys it. These days there’s a word for it: Negging. In its most basic form, a man insults a woman hoping to elicit a strong reaction, because a strong reaction is — for him — better than no reaction. He then has something to ‘work with’, and his next task is to simply flip that negative strong emotion into a positive one, which according to pick up artists, actually sometimes works.
Because Leila has been culturally conditioned to be nice to men, she looks at his bald head and feels ‘quite sorry for him’.
Sensing this, the middle-aged man negs Leila by pointing out that the rules are different for women, who must modify their behaviour as they hit middle age, unlike himself, who continues to dance, since he feels like it:
“Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones, and you’ll beat time with such a different kind of fan—a black bony one.” The fat man seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old dears up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how some dreadful man tried to kiss her at the club ball. And your heart will ache, ache.”
The middle-aged man has been doing this for so long, he knows the exact kind of scripted small talk Leila has already been exposed to. He mentions the floor, but points out her feelings will have changed towards it, almost as if he’d been listening intently to Leila’s first two conversations:
And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, Mademoiselle Twinkletoes?” said the fat man softly.
The man’s omniscience almost turns him into a kind of evil fairy godfather — a ghostly figure whose only purpose at the ball is to ruin Leila’s night.
I’m also reminded of a scene from Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The first person main character, a faithful butler, embarks upon a mythic journey and encounters a fellow traveller.
“I’m telling you sir, you’ll be sorry if you don’t take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late” — he gave a rather vulgar laugh — “Better go on up while you still can.”
It occurs to me now that the man might just possibly have meant this in a humorous sort of way; that is to say, he intended it as a bantering remark. But this morning, I must say, I found it quite offensive and it may well have been the urge to demonstrate just how foolish his insinuation had been that caused me to set off up the footpath.Remains of the Day
No one appreciates anyone else reminding them of how old they’re getting, no matter how young they are at the time. It strikes me that women absorb the message that they are getting too old too fast before men feel it. (This has been studied. Women first start to feel old at the age of 29, men at 58.
Leila takes him at his word, and laments:
Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.
Leila has had one of those epiphanies like Sun of “Sun and Moon”, in which the much younger Sun also realises that perfect evenings can never last forever.
Leila continues to smile, because that’s what you’re required to do at a designated ‘happy’ occasion, but her feelings on the inside are quite different:
But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?
Then the middle-aged man pulls out a classic pick up artist (and also a classic schoolyard bullying) technique — he tells, “you mustn’t take me seriously, little lady.” He was just joking, see! JOKES! If Leila took him seriously it’s all on her! Why can’t young ladies grow a sense of humour? Sheesh.
The ending is similar to that of “The Doll’s House“, in which the underdog girl has something horrible happen to her, but almost with determination, she’s resolved not to let it bother her. Like Else Kelvey, Leila forgets all about her dance with the horrible, middle-aged man, but the reader knows that even if she’s ‘forgotten’ the incident, the epiphany remains with her.
I expect one day, when Leila sits up on the stage watching her daughter, she will recall her first dance and she will recall that man.
What do you make of endings in which the character ‘forgets’ the bad thing and moves on?
We now know that the brain can go back in time and change how an event is perceived. Psychologists call it ‘postdiction’ (riffing on PREdiction). There is also a Latin term for it: vaticinium ex eventu (foretelling after the event).
This is probably an adaptation to help us get on in life after horrible things happen.
“In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is a much more modern story but the underlying structure is the same.
I use the same epiphany sequence in “Midnight Feast“. Roya sees the impact of climate change when she finally takes a peek out of her own kitchen window, but she’s unable to sleep until she forgets she’s ever seen it.
Header painting: Louis Haghe – The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856