A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

many crabs climbing on rock at seashore

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is sometimes subtitled “A tale for children”. This short story reminded me of middle grade novel Skellig by British author David Almond. Sure enough, Almond has said in interview that he was influenced by the 1960 Colombian short story, and others have already looked into the relationship between the two.

  • What does it mean for a short story to be ‘for children’?
  • How is the story structured?
  • What do I get out of this story and how are its themes relevant today?



NARRATION OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

Perhaps this is the thing which seems tailored for children. The narrative voice has a fairytale/folktale vibe.

STORYWORLD OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

The setting is a fairytale world, but not the forests and castles of landlocked fairytale Europe — this is a fishing village beside the sea and the sea is the magical place. Weird things come out of the sea. First crabs, then, well, an old man with wings.

But why else is the sea setting important? Well, the sea and shore is often said to be a ‘liminal’ space — a space that exists on the borders, in the ‘in between’. But the word liminal is useful because it refers to metaphorical borders as well as geographical, actual ones.

liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.

Liminal Space

Apart from the sea itself, the story arena is very small for this one — we never follow the ‘camera’ into the ocean depths. Rather, the entire story takes place around a chicken coop and shack.

The setting is ‘fallen’ — the inverse of utopian. Also known as postlapsarian. A type of hell before actually getting to hell. ‘Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing’, we are told. Hell on Earth, in other words. This is a story about an unfortunate convergence. The angel is both miraculous and ordinary — the world is both worldly and heavenly, with no division between the celestial and earthly.

When people come from all around to see the caged angel, broken and pathetic, this is not part of the fantasy world. Garcia Marquez is saying nothing about human relationships that hasn’t actually happened. In this way he is like Margaret Atwood, who wrote a ‘fantasy’ world for The Handmaid’s Tale, but invented nothing — every terrible thing in Atwood’s book had happened somewhere at some point in history.

Until the 20th century, it was socially acceptable to enjoy cruelty as entertainment.

Australia is having this debate, most recently with The Melbourne Cup — a culturally significant annual horse race. Many horses die as a result of this race, and their treatment too often involves torture. Australians are currently bifurcated into those who happily accept the Melbourne Cup and those who are morally appalled by it. Using history as our guide, the Melbourne Cup’s days are numbered.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS”

SHORTCOMING

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a story about a community rather than an individual, though the story focuses on a husband and wife, which makes sense because the angel arrives at their house.

The symbolism of names is important here. Pelayo is the Spanish form of Pelagius, which if you trace back far enough means “the sea”. This character is inextricably linked to his home by the sea. Elisenda is from Catalan — originally a Visigothic name meaning Temple and Path.

DESIRE

Pelayo and Elisenda do not want a scraggy old guy with wings in their yard. That is about the last thing they need, in the wake of all those crabs. They want their baby to get well. They want to live their simple lives in peace, without calamity, without crowds turning up to their chicken coop all the livelong day.

OPPONENT

The Opposition in this story is an excellent reminder that ‘Opponent‘ does not equal ‘Villain’. The opponent in a story is the character who stands in the way of the main characters’ Desire. In this case the Opponent is very much the victim of the main (viewpoint) characters (the villagers).

The angel is guised as a ragpicker — a person who collects and sells rags. In stories, characters tend to underestimate those dressed in rags. The Pied Piper is a classic example – pied meaning he was wearing clothes stitched together by lots of different rags, meaning that he was too poor to afford proper clothes. Yet the Pied Piper had the last laugh.

Perhaps because of this history, in which a dishevelled appearance so often belies intelligence, conniving and trickery, I expected this story to end differently. I expected the fallen angel to ‘win’, to take revenge upon the people who abused him rather than helped.

The angel is presented as a classic horror genre opponent. In horror, you can’t kill the baddie. It keeps coming back, even if it’s only one arm clawing its way along the floor.

PLAN

Pelayo and Elisenda ask the woman who knows things for advice. This woman is completely full of supernatural crap, but she’s established herself as Someone Wise, and people listen to her.

We can find contemporary analogues in anti-vaxxers, astrologists, conspiracy theorists and similar. There will always be people like this in every society, who position themselves as helpers and mentors as soon as science fails to explain new and disturbing phenomena.

BIG STRUGGLE

Which part of this story is the Battle? The scenes of abuse, with the angel trapped in the cage, are of course a big struggle of sorts. For storytelling purposes, the Battle scene is the part which leads to the Anagnorisis.

This is an interesting technique: The writer spends most of the story with characters engaged in a big struggle, but the death scene is very short. The Battle which kills the angel is presented to us as succinct narrative summary rather than as a dramatised sequence.

In fact, his death is presented to us as if in passing, underscoring how little respect was garnered by this celestial creature:

Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.

Why? Why not dramatise that scene for us? Wouldn’t it be spectacular, to see how a tarantula woman spiritually murders (‘crushes’) an angel? Well no, it would be grotesque.

  • The story is about the relationship between the humans and the angel — the tarantula is mainly brought in as a plot device
  • What I can imagine this scene looked like is probably far more fearsome than how anyone could’ve described a blow-by-blow account on the page
  • Unless writing for the action and thriller genres (and adjacent), an audience probably doesn’t even want a blow-by-blow description of a crushing.

ANAGNORISIS

When even the tarantula can’t get rid of the groteque angel completely, Elisenda realises she’ll just have to live with him.

Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if astro-biologists discovered life on another planet. Unless it was intelligent life who was coming for us all, I suspect we’d all be surprised for a while, but that the wonder would very soon wear off and we’d return to our regular infighting here on Earth, giving extraterrestrial lifeforms very little thought on a day-to-day basis, outside a small group of enthusiasts. We’d just take it for granted that it’s there, much like we take deep sea life for granted. I rarely give a thought to the alien-like creatures living deep in the Mariana Trench. If similar lifeforms were found beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, I’d probably watch a documentary on it, be fascinated for a while, then go back to my day-to-day life.

Because we can’t remain in awe forever, right? Awe is not an enduring emotion. If we felt it every day, it wouldn’t be ‘awe’.

NEW SITUATION

Having made money off him, Elisenda and Pelayo will live a nice life in their nice big mansion, having put the poor creature right out of their mind.

This is an active non-noticing. I believe we in the West are pretty good at active non-noticing. Our sports shoes are made by children living in slave conditions, but we choose not think of that when we walk out of the store wearing comfy new kicks. Almost everything we buy is unethical; but to not buy it is unrealistic. It’s impossible to buy an ethical mobile phone; it’s also impossible to log in to certain Australian government websites without one.

SEE ALSO

MAGICAL REALISM

Magical realism is a phrase that crops up a lot when discussing stories concerned with the manifestation of the supernatural in the context of everyday life. Our standout example of a magical realist writer is this very guy — Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What’s the difference between ‘fantasy’ and ‘magical realism’? A writer at The Millions puts it this way:

in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

Worth knowing: magical realism is a contentious label to apply to work which is not Latin American. You’ll find various opinions about whether we may call non-Latin American fiction magical realism, or whether we should instead stick to, say, ‘fabulism’ to describe other work with the same attributes but set elsewhere. There’s quite a lot to this debate.

An invasion of creatures is used in another ‘magical realist’ story — one by Keri Hulme — “King Bait”. That New Zealand story is also about the base, nasty nature of humankind, in that case greed, in this case selfishness, and our ability to dehumanise what is clearly human, or equivalently sentient.

KIDS CAN SEE THINGS ADULTS CAN’T

The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?

A well-known Australian picture book example of “children who notice things adults don’t” is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan. A boy sees all sorts of weird machines everywhere. He even takes one home and his parents still don’t bat an eye. Commuters dressed in suits are wholly oblivious to the wonder all around them. The boy grows up and loses his ability to see these wondrous things, most of the time. But now and then he gets a glimpse of his former childish wonder.

What about in stories with no adults? Often in that case, when the author has dispatched with the adults, there’ll be a dog who can sense things the kids cannot. The kids will take the dog’s lead. The standout example from my own childhood is Timmy the dog from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.

Basically, the closer a character to its animalistic, unadulterated nature, the more useful they are in picking up on vibes more cerebral characters cannot. This is why, traditionally, girls have been used for this role more frequently than boys. Women give birth and menstruate and until very recently were consistently either giving birth or preparing to, across their entire adult lives. So women were more clearly ‘animal’ than men, who traditionally positioned themselves, and only themselves, closer to God. For 1000 odd pages on that idea see Women, Men and Morals by Marilyn French.

Header photo by Raphael Bick

A Letter To Momo Film Study

A Letter To Momo film poster

Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

SETTING OF LETTER TO MOMO

Japan is an archipelago of about 3000 islands — five main ones, of course. The director himself grew up on the coast of Hiroshima, which means the edge of the Seto Inland Sea.

Letter To Momo is set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — the body of water separating the islands of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. The real island is called Osaki-Shimojima, whereas the fictional island is shortened and changed slightly to Shiojima.

Though the island is fictional, the landmarks and art are closely based on the real island. For example, Historical Nomieruoka Park is depicted in several scenes. The real island has an area of about 18 square kilometres and a population of about 3,000 people as of 2012. There is a Buddhist temple at its highest point (Mount Ippooji).

The Name Of Shiojima
Welcome to Shiojima
Momo stands in front of the bridge welcoming visitors to Shiojima.

The name of this island is Shiojima. The first character of Shiojima (汐島) means both ‘tide’ and ‘opportunity’. This is the sort of symbolism which doesn’t translate easily into Western narrative and is part of what makes Chinese characters so hard (and fascinating) to study. In Eastern Asia, the fact that the tide is connected to opportunity maps onto this story starring two characters who return to the sea for a second chance at a full life, even after great loss. And even after the great loss was due to the sea. The history of this connection is to do with Japan’s close historical connection to the sea, and their heavy reliance upon fishing. The difference between having enough to eat or not was all about judging the ebb and flow of the tides.

If you look up a Japanese-Japanese dictionary you’ll learn that 汐 refers specifically to the ebb of evening tide, and is associated with a beautiful view. This makes sense, since the character is made up of the radical for ‘water’ next to the character for ‘evening’. If you write some Japanese you can probably guess the character for morning tide. Yep, it’s 潮. Both words for tide are pronounced the same way — either ushio or shio. In everyday Japanese both are used and no mind is ordinarily given to whether the tide is an evening or a morning one. The character for morning tide seems to be more the default.

汐 is often used in girls’ names, which makes it worth knowing. The character conveys ‘softness’ and has relatively few strokes, making it convenient to write. The character itself, when written in calligraphy, is of a curved shape, which makes it feminine. You’ll find it in names such as Shiori (汐里、汐璃、汐莉), or in combinations pronounced Shiomi and Shione. In names, confusingly for foreigners, this character might alternatively be pronounced ‘Kiyo’. So you’ll find it in names like Kiyomi, Kiyora. When found in boys’ names it will always be pronounced Kiyo, occurring in names like Kiyoharu and Kiyohiro. When used in a boys’ name, ‘evening tide’ will be paired with a character with traditionally masculine virtues, presumably to offset the feminine associations with ocean tide.

Why has the character for evening tide been chosen for the name of this village, instead of the character for morning tide? It could have gone either way because Momo is young and is starting a new life, but if you stayed for the roll of credits you’ll have noticed the pillow shots of the slow, elderly nature of the island. This is a village which is dying, devoid of young people. It’s likely those children jumping off the bridge are the only children in the village. Will Momo build an entire life here? I doubt it. I imagine Momo returns to the mainland for her upper education. In fact, I just checked my watch and it’s already 2018, so she’s probably there now.

More on the Symbolism of Islands in storytelling.

Buddhist Culture In Letter To Momo

If you ask young Japanese people on the street about religion, you get something like this:

In Japan you can consider yourself Buddhist without any of the mystical beliefs of yore, just so long as you have a ‘butsudan’ (a Buddhist altar) in your house (or in your parents’ house, probably), and participate in the Bon Festival. You can see a Buddhist altar in this movie. Mother and daughter stand in front of it and think about the dead father. There’s a photo of him hanging there. My host father was the most interested in my host family’s altar — he’d take a small portion of food in there each night for his dead ancestors. The following night he’d bring out the crusty old rice and replace with new. The altar is basically a place where you go to think about loved ones — a convenient little grave right inside your own home. (It’s not where the actual dead bodies are kept.)

At the height of summer, Japanese people have Obon.

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

Wikipedia

The lantern tradition is a great spectacle, and the only part of Obon depicted in Letter To Momo:

Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river; tōrō is a word for “lantern,” while nagashi means “cruise” or “flow.” This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world.

Wikipedia

What must it be like, to really believe that your dead ancestors are visiting Earth again each year? In A Letter To Momo, the idea that the world is inhabited by a parallel realm of live creatures harks back to an earlier time where people really did believe in the supernatural. Dead souls were (are?) thought to hang about for a bit before going to ‘up there’, a belief which  helps the grieving process.

Japanese Culture In Letter To Momo

You’ll notice some specifically Japanese body language in this anime. Here’s Momo in the middle of a big, exaggerated march. This is a girl on a mission. This is a particularly juvenile kind of walk, emphasising youth. I wonder if it comes from the fact that Japanese school children used to do a lot of marching. (There’s still ‘marching music’ played in many Japanese schools at cleaning time.)

Something the animators of this film do extremely well is the body language of Momo (and Mame). Momo doesn’t just sit on the tatami mats — she pushes herself around on them while lying down, propelled forward by her feet.

There are numerous other examples of a girl behaving how kids really behave when they’re not confined to a chair, and it’s not something I’ve seen a studio like Pixar do particularly well. The kids in Pixar films — compared to this one — behave like little adults. Is that because our Western way of making kids sit on chairs and sleep on raised beds prevents them from being kids? In any case, the childlike body language of Momo when she is bored and at home in her Japanese-style house is especially realistic. I believe any child would behave like this in the same setting.

Momo pen held in nose
Momo holds a pen between top lip and nose, like no one is watching her.
jumping the last step
Momo jumps the final few steps.

Momo’s mother beckons to her in a typically Japanese way, calling her over to meet the elderly relatives. When I first got to Japan I thought my host-mother was shooing me away when she did this.

You’ll see Koichi the postman point at his face to mean ‘me’, whereas Westerners tend to point to our chests, as if our ‘selves’ reside in our hearts rather than in our heads.

Shoes are removed in the entrance nooks (genkan), and although it’s polite and ‘correct’ to turn your shoes around to face the door when you step out of them, most kids don’t. We see Yota step into his shoes backwards, shuffling backwards out the front door in a comic-realistic fashion. These are kids being kids, without the parental intervention.

Bicycles and mopeds are a great way of getting around narrow and winding roads such as these, because utility vehicles and cars would need to back up when meeting an oncoming vehicle.

Is there a rule that umbrellas make an appearance in every Japanese anime? I shouldn’t be surprised really, since umbrella culture is strong in Japan. With a heavy and predictable rainy season, in which rain is usually unaccompanied by wind, making them genuinely useful, there is usually a point in a Japanese film when rain is utilised as pathetic fallacy. Here, too, a rainstorm not only functions as an impediment to the characters getting what they want (a doctor for the mother), but also stands in for Momo’s emotions. Rain = tears, thunder and lightning = uncontrollable and strong feelings.

Japanese Folklore In A Letter To Momo

The ‘goblins’ who appear to Momo are known as ‘yookai’ (with the long ‘o’ sound) in Japanese. The class of yokai is much wider than the subtitles translation of ‘goblin’.

Yōkai (妖怪, ghostphantomstrange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity”; and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.

Wikipedia

Though historically yokai didn’t look like anything in particular, their forms started to solidify in the collective Japanese imagination once artists started sketching their own imaginings onto emaki (horizontal, illustrated narratives created during the 11th to 16th centuries).

Letter To Momo emaki

The yokai featuring in A Letter To Momo:

  1. Iwa no ke — Spirit of Rocks. This guy looks scary at first because he can’t close his massive mouth. But when he is revealed to be harmless, his permanently open maw makes him look easily duped and comical. Rocks are associated with masculinity in Japanese culture. Therefore he is depicted as big and strong. An evil version of this guy can bite your head off, as Kawa points out. Like Grizz of the We Bare Bears, Iwa is the guy who takes the lead, even when his ideas are terrible.
  2. Kawa no ke — Spirit of Rivers. This guy is particularly grotesque, with stinky big farts being one of his superpowers. An evil version of Kawa can suck your soul out through your mouth, as he comically demonstrates on Kawa. Evil river spirts can also cause drowning. But in other traditional stories they just fart, for some reason. (You’d think this would be more heavily associated with wind, wouldn’t you?) Kawa hates anything that requires effort, and speaks with the dialect favoured by hoodlums who’d like to fancy themselves Yakuza.
  3. Mame no ke — Spirit of Beans. This little guy is harmless and innocent, like a toddler. He is shown to be friendly with all the spirits on the island, which comes in handy later. Beans are associated with smallness in Japanese language, and ‘mame’  is also  a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active.  Of the three yokai here, Mame is the airhead who does things at his own pace. He doesn’t always hang around with the other two, having his own friendly friends.

The idea that there’s a spirit in everything is a Shinto idea rather than a Buddhist one. (Is Shintoism a ‘religion’? A Japanese lecturer at university was a stickler about this — I got marked down in an essay for Shintoism a religion. I’m still bitter.)

Another film — one from Hayao Miyazaki — Princess Mononoke, is all about the spirit of things. In fact, that’s what mononoke means: the spirit of things. If you’ve already seen that anime you’ll recognise the nymphs of the forest. (Kodama)

Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Letter To Momo

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LETTER TO MOMO

This story spans the time between learning of the father’s death at sea and his final departure to the world of the dead, though the plot begins with Momo arriving at her new home, and flashes back to fill in the parts when they lived in Tokyo, including the two main parts relevant to her recovery:

  • The argument she had with her father
  • The phone call she overheard when her mother learned of his death

The argument is presented twice, once with a medium angle camera, the other view from further away. The first time we don’t know what the argument is about, so the exact details of it are used later as a reveal.

Whenever a plot begins with a child starting in a new place, there will be flashbacks. The story usually starts a bit earlier. There’s a reason why people move and in stories it’s often pretty grim.

PARATEXT

Taglines:

  • When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone. (Used in the poster below)
  • Dear Momo; An unfinished letter from her father is left behind.
  • A wonderful encounter.
  • They had a “mission”.
  • Are you telling your loved ones what truly matters?
  • Words that were never said.To save those you love.
  • A letter that ties the bond between them.
Letter To Momo Japanese poster
Momo e no tegami, the Japanese movie poster

SHORTCOMING

I'm all alone

Eleven-year-old Momo is the viewpoint character, the main part of the story, and also the character who undergoes the main character arc, making Momo unambiguously the main character. You’ve probably noticed that Japanese directors aren’t afraid to make feature films for everyone starring girls. There’s a reason for this which isn’t feminist in origin  — these girl characters have flaws but are ultimately a version of the Female Maturity Formula. While Momo has her faults, the little mother in her makes her the voice of reason, persuading the male-gendered yokai characters to behave themselves, going to great lengths to stop them from stealing vegetables from the villagers. Upholding the moral fabric of a community is more often considered a feminine job. The yokai make stereotyped reference to ‘women’ numerous times in the dialogue, which is what genders them male in a more-than-symbolic way.

Momo’s ‘ghost‘ is that she has lost her father. We are not told this right away. As is usual, this ghost is withheld as a reveal.

Momo needs to move on from her father’s death and forgive herself.

The problem is, her father is dead, and the last time she saw him she told him to go away and never come back. Now she can’t take those words back.

Her shortcoming is that she can be ‘wagamama’, as Japanese people might put it. Selfish, inward looking. The mother is presented non-empathetically to the audience, but this is because we are seeing her through Momo’s eyes. Momo does not see her mother cry, and nor do we. We only see the mother leave each day for her nursing seminars, leaving her daughter with the basics but alone nonetheless, told to amuse herself with homework. Japanese children do get a lot of homework over summer, but Momo is between schools. She has little motivation to do it.

DESIRE

Momo is a reluctant participant in this new life, wanting only to return to Tokyo. But the mother has said that she sold the house in Tokyo rather than rent it out, so we know this is not an option.

Momo’s ‘below the surface’ desire is to be part of a team, to have friends. Her mother’s clumsy attempt at making friends for her is embarrassing to her. She needs to make genuine friendships alone.

OPPONENT

Momo’s main opponent is ultimately herself — her own conscience — she can’t forgive herself for those careless words she threw at her father. But in a narrative ‘oneself’ makes for a really boring story. Therefore, we have fully embodied opponents which represent the very things Momo doesn’t like about herself. In this supernatural tale them come to her in the form of the yokai.

These yokai are initially very scary, especially for young children. But as soon as Momo works out the nature of them they morph into comedic characters more reminiscent of ribald Japanese humour, resplendent with farts and nose-picking and hairy butt cheeks. They are quite grotesque. Momo, too, thinks of herself as grotesque after yelling at her dad. These yokai are self-absorbed, shown by their never-ending appetites and inability to give a damn about whose food they are stealing.

Momo’s human opponent is also her mother, standing in the way of just packing up and moving back to Tokyo.

At first the twelve-year-old boy looks like he may turn into a romantic opponent, and other directors would have made the most of this possibility but as it happens these kids are allowed to be kids. At eleven years old Momo is pre-adolescent, which is a less usual age for main characters. Main characters tend to be twelve.  Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, but also in English language they are about to hit the ‘teen’ years. This makes me wonder for the first time — is there something about the Japanese way of counting which makes twelve-years-of-age not so special? When counting beyond ten in Japanese it goes ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, ten-four…’. There’s no phonological change after twelve. The concept of ‘teenager’ comes from English, as does the Japanese loanword, ‘tiineejaa’. Is our Western concept of twelve as ‘the end of childhood’ down to the words we use for numbers?

PLAN

Momo’s plan that sustains the middle part of the film is ‘To prevent the yokai from stealing the village vegetables’. This all changes when Ikuko has her asthma attack — now the plan is dire and simple — Momo must get medical help during a terrible storm in order to save her mother’s life, otherwise she’ll be left an orphan.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle phase of A Letter To Momo reminds me of the one in Hud, but only in one sense: A physical tousle is followed by a war of words. These lead into a ‘life or death’ struggle. In Hud, Hud tries to rape Alma. In A Letter To Momo, Momo’s mother almost dies of asthma.

By the way, my asthmatic husband says the depiction of asthma in this film is better than in most, though asthma attacks don’t tend to be accompanied by coughing. This massive asthma attack is foreshadowed by two events:

  • The old man is told not to smoke by his wife, because the old woman knows it sets off Ikuko’s asthma.
  • Ikuko is drinking tea and it goes down the wrong way. This coughing and spluttering fit is probably why the animators thought it necessary to make Ikuko cough during the asthma attack.

Here’s what’s left off the screen: Ikuko’s getting the doctor. Instead there is a cut from the stormy scene with all the supernatural creatures banding together to save Momo’s mother, right to the next morning, with the mother lying in bed. From that high angle, at first it’s a possibility that she is dead. So that’s one good reason to cut. The other is that there would be no ironic potential in a doctor’s scene, and every scene needs some level of irony. At the doctor’s, Ikuko would be treated for her asthma. We don’t need to see that because it goes exactly as we expect it would.

ANAGNORISIS

As mentioned above, one of the taglines transliterated from ‘catch copy’ in Japanese is:

気がつけば、私、ひとりじゃなかった。
When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone.

Momo’s big anagnorisis happens in between big struggle scenes. Before rushing out to cross the bridge Momo realises that her mother has been badly affected by her father’s death. This is prompted by the old woman saying that Ikuko’s suppression of emotion has contributed to her failing health. All this time Momo has been wallowing in her own pity. She is lonely all day and doesn’t want to be here where she has no friends, her mother won’t believe they’re surrounded by supernatural creatures that only she can see… Yet Ikuko has her own inner world that Momo cannot see — Ikuko has lost a husband just as much as Momo has lost a father.

At first the film makes us think that by ‘not alone’ Momo means the yokai. Which also works. But really, more deeply and more symbolically, Momo is not alone because she and her mother are going through the same grief. Hence, the deeper meaning of the catch copy.

The second part of the anagnorisis happens when Momo reads the letter from her dead father, sent back on the lantern boat. This is the mother’s anagnorisis, too. She’s had nothing to do with the yokai, but this time she allows herself to believe that her dead husband has a kind message from beyond the grave.

By the way, the English version of the catch copy asks us, “Are you telling your loved ones what really matters?” Which speaks to an interesting cultural difference. Westerners value “I love yous” and other grand gestures of love expressed towards those closest to us, but Japanese families are traditionally laconic in this regard, preferring to let gestures of love speak for themselves. This may be changing with globalisation.

NEW SITUATION

Momo plucks up the courage to jump into the sea from the bridge — all so symbolic it almost hurts.

Momo jumping off bridge

Mother and daughter will always have each other. As they stand together on the beach we know that their relationship will improve from now on. The yokai are no longer needed, so they have departed with the rest of the dead souls at Obon.

CHARACTERISATION OF MOMO

A number of reviewers have something like this to say about the character of Momo:

Momo’s displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterisation. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it’s not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it’s just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.

Film Comment

And I’m not sure why. Could it be that English-speaking reviewers can’t connect to an eleven-year-old Japanese girl? Now that I’ve analysed the structure it’s nothing to do with that. Momo’s inability to express her feelings may make her a little distant to a Western audience, but I suspect a native Japanese audience intuitively grasps what she would be feeling inside, and identify with her civic-mindedness regarding saving the community vegetables.

Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

gake no ue no ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of  myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.

Gake no ue no Ponyo is the Japanese title: Ponyo At The Top Of The Cliff.

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman‘ and writes:

Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.

SETTING OF PONYO

Food

Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.

  • The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
  • The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
  • Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
  • The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
  • Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)

In Ponyo we have the bowl of ramen (Chinese noodles)

raamen ponyo
Apparently Miyazaki’s favourite noodles are the kind with spinach, but he avoids depicting that in film because it doesn’t look so great.

The transmogrifying magic of food is repeated from Spirited Away in this film, in which by eating food from a different world, you become of that world — a literal interpretation of ‘You are what you eat’. It’s by licking the blood from Sousuke’s thumb that Ponyo is able to become human, but the huge hunk of ham seems to seal the deal.

ponyo eating ham
kitchen
The cosy kitchen scenery

Symbolism of the Cliff

This comes off a dodgy-looking dream symbolism site, but I think it does apply to a lot of literature, and to this film as well:

To be at the edge of a cliff is to be where earth meets both sea and sky. Sky is a symbol of consciousness/masculinity; sea is the unconscious/femininity.

I think there’s something in the masculine/feminine associations — Miyazaki has definitely made use of the dichotomy by making Sousuke a boy and Ponyo a girl. But as soon as Sousuke meets Ponyo, his feminine, caring side has a chance to shine:

Don’t worry, Ponyo. No matter what, I will protect you. I promise. I will love you too!

It is significant that this house is on a ‘cliff’ rather than on a mountain. The mountain in storytelling has quite different associations for the audience: The mountain is set in opposition to the plain. The mountain is where revelations happen (a la Moses), and in films, main characters often go to a high place in order to really work out what’s going on. The mountain is where revelations happen.

The cliff, on the other hand, is precarious. There is no safety to be had on top of a cliff. This house is elevated because its occupants are separate from the ocean, but when Ponyo arrives she unites land and ocean, and the ocean literally rises to engulf the house.

house on cliff
This low angle view of the house emphasises its precariousness. Even the palings on the picket fence are a bit wonky.

Symbolism of the Wind

Traditionally, a wind storm means that change is afoot. Something bad is about to happen — probably destruction or desolation. A precarious-looking house on a cliff is in particular danger.

Chimeras in SF

chicken feet and hands
Ponyo is almost like a foetus, and morphs back and forth constantly between her spawn-like state and that of a five-year-old fully human girl.
fish in a jar
In one scene, she even reminds me (disturbingly) of a Kitty In A Jar, a hoax that did the rounds some years ago, in which it was thought that Japanese people were growing kittens in jars, as they might grow bonsai trees.

Throughout history, hybrid creatures have functioned as remarkably versatile vehicles for the expression of abiding cultural anxieties. On many occasions, they have been rendered just about tolerable by the sublimation of their uncanny anatomies into so-called “curiosities.” Yet, this has frequently led to a paradoxical situation, insofar as our attraction to those beings’ intractable alterity is never conclusively anesthetized: much as we may seek to domesticate the threatening connotations they are held to carry, by relegating them to the province of the abnormal or the repulsive, the sense of menace abides as a vital component of their bizarre, monstrous and fearful beauty. In other words, hybrids’ attractiveness is inextricable from their intimidating power.

Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study

Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:

  • angels
  • centaurs — a mythological creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse
  • devils
  • sphinxes — a mythical creature with, as a minimum, the head of a human and the body of a lion.
  • termagants — In medieval Europe, Termagant was the name given to a god which Christians wrongly believed Muslims worshipped, represented in the mystery plays as a violent overbearing personage. The word is also used in modern English to mean a violent, overbearing, turbulent, brawling, quarrelsome woman; a virago, shrew, vixen.
  • tritons — a mythological Greek god, the messenger of the sea. He is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea respectively, and is herald for his father. He is usually represented as a merman, having the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish, “sea-hued”, according to Ovid “his shoulders barnacled with sea-shells”.

The spectrum of hybrid creatures can be beautiful, with lovely wings, or they can be monstrous and deformed, evoking a wide range of moods. Ponyo is strange in a jellyfish kind of way, but she is on the loveable part of the spectrum.

shore scene
This image is a beautiful depiction of the sea with gorgeous aqua blues in the water, accented with pinks.
sea pollution ponyo
In this shot, though, we have a depiction of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, in which we are encouraged to see beauty in that which is imperfect. Miyazaki is certainly able to depict a scene with rubbish in a beautiful way, without emphasising the abject.

Miyazaki seems to have been influenced by traditional Japanese art in his depiction of water.

Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai
Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai

Roy Stafford makes some direct comparisons between this particular work and the film Ponyo:

The triangle formed by the cliff-top house where Sosuke and his mother live, the ship at sea carrying the boy’s father and the school/old people’s centre is the centre of the world Miyazaki has created. It neatly represents the social concerns about an ageing population, an economy that still needs the resources of the seas and that perennial fascination for Miyazaki, the self-reliant children, seemingly confident because there is a community of supportive adults who are there when needed. Jonathan Ross, in one of his more lucid comments on Film Night, made the perceptive comment that in Ponyo, Miyazaki (writer and director) spends time on everyday incidents involving children and adults – such as sharing a cup of soup – in which this sense of a community of all ages, not just parents and their own children, comes across so forcefully.

running on water

The water is literally alive in this story, with the waves morphing back and forth between fish and water.

house reflected in the water

Here we have still waters, so the viewer can see the house on the cliff mirrored in the ocean. The water has risen and now the house — formally up  high and therefore separated from the sea — is literally at one with it.

Miyazaki’s preoccupation with environmental issues, a crucial aspect of both his political perspective and his cinematic signature, obliquely permeates the marine habitat depicted in the film even though the recurrent images of dolphins and whales swimming about unmolested bear scarce resemblance to the reality of Japan’s notorious fishing ventures. […] Miyzaki also creates a tsunami that, however fantastical and benign he portrays it, can’t help recall the fatal force of nature.

Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study

Ponyo’s Name

Although Ponyo’s real name is Brunhilde, Sousuke names her ‘Ponyo’. Why? This name is interesting in the context of Japanese onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia and mimesis are a huge part of everyday Japanese, and if you are a fan of manga you’ll see onomatopoeic words used to their fullest in that genre. Miyazaki himself started in manga and is a native Japanese speaker, so it’s fair to conclude that he is also an expert in onomatopoeia.

The sound ‘pon’ in Japanese has a ‘burst’-like quality to it. ‘Pon-pon’ expresses the following sounds in Japanese (from 日英擬音擬態語活用辞典):

  1. The resounding sound or action of clapping one’s hands or beating a drum etc. continuously. [The repetition of the pon sound indicates the repetition.] It can also be used to describe the sound of an explosion or something bursting. [Ponyo ‘bursts’ into Sousuke’s life — she exists inside a bubble — another thing closely associated with ‘bursting’ in the world of a child.]
  2. Things being vigorously or carelessly said or done. [Related to Ponyo’s exuberant nature]
  3. To fill something to the brim. Also to fill something so full that it appears as though it could burst at any moment. [Related to the theme of being inundated by water/flood/environmental disaster].

Symbolism of the Tunnel

Tunnels are a classic symbol in fairy tales marking the ‘portal‘ between childhood and self-discovery (maturity).

tunnel ponyo

But what does the tunnel mean in this story? Halfway through, the children get scared and turn back. The dark of the tunnel is at least ominous, if not a metaphor for death.

CHARACTERISATION

Ponyo As Mirror Image Of Sousuke

崖の上

When Sousuke sees the ‘goldfish’ in the bucket, he sees the sea version of himself.

ponyo and sousuke2
ponyo and sousuke

Using the red-oni, blue-oni trope (also used in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Miyazaki includes many frames in which these characters are basically mirror images of each other. In this shot, even the arrangement of the food inside the bowl is exactly the same. Ponyo is the more gregarious version of Sousuke, who actually comes from the sea rather than being fascinated by it. It’s natural that Sousuke is fascinated by the sea — it’s where his father works, and due to his father’s frequent absence, Sousuke would be glamorising the sea life.

ponyo and sousuke sleeping

Here’s another mirror image. While Sousuke’s interest is symbolised by the toy boat, Ponyo is more interested in the trappings of human life, symbolised by the lamp.

Sousuke’s Name

宗介 pronounced soo-suke

The individual characters mean centre/pillar/principle + mediate/shellfish

I’ve always thought it weird that the character for mediate also happens to mean shellfish. Is Miyazaki using that here, since shellfish are associated with the sea, and Sousuke is the mediation between the sea and the land?

ponyo squirting friend

This character reminds me very much of Connie from Enid Blyton’s The Folk of the Faraway Tree, the third in her Magic Faraway Tree series. In my illustrated deluxe version there is even a picture of Connie that closely matches this one.

Connie Wet Folk Faraway Tree_600x776
Connie from Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton illustrated by Georgina Hargreaves

In Blyton’s story, too, a girl who is preoccupied with her appearance (pretty dresses) gets her ‘comeuppance’ by having water dropped on her, in this case by Dame Washalot. Often in children’s stories, when a girly girl goes along with the dominant cultural idea that she should be pretty, rather than rejecting it, she is punished and ends up a version of ugly as a didactic message. Miyazaki uses the same trope when he first shows the scene in which the little girl shows Sousuke her pretty new dress but then is later punished — ostensibly for calling Ponyo unappealing — by having water squirted in her face. (I could continue into adult territory and explore this popular metaphor further, but I don’t want that kind of traffic to my blog.)

Sousuke is therefore embracing the caring, nurturing side of femininity, but the filmmaker is also very obviously rejecting that other side of femininity, the one in which appearance is important. What does this mean for the story? Perhaps Miyazaki is saying that humans are inclined to ignore that which is just beneath the surface. In the case of the ocean, it still looks blue to us and unless we’re schooled otherwise, we have no idea about mercury poisoning and the imminent extinction of coral reefs.

Granmamare

Granmamare beauty

On the other hand, Ponyo’s mother is not only good but she is also beautiful. Her amazing beauty is conveyed mainly through her eyes. Whereas the other characters get simply drawn eyes, the Granmamare gets highly detailed, hyper-realistic eyes which not only serve to ‘other’ her — she is not of our world — but also serve to link goodness with beauty. I wonder if Miyazaki is conscious of this  beauty of beauty in the very same story — beauty equals goodness when it comes to female characters, but when little girls aim for beauty, they are punished.

Granmamare Ophelia

This view of Granmamare reminds me of the classic painting of Ophelia. This relaxed pose is in juxtaposition to the wild and frantic Risa, Sousuke’s mother.

Ophelia is a painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851 and 1852. It is held in the Tate Britain in London. It depicts Ophelia, a character from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark.

by John Everett Millais
by John Everett Millais

Sousuke’s Mother

pink car danger

The mother in Ponyo is a bit of a departure for Miyazaki, whose fictional mothers tend to be devoted, 1950s housewife types. Perhaps we should be pleased that this mother is different — she is reckless to the point I would not get in a car with that woman. But the car is pink — is this a comment on woman drivers? Without the surrounding cultural trope I wouldn’t be thinking this at all, so let’s just put it aside.

There’s no doubt she’s gutsy — she ignores the special emergency services-type men who try to stop her driving the winding road back to her house on the cliff. She traverses a water-filled bridge while the tide is momentarily out and puts her own life and her son’s life at risk. For what?

The mother is like a human version of the wind that opens the movie. She is easily changeable, going from ecstatic that her husband will be coming home for the night to lolling about on the floor after drinking beer in a depression when he is required to work longer at sea. She’s not exactly your ‘strong, independent woman’ just because she works outside the house.

mother with sandwich in mouth

Risa is very much a part of the human world, oblivious to anything that might be happening under the sea, and doesn’t even think too hard about the wizard with the fertiliser back pack who says he’s just keeping himself wet. Her carnal nature is symbolised by her holding the ham sandwich in her maw, in most unladylike fashion.

Yet Sousuke’s mother is still very caring and maternal. She works in the Himawari (sunflower) old-folks’ home caring for the elderly and she cooks nice food for Sousuke. Conveniently for the plot, she is somewhat childlike herself, and doesn’t wonder too much about the strange fish girl who her son has befriended and brings home with him to live.

The Old Ladies

Sousuke with cranky old lady

The old lady with the side shave didn’t know she was starting a trend, later emulated by Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. Sousuke has the same cut, which probably started as a good look for little boys to stop the headlice back in the day.

Significantly, the kindergarten is positioned right next to the old folks’ home: the young is juxtaposed with the old, or perhaps completes the ‘circle of life’ idea which is also conveyed via the earth/sea back and forth that happens throughout the plot. Old age is shown to be adjacent to childhood — in the scenes reminiscent of that 1985 movie Cocoon, the old women in wheelchairs can suddenly walk and run like they did as children when they are transported into the underwater playground.

old ladies same height

In their wheelchairs, however, they are at the same head level as the five-year-old boy.

Elderly Palestinian women sit in wheelchairs as they enjoy the waters of the northern part of the Dead Sea, in the West Bank, on October 2, 2008.
Menahem Kahana

Fujimoto

Fujimoto

This guy from under the sea used to be a human so naturally he still has a human name.

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study compares Fujimoto to parental figures in other Miyazaki films:

A lurking sense of menace redolent of the atmosphere prevalent in Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle emanates from the character of Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father. However, the forest kami [gods] depicted in Princess Mononoke are surrounded by an alarming aura even when their actions are charitable. Spirited Away’s bathhouse spirits are invariably invested with sinister iconographic connotations despite their often comical traits, and the mutants deployed as military machinery in Howl’s Moving Castle are even more explicitly baleful, lacking any concessions to humor in their alternately repugnant and horrific constitutions. Ponyo’s father, by contrast, comes across more as a solipsistic patriarch with a peculiar sense of fashion than as a consummate villain. Nor is he utterly devoid of benevolent intentions. A sorcerer intent on the concoction of life-giving elixir that could purge the mess humanity has unleashed into the ocean, Fujimoto is determined to confine his daughter to his watery lair. There is every chance that the wizard’s objection to his daughter’s desires has a lot to do with its stark contravention of the role model he has set. He indeed describes himself as an “ex-human” — a type ostensibly issuing from some sea-change intervention — and, like most fresh converts, is driven by the manic fervor of a zealot. Thus, Ponyo only echoes the epic scope of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle insofar as Fujimoto’s efforts to restrain Ponyo evince the tone of a figurative mini-crusade.

While Fujimoto appears relatively harmless by comparison with either the malicious Yubaba or Howl’s warmongering despots, he is initially successful in tearing Ponyo away from her beloved Sousuke. If Sousuke, palpably heartbroken, is powerless to intervene, Miyazaki’s version of the Little Mermaid will stop at nothing to see her wish to be human and to live with her savior fulfilled. In the course of a fierce confrontation with Fujimoto, she rejects the name the sorcerer has imposed upon her, “Brunnhild,” and declares her name to be Ponyo (the allusion to Norse mythology is worth of notice).

With the help of her sisters, she then manages to flee the paternal prison once more and turns herself into a human by recourse to Fujimoto’s own magic. Regrettably, by releasing into the sea the wizard’s entire supply of elixir, Ponyo also triggers a massive environmental imbalance, which in turn causes the seas to boil, mammoth prehistoric fish from the Devonian era to invade the flooded land, the moon to stray outside its customary orbit and satellites to race across the sky like frantic shooting stars. In this respect, the movie stands out as a subtle parable about the precariousness of ecological equilibrium.

FURTHER READING

Mificao is a picture book from the Ivory Coast, by Marie-Danielle Aka, illustrated by Les Studios Zohoré. This story shares similarities to Ponyo:

Underwater, a little carp watches the village children play, and wants to join them. A good genie fish changes her into a little girl and there she is, Mificao, with her new friends Yaro and Ziza who guide her in her discovery of the daily life of the village. She also discovers garbage heaps, the technique of scorched earth… and gives lessons for better hygiene and the protection of nature. But can Mificao stay forever far from her own people?The text is long; colourful illustrations give a good idea of life in the village.

The World Through Picture Books
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith for The Water Babies in 1916, written by Charles Kingsley (1863)
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith for The Water Babies in 1916, written by Charles Kingsley (1863)
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime. This illustration reminds me of Ponyo.

Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever

“Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956

“Goodbye My Brother” is one of John Cheever’s best known short stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. Cheever returned time and again to the dynamic of an uneasy relationship between two brothers. The relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.

Clear Island Goodbye My Brother
Modern Day Clear Island, Massachussetts

I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.

After reading “Goodbye, My Brother”, I suspected there was far more below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”

The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The four grown children and their families join their widowed mother for this summer ritual. This is a special gathering as they haven’t seen Lawrence in four years. Unfortunately, Lawrence has a reputation for putting a downer on proceedings, and sure enough, he starts to piss off the rest of the family by pointing out the negatives and refusing to be a ‘joiner’.

One night, the family all dress up for an ‘As You Were’ party, except for Lawrence and Ruth, who don’t want to go. All the wives turn up in their wedding dresses; the men are surprised to find more than one has turned up in his high school football uniform. Then Ruth turns up, wearing a red dress which feels to the narrator ‘all wrong’. Lawrence is outside and refuses to come in. The narrator assumes it’s because he thinks the whole idea of dressing up as someone from the past is pathetic. Note that we never really know what Lawrence thinks.

While the rest of the family is at a flower show, Lawrence and the narrator have their own little showdown on the beach after the narrator has a go at Lawrence for spoiling everyone’s holiday. Then he whacks him across the back of the head with a wet root, wishing him dead. He ends up going off to have a swim and not worrying too much about whether he is okay. Lawrence, nihilist that he is, doesn’t seem all that surprised by this, but is angry enough to pack up and leave after announcing the incident to the family.  Only the mother got up to say goodbye before Lawrence’s family took the six o’clock boat to the mainland.

SETTING OF “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”

New England Coast Map

Laud’s Head appears to be a fictional headland of the sort that you find dotted along the New England coast of America. Cheever wrote “Goodbye, My Brother,” after a gloomy summer in Martha’s Vineyard, so I suppose we might imagine that setting. That said, the name ‘Laud’ apparently has significance to readers who know their English history:

[T]he summer house, or Eden, of the Pommeroy family is called Laud’s Head, a name which, if one knows some English religious history, undoubtedly refers to one of the most famous Anglican Archbishops, William Laud, who was beheaded by the Puritans in 1645 for attempting to bring back into the Episcopal Church music, ritual, the Communion table, and the sacramental system the Puritans had banned. […] Chaddy Pommeroy […] and Chucky Ewing […] both have names that are cognates of […] Charles I, who also lost his head to the Puritans under the chief Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell.

Patrick Meanor

The Weather As Emotion In “Goodbye My Brother”

The blustery Atlantic air plays an important part in the story. The cold ocean air has blown away the gloom that Lawrence has brought with him from Albany. At the end of the story, the narrator wakes up on the morning of Lawrence’s abrupt departure with a feeling that a black cloud has blown away and left a perfectly gorgeous day.

Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam.

In stories, when the weather reflects character emotions, this is called ‘pathetic fallacy’. See: Pathetic Fallacy not actually an insult. (There are other examples of this poetic device, though weather/emotions is a commonly utilised one.) On the other hand, the veridical weather may not have changed; rather, the narrator’s perception of it changed along with his improved mental state.

CHARACTERS IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Cheever’s characters have been described as ‘Sisyphean’, meaning they can never quite achieve completeness. (Sisypheus was a Greek king who, punished for deceit, was forced to roll a huge boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the task for eternity.)

The Pommeroy Clan

A Puritan American family who have a holiday house with a tennis court.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan critic. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country […] The branch of the Pommeroys to which we belong was founded by a minister who was eulogized by Cotton Mather for his untiring abjuration of the Devil. The Pommeroys were ministers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the harshness of their thought — man is full of misery, and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt — has been preserved in books and sermons. The temper of our family changed somewhat and became more lighthearted, but […] it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence had succumbed.

The French roots of the name Pommeroy signifies “king of the apples,” a reference to the story’s Edenic setting.

The Unnamed Narrator: 38 years old, a married schoolteacher. Apart from time spent with the family, he lives in a school dormitory. Since this is a story told in the first person, this narrator will be unreliable to some extent. And to some extent, our narrator acknowledges this:

I think I saw what was going on his mind.

On the other hand, we see the narrator calling the kettle black:

It is like Lawrence to try to read significance and finality into every gesture that we make…

Usually, the reader identifies with the first person narrator, or the main character. In this case, the reader may or may not side with Lawrence we are prompted in no particular direction by Cheever, who presents the story without asking us to take a moral stand. This narrator isn’t a particularly nice person.  He express no guilt over the fact that he had tried to kill his brother on the beach the day before by hitting him over the head with a waterlogged tree-root. It’s not even an isolated incident he recalls a time in childhood, hitting Lawrence on the head with a rock.

This unrepentent narrator may have his youngest brother all wrong, for all the reader knows:

“The ‘I’ of the story seems at first a patient, long-suffering and trustworthy narrator, but as the tale progresses we realize that a great deal of Lawrence’s gloominess is not demonstrated but ascribed to him, proceeding less from his act than his thoughts, to which we have no access but the narrator’s speculation.

David Raney

The narrator is married to a woman called Helen, who dyes her hair to hide the years. Helen and the narrator live on Long Island with four children.

The Narrator’s Widowed Mother: husband was killed in a sailing accident. She has formed strong opinions on how to lead a life well-lived, and is fond of dishing out life advice to her children, even though the children are old enough now to see contractions between what she says and how she behaves.

The Dead Father: Just as important to a story are the characters who are not there:

The absence of the Pommeroy father constitutes more than just a fictional device: Cheever places him at the fringes of the story in order to create a deliberate echo of the other legal discourses evoked by the narrator. Through this repeated association, the Pommeroy father becomes the symbol of the law. His legal correlates are mapped in Figure 1: God the Father, the Logos from the Gospel of John and the author of the Ten Commandments; Uranus, the grandfather of the Greek gods and the father of the Titans; and Cotton Mather, the patriarch and lawgiver of colonial, Puritan America.

Peter Mathews

We are told the children are ‘out of their twenties’. It turns out they are in their early forties/late thirties.

One Recently Divorced Sister: Diana. Diana has been living in France while her two children are at school in Switzerland. The names of the two women, Helen and Diana, have mythic associations.  Mythic associations add a dimension of tradition to a story, and reinforce Cheever’s need to explore the past, ‘even into antiquity’.

Two Other Brothers:

1. Chaddy, lives in Manhattan. Chaddy and the narrator have a competitive relationship with each other, but not a soured one. Chaddy is their mother’s favourite and successful in his work, whatever that is. Chaddy is married to Odette, who flirts to restore her youth. Odette has black hair and black eyes and is careful to keep out of the sun. She flirts (not seriously) as modus operandi.

Lawrence is described as a 'changeling'.
Lawrence is described as a ‘changeling‘.

2. Lawrence is the youngest son and a lawyer. He got a job with a Cleveland firm after the war.  The family didn’t see him during that time. He now works for a firm in Albany, so agreed to spend time with the family at Laud’s Head. Lawrence’s name, of course, contains the word “law,” but his nicknames also possess deeper meanings: “Little Jesus” during the latter part of his youth. But it is his childhood nickname that has a particular resonance throughout the story. He was called Tifty as a child because of the sound his slippers made on the floor as he walked. Also called Croaker (a person who grumbles or habitually predicts evil) and Little Jesus (fitting the Puritan motif). Lawrence is the only member of the family who has never enjoyed drinking.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan cleric. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country, and his disapproval of Diana and her lover reminded me of this.

Lawrence is both repulsed by and attracted to the past.

I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

Lawrence is a nihilist. He can ‘make a grievance out of anything’, according to the narrator.

But in Lawrence’s favour, he doesn’t seem all that bothered by a blow to his head by his older brother, because the nihilist in him must have been expecting it.

Note that Lawrence barely speaks more than a few lines in the entire narrative. Though the title is named for the narrator’s relationship with this particular brother, Lawrence is not all that important to the story, because the story is about the narrator’s inner-world alone. Interestingly, the character of Lawrence did not even exist in an early draft of this story.

The brother story, in its bare outline, was the story of one man. There was no brother; there was no Lawrence. (In the finished story he speaks only a few lines and the bulk of his opinions are given to him by the narrator.) I tried to bury this outline then under several others so that the story would unfold like an uncooked onion.

Letters 160

Lawrence is married to Ruth. The character of Ruth also highlights the importance of names to unlocking the themes of Cheever’s story; Ruth is a Biblical character who sacrifices a lot for others. In this story, Ruth is ‘a thin girl, tired from the journey.’

I…passed Ruth in the laundry. She was washing clothes. I don’t know why she should seem to have so much more work to do than anyone else, but she is always washing or mending clothes.

Their two children, too, are thin and wear ‘ornate cowboy costumes’. They cry/take offence easily. Even their own grandmother can’t stand to be around them as they look so dejected.

But does Lawrence really exist? Cheever apparently told a mentor: “There was no brother; there was no Lawrence.” I’m not sure of the context surrounding this perhaps he meant in an early draft, but I like the idea that Lawrence is a figment of the narrator’s imagination the squirrel in his attic, the pessimistic side of himself, putting a dampener on his very own holiday.

I have recently started asking of stories: What if X character doesn’t really exist in the world of the story? Simply by asking this question you can come up with some fascinating insights. There are of course stories built on the imaginary character as a big reveal: Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Tully. But what about Ollie from “Powers” by Alice Munro? He might not be real, though his lack of realness is not on the page. Take your favourite TV show. If any of the characters were figments of another character’s imagination, which would it be? What if Kramer of Seinfeld weren’t real? Or Newton? What if Phoebe’s twin off Friends wasn’t real?

Minor Characters In “Goodbye My Brother”

The man who Diana is sleeping with while here for the summer, mentioned only in passing.

The summer cook, Anna Ostrovick, a recognisable trope of a woman jolly and fat and industrious. She ends up banning Lawrence from her kitchen because she can’t put up with his negativity.

THEME IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Revelling in nostalgia is futile.

Critics have said that Cheever’s ‘brother motif’ tends to come back to this.

“This house is about twenty-two years old,” he said. “These shingles are about two hundred years old. Dad must have bought shingles from all the farms around here when he built the place, to make it look venerable. […] Imagine spending thousands of dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck,” Lawrence said. “Imagine the frame of mind this implies. Imagine wanting to live so much in the past that you’ll pay men carpenters’ wages to disfigure your front door.” Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

The story’s basic thematic structure: the clash between the father, the mythological founder of the law, and the legacy he leaves to his children.

“Goodbye My Brother,” is wrought with his recurrent themes of light and nostalgia.

Powell’s, Review A Day

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

The Motif Of The Sea In “Goodbye My Brother”

Cheever uses the sea as a motif in a number of his works. In this story, too, the sea forms the crucial backdrop to the narrative.

“The sea salt that I think is in our blood”, says our unnamed narrator. Note also that the father died in the sea. The sea therefore is an important part of the narrator, bonding him with his family and to his history. Both he and his brother Chaddy miss the sea when they venture out West. The sea binds together various threads of the story.

Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn’t think well of the sea. He rejects the sea and hates everything about it, seeing the havoc it wreaks on the coastline and on the family holiday home. He and Ruth refuse to go swimming with the rest of the family, partly rejected by the matriarch, of course, who takes Chaddy’s arm and proclaims that she is determined to have fun.

Writes Mathews:

The sea relieves the narrator from the nihilism that permeates Lawrence’s thought. There is a paradoxical tranquility in the sea’s restlessness that is typified by the family’s daily swimming ritual, a practice that takes on quasi-religious overtones in its “illusion of purification”. The antidote to society’s Puritan past is thus to be found in the sea. Reflecting on his encounter with Ruth in the laundry, the narrator thinks about the alternative spirituality he feels in the sea’s presence….Lawrence fears that the sea, destroyer of his father and the law, will also destroy the family structure itself, as symbolized by the house. Cheever’s allusion is to the Bible, to Matthew 7:26-7, in which Jesus says: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened to a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (AKJV). For Lawrence, the family has built its foundations on sinking sand, a view that Cheever thematically transfers from the house to the values that underpin the lives of his mother and siblings.

From the story:

Now I could hear the waves, whose heaviness sounded like a reverberation, like a tumult, and it pleased me as it had pleased me when I was young, and it seemed to have a purgative force, as if it had cleared my memory of, among other things, the penitential image of Ruth in the laundry.

“‘This house will be in the sea […] The sea wall is badly cracked,’ Lawrence said. “I looked at it this afternoon. You had it repaired four years ago, and it cost eight thousand dollars. You can’t do that every four years’”

The narrator ends the story with a life-sustaining image that depicts the sea not as a destructor but as life-giving.

Mythological Allusions In “Goodbye My Brother”

Using the sea’s mythical symbolism, Cheever reaches back to a time before the invention of Christianity, before the God of the Puritans to a different and more ancient creation myth. Through a series of allusions, he instead evokes the pagan myths and deities of the ancient Greeks: Odette looks up at the night sky, trying to find the constellation of Cassiopeia; the narrator imagines Lawrence saying “Thalassa, Thalassa” (the Greek word for “sea”) when he leaves Laud’s Head; their sister, Diana, is an allusion to the virgin goddess of the hunt; the narrator’s wife, Helen, is the namesake of the most famous beauty of the classical world. But these allusions are swallowed up in a greater story that is alluded to yet never explained, namely, the creation myth of the ancient Greeks.

Peter Mathews

Juxtaposition In “Goodbye My Brother”

Beginning versus Ending In “Goodbye My Brother”

There is a copious amount of juxtaposition in this story. It begins with the second sentence, in which

our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.

This is juxtaposed with the ending, in which it is perhaps true that familial relationships have a kind of permanence, but whether they should be revered or not? The reader is left knowing that the two brothers will never be friends.

Juxtaposition of Voice In “Goodbye My Brother”

The story is divided between the rather flat, dour pronouncements delivered by Lawrence and the rich, sensuous counterpassages of the narrator. As Lawrence, for example, calls Odette a promiscuous woman, the narrator describes her in sensual detail, noting the roundness of her shoulders and the whiteness of her skin. Similarly, at the conclusion of the costume party, the guests rescue the floating white balloons from the sea while Lawrence laments the partygoers’ foolishness. The lushness of the prose that Cheever employs when describing the smells, the sounds, and the contentment of the narrator’s life among his family strikingly contrasts not only with Lawrence’s gloom but also with his matter-of-fact language. The sense of possibility of the former overshadows the finality of the latter.

Peter Mathews

Juxtaposition Of Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

Again from Mathews:

Lawrence’s life is characterized by a string of goodbyes, but this pattern is not accompanied by a process of healing and moving on. On the contrary, his history is scarred by these failures, and these recurring moments of disillusionment are remembered with the force of resentment. For the narrator, by contrast, the sea allows him to forget, it allows him to be washed free of his pain and thus avoid the canker of resentment that eats away at Lawrence’s being.

The narrator experiences the visit as tender and warm, which contrasts with Lawrence’s perennial exasperation with his family. For example, at the age of sixteen, he labeled his mother as “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.” But, the narrator believes this projection to be the result of Lawrence’s basic refusal to embrace life, which leads to the realization that the lifelong rift between the brothers may always remain. The sadness that accompanies this conclusion is palpable.

The philosophical difference between the brothers is acknowledged early in the story:

“Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.”

Subtle Repetitions In “Goodbye My Brother”

“Goodbye, My Brother” has aspects of the cumulative plot shape. Mathews quotes Morace:

“Essentially, Cheever plays the same scene or situation over and over with slight but cumulatively significant changes, gradually transforming the real into the fantastic, time into dream. […] [His fiction] depends considerably less on linear plot, narrative focus, and character development than it does on various forms of narrative parallelism: echoing, juxtaposition, counterpoint, incremental repetition, thematic variations, and the coming together of disparate characters, situations, and narrative lines”

Robert Morace

Narrator As Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

Written in first person point of view, the unnamed narrator is wry, compassionate and detached. At first we may think of him as a sympathetic observer. This kind of narrator is commonly utilised by Cheever in his short stories.

The effect, according to Mathews:

to initiate a move beyond the surface story, thus showing how these forces penetrate every level of discourse, from the level of everyday life (in the family’s clashes with Lawrence) to its deeper, more metaphysical levels (in the story’s religious, historical, and mythical references).

The function of the narrator is to evaluate his family’s ideas, and the story is the scale on which he weighs the different worldviews he encounters in that milieu. His effectiveness is guaranteed by the double consciousness with which Cheever imbues him. Indeed, the narrator shifts continually back and forth between lyrical celebrations of life and gloomy ruminations about Lawrence’s character.

STORY SPECS OF “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

This story first appeared in The New Yorker, August 25, 1951 on P. 22, and is available online behind a paywall.

“Goodbye, My Brother” is the first short story in this vintage collection.

COMPARE “GOODBYE MY BROTHER” WITH

The mood and atmosphere in other words, the setting of “Goodbye My Brother” remind me very much of the first few episodes of Bloodline, in which brothers and a sister return to the family home for a gathering. In this series, too, there is one brother who is the black sheep (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). The setting is reminiscent of that portrayed in “Goodbye, My Brother” the smell of brine, the coastal holiday vibe. The feeling that not all is well beneath the surface. That said, Bloodline is set and filmed many miles south, in Florida Keys.

List of films set in New England, separated by decade.

Bloodline Poster compare with Goodbye My Brother

“In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is also a short story which juxtaposes the nihilist against the optimist. The optimist is only an optimist on the surface, and put sin effort to maintain the charade. I believe if John Cheever were born later he’d be writing about climate change in this way.

WRITE YOUR OWN BASED ON “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

Not all of us have a family holiday house. But if you did have a family holiday house, where might it be? Who would join you there? And what sorts of dynamics would prove uncomfortable?

Have you ever been on holiday with people who you know and don’t know, in just the wrong combination?

Is there anybody in your life who you suspect misreads you consistently? If they were to write a story about you, and all the things that supposedly go on inside your head, what would that story look like?

Header illustration: “Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956