My Summer Of Love Film Study

The two main characters of the film My Summer of Love

My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds.

This film puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. My Summer Of Love is a love story but it is a tragic one.

My Summer of Love Film Poster The Most Dangerous Thing To Want Is More

GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES

Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives. In these largely carnivalesque stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.

david the dreamer boy and his fantasy life
David The Dreamer from 1922

At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliché that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.

GIRLS AND MIND-ROTTING NOVELS

The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago many people believed novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin?  She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. Tamsin has been exposed to Nietzsche. She encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.

Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and we no longer all them fantasies. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps we should compare this to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter.

THE CHARACTER OF TAMSIN

Tamsin is an intriguing blend of savvy and naïve. Though she’s not all that dangerous yet due to her lack of power in the world, she is certainly a dangerous woman in the making.

IS TAMSIN A SOCIOPATH?

Is Tamsin on the sociopathic spectrum? Not being a psychologist myself, and with Tamsin not being a real person, I am free to speculate. I can certainly make a good case for it:

We know that Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school because apparently she’s a bad influence on others.

The scene which really makes me think Tamsin has zero empathy is the one where they visit the wife of the singer who was using Mona for sex at the beginning of the film. Tamsin revels in the misery she is causing this woman. (Neither of the girls are woke enough to see that this woman is not part of the man’s problem.)

Later she winds Phil around her little finger for laughs. (Anyone else think of that saying: “Men are terrified women will laugh at them; women are terrified men will kill them”? (Despite appearances, Tamsin isn’t old enough yet to know to be scared of men like Phil.)

Tamsin picks up that Mona is interested in horror movies and gives her a genuine scare by taking control of the Ouija board.

Tamsin’s fantasies about her sister being dead are creepy. It’s likely she has zero affection for Sadie.

Tamsin is charming, intoxicating and fun to be around.

Sociopathic women are not subject to the same body insecurities that most women are. That’s not the same as saying that any woman comfortable with her body must be a sociopath — think of it in the inverse: sociopathic women know exactly how attractive they are, unbound by society’s rules and expectations about femininity.

Sociopaths are more likely to use sex as power, and are therefore more likely to identify as bisexual, because power is the goal — gender of sexual target is irrelevant. (Again, not true in the inverse.)

The sorts of lies Tamsin tells are in line with what you’d expect from a sociopath. She lies to control others. She has no other reason to lie to Mona. Tamsin doesn’t need money or anything like that.

Since sociopathy is to some degree genetic, the philandering father is a possible sociopath in his own right. (We don’t learn enough about the mother.)

TAMSIN THE FANTASIST

The audience sees that Tamsin is a ‘fantasist’ before Mona does. The older you are, the earlier you see it.

Tamsin doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. She is a mendacious ‘bad influence’ at the outset and remains so. We know she will go straight back to boarding school, latch onto some new victim and continue to wreak havoc with people’s emotions.

SETTING OF MY SUMMER OF LOVE

Filmed in Todmorden, this story is set in a very similar Yorkshire town.

SEASON

The book upon which this film is based starts in May, 1984. This was apparently a record-breaking heatwave for the area. Season is symbolic here — the extreme heat of this summer mirrors the ‘passion’ these girls feel for each other. Todmorden won’t see another heatwave quite like this one for a very long time. Likewise, we can surmise Mona won’t fall in love like that again.

The music, fashion and cars of the film make no attempt to take us back to 1984 — instead it looks like 2004. Nor is there anything about this that couldn’t be 1964 or even 1944, with a few surface-level modifications.

Here Emily Blunt is dressed in big hoop earrings and a headband from the 1970s, but I was wearing those same things in 2004 — they’d come back into the fashion chainstores.
my summer of love sunbathing
Do people still sunbathe in the heat of the day? Not like they did in 1984, surely. (I can’t speak for Yorkshire.)

In 1984, gay relationships were illegal. In the film the girls are thrown out of the local dance establishment, not just for being high and interrupting the singer, but also for draping themselves all over each other. For the locals — be it 1984 or 2004 — two girls in love would have been a confronting sight.

But this is not really a story ‘about’ being gay, banding together against the wider, intolerant, heterosexual world. It would be a mistake to focus on this as a lesbian film. I regard this love as romantic but not erotic.

Yet the algorithms at IMDb reflect a tendency for filmgoers to focus on the salacious at the expense of seeing the story for what it is:  Two (most probably) heterosexual young women playing out a love fantasy in what one of them thinks could replace real life.

my summer of love keywords
THE FAKENHAM HOUSE

The aristocratic house is ‘creepy’ in Tamsin’s words, made even creepier by her made-up stories about it. At various points I thought of “Rapunzel“, though Tamsin had cloistered herself away in her upstairs bedroom largely by choice. (The dollhouse in Sadie’s bedroom is symbolic. )

I thought of Rapunzel again later when Mona’s brother literally locks her inside her bedroom. Tamsin chooses to cloister herself inside her bedroom, whereas the financially poor, working class and poorly-educated Mona is locked into hers. This is about more than the bedroom.

RICH AND POOR AS MIRROR CHARACTERS

A story instantly becomes more interesting when rich and poor come together in a story. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for this — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. The private-schooled daughter from the mansion down the drive is legitimately sharing the same country road as the girl from the pub.

riding bitch my summer of love
The ‘riding bitch’ trope isn’t limited to male-female duos — here we have the more dominant girl sitting behind the girl under her thumb. Though Mona is ostensibly in the drivers’ seat, it’s all an illusion. A double inversion on the trope.

NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

IS MY SUMMER OF LOVE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?

[This is more] a movie that is about being an age, than coming out of age

Roger Ebert

What is a coming-of-age story? This isn’t an easy question because, at its widest interpretation, everything with a character arc is a ‘coming-of-age’ story.

What, then, makes My Summer Of Love not a coming-of-age story, in Roger Ebert’s eyes? I guess it’s because 15-year-old Mona does not grow. Not in any desirable sense.

She certainly comes to a realisation. Mona is let down in love — again. She has no one in the world apart from a volatile, ex-crim brother. when she almost drowns Tamsin in the river she demonstrates that she has a bit of her brother’s murderous rage within her. When she walks down the road in that last scene — we don’t know to where — I feel her life will be just as terrible and deflated as she always expected it to be.

In this story there’s nothing of the psychological ‘growth’ characteristic of a coming-of-age story. Rather, Mona briefly saw grander possibilities for herself during a brief brush with a child of the aristocracy, and now she has shrunk back into herself. A feature of a coming-of-age story: the main character becomes equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living as her ‘true self‘.

Because we don’t get to see where Mona is going, the audience must extrapolate to achieve a sense of ending. Another viewer might see her attempted strangulation of Tamsin as a form of female empowerment, but I am not in that camp. I see this violence as a warning sign. (In domestic violence, strangulation is the best predictor of subsequent murder.)

MIRROR PLOT

The plot of the ex-con older brother’s religious conversion seems unrelated at first but over the course of the story we realise both get at the main question: What does it mean to be a genuine person? Failing to live up to his standards of Good Christian Person, Phil tells his church buddies to up and leave the premises. Like Mona, Phil too is probably back on the path to ruination.

SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOOK AND FILM

DIALECT

Mona narrates the book, so her Yorkshire dialect is strong. In the film we only see her idiosyncratic way of speaking when she actually speaks, and she doesn’t say that much.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Mona and Phil — called Porkchop in the novel because he is fat — have a sister named Lindy. Lindy is getting married for the second time. The film suggests that there are more kids than just Mona and Phil, when Mona tells Tamsin about her future hypothetical life in which she’ll have a bunch of kids, wait for menopause, or cancer, seeming to mirror her own mother’s sorry life. The entire subplot of the wedding is gone from the film, probably due to the constraints on time. More story fits into a novel.

In the book we know Tamsin’s last name: Fakenham. It never comes up in the film. Being an allegorical name, this might be too on-the-nose.

APPEARANCE

In the book Mona is self-conscious of her appearance whereas her appearance is a non-issue in the film. Perhaps because Mona has red hair, is skinny and freckled the audience is supposed to ‘know’ her insecurity. Almost every 15-year-old who goes by that description in fiction has huge body image insecurities — the most famous being Anne of Green Gables. Mona bears other similarities to Anne Shirley — she is terribly alone in the world and has the ability to sink into fantasy. Perhaps Mona is Anne Shirley from another time and place.

DIFFERENCE IN SETTING

In the film, Phil is shutting down the family bar at the beginning of the story but in the book Mona works as a barmaid at the pub where the family lives.

PUPPETRY

Mona thieves, plays on the fruit machines and drinks alcohol to help her cope with the day. We see Mona smoking and drinking but the film doesn’t show her gambling and thieving tendencies. This makes her even more of a naïve puppet in Tamsin’s games.

INCITING INCIDENT

Tamsin is home from boarding school and seems lonely, so Mona gets a ‘call to adventure‘ when Tamsin’s father Mr. Fakenham asks her to befriend his daughter.

AGES

In the book Mona is on her way to school when she decides to visit the Fakenham house. There is no mention of school for Mona in the film. We assume she’s left, or at least, she’s not going back. Her education is over. She seems a bit older than fifteen, too. Ages are not mentioned.

AMBIGUITY

Mona finds Tamsin’s parents arguing about Mr. Fakenham’s affairs when she first visits the big house. In the film we don’t see Tamsin’s mother until the very end, and we find out about Mr Fakenham’s affairs through different means, left in the dark about whether this was actually going on, or if this too was another part of Tamsin’s fantasy.

IF YOU LIKED MY SUMMER OF LOVE CHECK OUT…

Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story which I feel is the main edge it has over this story. Peter Jackson utilises more stylisation in Heavenly Creatures, but the acting is on a par. Like Kate Winslet, Emily Blunt has gone on to be a big name.

Commentators have compared the book My Summer Of Love — with its emphasis on a sister’s wedding absent in the film —  to The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers.

Tonally, look to We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s narrator is a mendacious teenage girl, whereas the narrator of My Summer of Love is a more ordinary character. The setting, too, is similar. Merricat Blackwood is sequestered in her ‘castle’ but occasionally goes into the village.

If you enjoyed My Summer Of Love, check out Fish Tank, a film by Andrea Arnold.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

Anne Anderson, Scottish illustrator little match girl

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.

SETTING OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

For the Victorians, child death was all around. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London.

SEASONALITY IN THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

There is something both comforting and dangerous about a village blanketed in snow. Snow can spell death for a human on the wrong side of a window, but for home dwellers tucked up safely in their living rooms sipping mulled wine, snow really does feel like an extra ‘blanket’. I wonder if this comes from the reality that hunting creatures also hunker down in the snow. Bears, for instance, hibernate, so you’re less likely to get mauled by one of them. Despite the almost mythological fear of being mauled by large, wild animals, the biggest danger to humankind has always been other humans. It feels likely that a town is less likely to be assailed by a gang of marauders in the heavy snow.

The Little Match Girl

Andersen used the time span of the year as a metaphor for the time span of a life — the story takes place on New Year’s Eve, which neatly coincides with the very end of the girl’s life.

For more on this see The Seasons Of Storytelling.

Petrus van Schendel (Dutch, 1806 – 1870) Farmer’s Market
SOCIAL INEQUALITY

The Little Match Girl is not set in any specific place, but throughout Europe this was an era of industrialisation, before laws existed to prevent the complete slavery of peasants and the breakdown of family. Children from poor families commonly worked very long days, seven days a week. It was illegal to beg on the streets, so children would ostensibly try to sell a product, hoping for donations. This explains why the girl has a fistful of matches but nothing else — the matches are simply props for her begging. As a kid I always wondered what she planned on doing after the fistful of matches had gone. Even if she had sold them, wasn’t death her eventual fate?

FOOD

In The Little Match Girl the smell of roast goose emanates onto the street. This is a traditional Danish Christmas dish.

The traditional Danish Christmas meal is

  • roast pork, duck and goose
  • boiled potatoes
  • red cabbage
  • gravy

For dessert, the classic dish is ris à l’amande;— cold rice pudding with whipped cream, vanilla, almonds and hot cherry sauce. Also ‘risengrød’ — hot rice pudding.

Andersen's 'The Little Match Girl' Illustration by Pariz, circa 1950
Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ Illustration by Pariz, circa 1950

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

SHORTCOMING

In fairy tale world, if a name starts with ‘Little’, watch out. It means they’re not going to make it to adulthood.

The father in this tale is very much in the background — a villain/monster who threatens to beat her if she comes home without having sold the matches. He’s not going to come out looking for her when he realises she hasn’t come home. The Little Match Girl is — emotionally, and for story purposes — an orphan. In Victorian Denmark there is no safety net for abused and starving kids, so unless she can sell matches she has no money to find food or shelter. Memorably, she is without shoes. Hans Christian Andersen’s father had been a shoemaker, so Hans paid special attention to footwear. He had also been bullied by other children as a child, so he has a boy run off with one of the girl’s slippers after it slips off.

DESIRE

She just wants love, shelter and food — the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.

OPPONENT

The setting itself, in which she is invisible to passersby and helpless against the climate.

Although this story has been rewritten many times, often with the ending changed so that the Little Match Girl ends up safe and happy ever after in a warm house, this story was a critique on economic inequalities. The story was written at a time when Denmark was doing pretty well, despite some social unrest. Yet there were still abandoned children walking around the streets, as there always are in times of general prosperity. The opponents of this story are people who turn a blind eye. When the ending is changed there is no longer any human opponent — just the cold outside.

PLAN

She has a few matches in her possession. This is all she has left. She will sell the matches for money.

But she gives up trying to sell matches after the townspeople disappear into their own warm homes. She uses the matches to give herself a little warmth.

BIG STRUGGLE

As she slips into a hypothermic slump she imagines the measly warmth of the matches have brought her all the things she needs.

These matches are a simple, everyday item which Hans Christian Andersen manages to imbue with longing. He does this in other tales too, for example with the pea in The Princess and the Pea.

ANAGNORISIS

When the girl’s grandmother appears the reader realises she is meeting her in heaven. For modern audiences this is tragic; for Victorian audiences this was the best thing that could happen to her.

In the end The Little Match Girl flies to Heaven. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NEW SITUATION

The Little Match Girl will live happily in heaven with the grandmother she loves. Hans Christian Andersen was really close to his own grandmother. His grandmothers and older women all have fairy godmother, semi-magical powers attached to them. Here she is surrounded by an aura of light.

Hans Christian Andersen was a devout (possibly Orthodox) Lutheran. Lutheranism is a major branch of Protestant Christianity. Lutherans split from Catholics in the early 1500s. A main difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism: Lutherans believe that scripture is the final authority on all matters. For Catholics, authority comes from both the scriptures and the tradition.

According to Lutheran thinking God persists after death. People are judged before being admitted to Heaven, but worrying about this judgement (or about the future in general) is not considered a mark of faith. A good Lutheran goes about their daily life in accordance with the rules of the church/God without worrying too much about the future.

There seem to be two main interpretations of this ending:

  1. Children are full of imagination and are capable of enduring severe hardship with a positive attitude

The Little Match Girl is a bad example of a human being because she just gives up on life.

Death as a divine release

Death, of course, is not always looked upon as punishment. In fact, in many religious stories virtuous people (often children) are “called home,” frequently under miraculous circumstances. For these blessed individuals, death is a divine release from the sorrows of this world.

Once there was a poor woman who had two children. The youngest one had to go into the forest every day to find wood. Once a little child helped him gather the wood, carried it to the house, and then disappeared. The child told his mother about the helper, but she didn’t believe him. One day the helper child brought a rose and told the child that when the rose was in full blossom he would come again. The mother put the rose into some water. One morning the child did not get up; the mother went to his bed and found him lying there dead. On that same morning the rose came into full blossom.

Source: Retold from The Rose (Grimm, Children’s Legends, no. 3). For similar accounts of foretold deaths, see Grimm, German Legends, nos. 263-267.

Religious legends are told throughout the world, and those describing premonitions and forewarnings of impending death are particularly widespread and persistent. Such accounts spontaneously emerge at solemn family gatherings, then disappear when the mood brightens. They surface again when needed — unrehearsed at other sober occasions, or sophisticatedly refined in universal myths and in the great tragedies of world literature. At their primeval level, these accounts describe only modest miracles: the opening of a flower, the appearance of a bird, the dream of a departed loved one, or perhaps nothing more portentous than an uncanny feeling. They do not claim the power to change the course of human destiny, nor do they offer explanations to life’s unfathomed mysteries. Instead, they are expressions of faith in continuity and of hope for justice, even at times when it is painfully evident that, on this earth at least, we do not live happily ever after.

Pitt.edu
Honor C. Appleton, The Little Match Girl, 1922
Honor C. Appleton, The Little Match Girl, 1922
The Little Match Girl ~ Arthur Rackham 1932
The Little Match Girl ~ Arthur Rackham 1932

SEE ALSO

Hans Christian Andersen wrote this story using a painting as inspiration. How would you write a fractured fairytale using The Little Match Girl as inspiration? Gregory McGuire did it for an NPR Christmas special some years ago. The story is called Matchless. He took a minor character and made made him more sympathetic.

Header illustration: Anne Anderson, Scottish illustrator.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review
Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”

Rules Of Summer by Shaun Tan Analysis

On the surface, Shaun Tan’s award-winning picture book Rules Of Summer is simply a list of rules. Below I take a look at how Rules Of Summer is in fact a complete narrative.

There is also a message here. Readers are asked to wonder: What are the real rules of summer? Play together. Use your imaginations. Work out your differences.

STORY STRUCTURE OF RULES OF SUMMER

Does this picture book — more like a coffee table book of art in some ways — follow the universal seven steps of narrative? Yes, it does, though it requires the reader to provide some of that story. Shaun Tan doesn’t hand it to us on a plate.

Sure enough, Rules Of Summer  is a complete narrative, and this is what makes the book resonant.

SHORTCOMING

Two brothers are faced with a long summer and they must learn to entertain themselves and how to get along.

DESIRE

They want to have fun

OPPONENT

Each other

PLAN

They turn everyday situations into imaginary scenarios to fight the boredom of long, never-ending days of summer holidays.

BIG STRUGGLE

Notice the pictures get darker. Especially the skies.

They have a fist-fight. The older brother wins. The younger brother feels isolated as he waits for an apology.

ANAGNORISIS

If he waits long enough, the older brother will eventually come back to him. This emotional state is depicted as a snowy, cold landscape, juxtaposing against the summery backdrop of an Australian summer. (And summers here in Australia are pretty much the opposite of snowy and cold.)

The Symbolism of Seasons is important in Rules of Summer.

NEW SITUATION

The boys sit together on the couch looking at the TV.

What does it mean when characters in books watch TV, or perhaps their computers? It almost always means they have stopped noticing things going on around them, preferring to slip into the world of other people’s fantasy. In Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing”, the parents watch TV while failing to see the amazing things all around them.

What about these boys? Why have they decided to watch TV? Perhaps it is safer, because the fantasy world on the other side of the screen feels less real than the imaginary (or real-to-them) local environs — TV as safe escape.

But have they learned to get along?

Have they learned to entertain themselves?

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

The Cosy House and Barn

Maxfield Parrish- Winter Wonderland

Home is important to all of us and perhaps even more important to young readers. This is why the mythic journey when it occurs in children’s literature is more commonly known as the home-away-home story — unless a child moves house at the beginning of the story they most often explore alone for a while then return to the cosy safety of home.

The Tidiness Rule

Cosy houses in story need to be tidy but not too tidy.

Hominess is not neatness. Otherwise everyone would live in replicas of the kinds of sterile and impersonal homes that appear in interior-design and architectural magazines. What these spotless rooms lack, or what crafty photographers have carefully removed, is any evidence of human occupation. In spite of the artfully placed vases and casually arranged art books, the imprint of their inhabitants is missing.

Home: A short history of an idea by Witold Rybczynski
Continue reading “The Cosy House and Barn”

Storytelling Tips From Juno (2007)

I’m no great fan of many traditional rom-coms, but I do love this off-beat romantic comedy drama blend precisely because it takes the regular, conservative storyline of: mother almost loses her baby and then reunites (to live happily ever after), and the usual movie tropes (geek = Bleeker, but he’s also an athlete, stepmother is not wicked) and inverts them at every opportunity. The dialogue of Juno is witty, in keeping with Diablo Cody’s distinctive voice, seen also in The United States of Tara and in her books.

For more stories about kind stepmothers, see this Goodreads list.

Juno

Notice the orange and white banding which make up the main colour scheme of the Juno movie poster. See this article which is an interesting insight into colour and movie posters. Rom-coms are generally white whereas the colour orange tells an audience we won’t know quite what to expect.

Since this is a comedy there is a happy ending, and a uniting rather than a separation, but the happy ending is not necessarily what we expect. This is a satisfying story.

Where does Juno fit in the taxonomy of rom-coms?

Juno Taxonomy

Juno follows the structure of a 1960s ‘Preggers Novel’. For more on that, see here.

Juno’s Crisis

At the beginning of the story Juno already knows she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s already been to the convenience store and peed on several sticks, leading to comedy about ‘etch a sketches’ and how pee sticks can’t be erased. We see her walking about with a huge container of juice. We soon find out why she’s been drinking so much juice — she needs to make pee for the pregnancy tests.

Shortcoming & Need Of The Main Character

Juno’s moral shortcoming is that she is sardonic — this is part of her sense of humour, but it needs to be tamed a bit, because she is going through life connecting with no one in particular. She apparently had sex with Beeker because she was ‘bored’. If she had any feelings for him she refuses to admit it. Bleeker is just the sort of boyfriend she needs to grow emotionally, because for all his vagueness, Bleeker comes from a loving family and is himself quite emotionally mature.

Juno’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t know who she is yet. In fact, when her father tells her he thought she was the sort of girl who knows when to say when, she replies, ‘I don’t know what sort of girl I am.’

i don't really know what kind of girl i am

She’s drifting through life trying things on. She’s not quite as mature as she seems. In some ways she has an acidic wit and precocious insight. On the other hand, she can’t see what her step-mother sees about Mark Loring — that he is unreliable and flirty and that going around to his house to ‘rock out’ with him is going to cause problems and is inappropriate. In short, Juno is immature, and this is her coming-of-age story.

In order to have a better life, Juno needs to grow up (preferably without the noose of a baby to care for), find a boyfriend who fully accepts her for who she is (as her father explains in his fatherly advice) and take time to explore her passions (singing and song-writing). This being a comedy, there is a happy ending, and she indeed has achieved these things as the credits roll.

Ghosts and Backstory

Juno’s ghost is that her mother abandoned her, sending her a cactus every year as the only point of contact, and she seems to be on medication, probably for AD/HD. (“I can sell you some of my Adderall.”)

Characters around Juno have ghosts: Her father doesn’t have a good track record with relationships (though he’s in an excellent relationship now, and has been for the last 10 years.) The most significant ghost plot wise is that of the Lorings — an adoption arrangement has fallen through for Vanessa in the past, which explains her nervousness, and Mark has a history of being flaky, and perhaps of getting with other young women (implied), which would explain why Vanessa is uncomfortable with Juno and Mark rocking out together in private. Sure enough, details of the ‘ghost’ are withheld from the audience. It’s not until the second half of the movie that we learn the Lorings have been let down before, and that we get a glimpse of Mark coming on to Juno.

Juno herself is no stranger to all things sexual — her best friend has been having sex and her peers have been having abortions. This film takes the usual high school girl story and inverts everything possible. Instead of this story being about the moral outrage of teenage sex (or ’sexual intercourse’ — a phrase that is repeatedly mocked by Juno and Leah), this is puts all the outrage into the background and shifts the story beyond the drama of procuring an abortion, confessing to parents, being scorned by the community.

juno confession to parents

The scorn is depicted by one interaction between Juno and the office lady, who is giving her a late pass or something. The parental outrage we expect is not there — Juno’s stepmother (another inversion — the step mother is as loving as a mother) immediately jumps into practical caregiver mode (we later see her up late sewing new waistbands on jeans). The story leads us to believe Juno is going to keep her baby when she gets back together with Bleaker and when Vanessa breaks up with Mark, but that would be too trite: Vanessa gets the baby anyhow.

Setting of Juno

The setting is suburban Minnesota: two different kinds of suburbs — Juno lives in a more chaotic, non-traditional household whereas the Lorings live in a new development, St. Cloud.

St. Cloud is more of a “small town grown into a large town”, with a friendly Midwestern feel but an expanding role as a commercial and educational center and commuter suburb to the northwestern reaches of Minneapolis-St Paul.

In a series of cuts we see that all of the houses around the Lorings are new, well-maintained and manicured, but we also see that everyone who lives here is basically the same. We expect (and soon have it confirmed) that Vanessa is the sort of woman who takes her life advice from What To Expect When You’re Expecting (the white middle class mother’s bible)and her main problem seems to be what shade of cheesecake to paint the baby’s room. She is pretty much the opposite of who we expect Juno will turn out to be. Juno, at this point, looks more likely to live in a converted office block decorated with industrial waste. Juno lives an hour’s drive away from St Cloud, which is just far enough to be in a separate world, but which allows her to see the Lorings. Minneapolis is a typical American mid-western town with generally conservative attitudes, though abortion is indeed possible in this part of America. It would be a different sort of story again if this were set in, say, Texas, where an abortion wouldn’t necessarily have been an option for Juno.

Juno’s world revolves around school, home and the odd outing to necessary places such as the pharmacy.

Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.
Juno looks here, in her red hoodie, a bit like a modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, a reference which was used in another movie — horror — that Ellen Page starred in.

Stories set in American schools almost always have a number of locker/hall scenes. I guess that’s because where the school’s true hierarchy is seen best, with the corridor functioning like a forest. Juno is shown several times battling against the flow of students walking from the opposite direction, symbolising her alternative personality.

juno school hall

We also see Juno and Bleeker interacting as science lab partners, and this couple is contrasted against the annoyingly immature couple they share a table with. By comparison, Juno and Bleeker look like a great couple, and this is probably the point where we start to root for them working out, and is why we’re disappointed — as Juno is — when we learn that Bleeker is going to the prom with someone else.

juno physics lab

The story follows the seasons, which is a ‘feminine’ way of storytelling — stories for girls, for example, tend to be cyclical in nature.

The seasons can be seen in a graphic of the film’s colours.

Since this story is about a pregnancy, breaking scenes down by seasons in which they occur is a convenient way of signalling to the audience how close we are to the climax: Will Juno give the baby to the Lorings or not? And when is the baby due?

juno seasons

Some details of the setting: We see the track and field boys running in their gold and maroon uniform no matter what the season. This adds some humour, especially when we see a close up on their shorts, with Juno’s comments about their penises jumping around, accompanied by a slo-mo close up — an inversion on the usual objectification of female characters in coming-of-age movies. The athletes’ training is almost a metaphor: things keep happening. Seasons don’t stop for anyone. The baby is definitely happening, and it’s as sure as the track and field athletes keep on truckin no matter the weather.

Juno and her friend Leah are often seen together in unusual places, signalling their ‘weird’ status and general confidence. They eat lunch in the ‘prize nook’, where you’d expect them to be told off by a teacher in a different kind of high school movie.

juno huge lunch

Juno’s bedroom is introduced (like most teenagers’ bedrooms are) with a slow pan and zoom — we see she has decorated her room with some very unusual objects, and the point of comedy is that she’s calling up for an abortion on a hamburger phone, leading to the juxtaposition between pregnancy and eating, which seems to be inherently funny.

juno bedroom

The food/pregnancy is an extended gag throughout: “I don’t know, it’s not seasoned yet”, the huge big gulp type drinks she’s carrying around to emphasise how big her belly is compared to her usual stature, the ‘food baby’ response she gets when she tells Leah she’s up the duff…. She even has to shake the hamburger phone mid-call in order to get it to work — shaking is another gag. (She has also been seen shaking the pee stick — another riff on the etch-a-sketch joke made by the Rainn Wilson character who works in the pharmacy.)

hamburger phone

Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.

juno chair pipe

Inciting Incident

This would have been a very simple story if Juno had simply called up for an abortion and got one. But Juno has a bit of a moral crisis when she is told by Su-Chin that her baby already has fingernails. This leads to subsequent problems: if she’s not going to have an abortion, what is she going to do? This is an excellent crisis because Juno thinks she has just overcome the crisis incited at the very beginning of the film. In quirky Cody style, this moral crisis is camouflaged a bit by witty dialogue:

juno moral crisis

Desire

Juno’s new desire is to find the perfect loving family for her baby. Not just a ‘loving’ family, though. She wants to find a ‘cool’ family, by her teenage definition of cool. 

She tells Leah that she basically wants parents just like her idealised version of her older self, but in the end, she will realise that a woman quite different from her original idea of cool will do just as nicely, if not better. This is a perfect example of a desire line, because the desire doesn’t change completely (that would lead to a new story), but veers off course a little after a revelation.

Allies

Juno’s father, step-mother and friend Leah are all her allies. Each of these characters at some point have a conversation with Juno in which we see Juno’s shortcomings challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.

Opponent

Bleeker is both ally and opponent, being the love-interest in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t actively stand in her way, but he does start seeing another girl and Juno gets jealous. Rather than Bleeker being an opponent there is the issue of Bleeker’s mother, who doesn’t want to see them together because she finds Juno too alternative for her own conservative tastes. Bleeker’s mother’s desire: For her son to find a nice, conservative girl, like the one with the ‘permanent stink eye’ (who he plans to go to the dance with.)

This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn't think all that much of Carol.
This one line of dialogue lets us know that Juno doesn’t think all that much of Carol.

The community itself is an opponent. Though we don’t see the kick-back Juno gets for being pregnant, we do have a few insights: “They call me the cautionary whale.” We see the way the school office lady looks her up and down with disgust, and then there’s the argument with the woman doing the ultrasound, who stands in for every middle class person looking down on teenage mothers. (This scene also allows us to see the extent to which the step-mother is an ally.)

The audience, too, is possibly Juno’s opponent, and in this film we’re being asked to consider what a good family really looks like. The traditional idea of the nuclear family with two parents in the suburbs is challenged at various points. When Juno gives her friends the middle finger, she is really giving us the middle finger in a good-humoured fashion.

juno middle finger

Fake-Ally Opponent

Mark genuinely enjoys Juno’s company but he isn’t admitting to himself or to her that he doesn’t really want her baby, and he isn’t emotionally mature enough to even tell her, let alone his own wife, about his misgivings. Juno’s about to give birth, which functions in the plot like a ticking clock (often used in thrillers) to add a bit of tension. The plot turns at the point when Mark conveys his misgivings after their slow 80s dance: Juno then has a crisis about whether she really does want to give her baby to the Lorings. They’re not as perfect as she imagined.

Revelation and Decision

Juno lies on the hood of her car, obviously thinking about something. She drives back to St Cloud and leaves a note on Vanessa’s doorstep. She doesn’t find out what the note says until the end of the movie, when Vanessa has framed it and put it on the baby’s wall, but Juno has said that she’ll still give Vanessa the baby even if she’s a single mother. Juno has seen Vanessa at the mall interacting with a friend’s child and knows Vanessa will make a good mother no matter what.

Plan

Juno realises, after feeling her jealousy, that she really does want to be Bleeker’s girl friend so her plan is to get him back. She buys 100 boxes of his favourite orange tic-tacs and leaves them in his letterbox. Then she apologises to him on the track and tells him she really does love him.

juno declaration of love

Opponent’s Plan and Main Attack

This film doesn’t seem to have this. There is no obvious line of attack against Juno. Unless we count Mark’s plan — he’s going to break up with Vanessa. Perhaps this is the worst thing that could happen for Juno, even worse than Bleeker not accepting her back, because in this story Vanessa and Juno are linked by being ‘mothers’ to the unborn baby.

Drive

Juno’s decision to give her baby to Vanessa despite Mark’s abandonment means she has won out against Mark’s immaturity. He’s going to be alone and single and middle-aged and living in a loft.

Attack By Ally

An attack-by-ally scene is the conversation between Juno and her step-mother about Juno going around to Mark’s unannounced. Juno reveals her callous side by dissing her stepmother’s hobby of making collages out of dog pictures when she ‘doesn’t even have a dog’. 

ally confrontation juno
Junos’ massive drinks symbolise the big issues she’s dealing with. Yet the actress is tiny. The juxtaposition is therefore both thematic and humorous.

Juno attacks her back for cutting out pictures of dogs even though she doesn’t have a dog (because of Juno’s allergy). This is probably the conversation which helps Juno to understand who Mark really is, though she doesn’t realise it immediately. Only after he expresses his misgivings about taking her baby, in which case her step-mother’s advice probably was at the back of her mind.

Apparent Defeat

It seems for a while as if Juno giving her baby to a couple breaking up is not going to happen. She’s going to be stuck with this baby because she’s due to give birth very soon. Sure enough, there is only one apparent defeat. Up until now, Juno has been sure that she wants Mark and Vanessa to have her baby.

In the plotline where Juno wants to be with Bleeker (subconsciously at first) she is also defeated when she finds out Bleeker is going to the prom, and then to someone’s log house, with another girl. The argument they have tells the audience that Juno still likes Bleeker, and that Juno herself doesn’t yet realise it. We also realise how great Bleeker is when he tells her the absolute truth  about the other girl (comically using the exact words Leah did).

juno bleeker argument

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive and Motive

Juno has the obsessive drive to find good parents for her baby. We know that Juno keeping the baby is not the best outcome. She’s very much a young, free spirit who isn’t at the point where she takes life seriously. Although Juno initially wanted a couple, she has decided that a single mother is fine, if that single mother happens to be Vanessa. Until recently Juno has connected far more with Mark (because they’re on the same maturity level) but she has garnered enough human insight now to know that the cool guy isn’t going to make as good of a parent as the anxious woman.

Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.
Steps are sometimes used as a metaphor — here Juno sits on the bottom step near the beginning of the movie, signifying her as-yet immature status. Unlike Mark, Juno grows.

Audience Revelation

juno born to be a mother
Earlier in the film we see Vanessa *say* she’ll make a great mother but an audience is naturally suspicious of such a perfect-looking suburban couple. What is the rot that lies underneath every single suburban story?

This is the part where the audience learns something Juno does not, but mostly in this story we’re right there alongside Juno for the ride. For example, we realise how good a mother Vanessa will make at the same time Juno does — when we see her in the mall playing with the toddler. But we do realise before Juno does that all is not well in rich-happy-married-couple land. We see Mark and Vanessa at a stalemate over the colour of the paint for the baby’s room. Mark thinks it’s ‘too early’ to be worrying about that, and we learn he hasn’t been reading the baby books Vanessa has been asking him to read.

Juno cheesecake scene

Third Revelation and Decision

This is the bit where Juno realises Mark is a fake-ally opponent: He tells her he isn’t ready to be a father and he’s thinking of breaking up with Vanessa (though doesn’t have the balls to have actually done that yet).

Visit To Death

Shown by Juno lying on her car bonnet late that night, trying to decide what to do. This is a modern story, so the visit to death is psychological. She’s in turmoil: can she bear to give her baby to a single mother?

Big Struggle

The audience, along with Juno, is witness to the big explosive argument between Mark and Vanessa. We see how much better Vanessa would be at parenting than Mark. We may have suspected Vanessa of being a fake good person — that in fact she’ll be a terrible mother — over anxious and obsessive. But now we see that whatever her faults are, she’s a hell of a lot better than Mark. Interestingly, Juno is a lot like her main opponent — Mark. They are both not ready for a baby.

We’ve already seen that Vanessa has a lot more maturity than Juno.

juno difference in maturity levels vanessa juno

Anagnorisis

Juno perhaps realises that, like Mark, she is not ready for a baby, even if she is with the father as a young couple. She realises that Vanessa will still make a great mother, that a typical nuclear family isn’t the be all and end all — that relationships end all the time, but babies come along despite this sad fact. We see her making these revelations in the comical talk with her father, in which the father thinks she’s asking about him, but she’s really thinking about Mark and Vanessa.

juno dad advice

Moral Decision

The two courses of possible action: Give her baby to Vanessa or keep it.

The audience has been expecting Juno to keep her baby, or at least find a new couple at the last minute. The traditional ‘happy ending’ is seeing babies with their natural mothers, loved and adored and brought up beautifully. The revelation is that Juno has decided to give her baby to Vanessa despite her recently broken relationship. The film withholds this information by refusing to show us what’s on the note. The thematic revelation is that babies don’t need a typical happy rich couple in order to thrive. Alternative family set ups can be just as fulfilling, as evidenced by Juno’s own family set up, in which her relationship with her stepmother is as good as any typical relationship between mother and teenaged daughter.

New Situation

This is pretty hokey in any other genre, but we see Juno together with Bleeker playing the guitar outside a picturesque suburban house. Perhaps Juno has left home — her step-mother has got a dog, which Juno is allergic to. There has been a reference earlier in the movie about how the step-mother can’t have a dog until Juno leaves home because of her allergy to dog saliva. Bleeker and Juno are singing a duet, suggesting they are a very happy couple. In fact, they’re becoming the very couple Juno looked for in Vanessa and Mark.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Winnie The Pooh Novel Study

Winnie the Pooh is basically a modern version of an archetypal legend: The story of a peaceful animal kingdom ruled by a single benevolent human being. Like Adam, Christopher Robin gives names to his objects.

The Pooh stories came at the very end of the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature, as described by Peter Hunt:

THE AUDIENCE

  • Winnie the Pooh has been described as not really a book for children, but rather ‘collegiate’. Sure enough, my mother bought me the complete hardcover works when I was in university. I hadn’t truly read them until then — like Seuss’s The Lorax, the stories had always been enjoyed more by my mother than by me. In the early years the books were very much in vogue among adults but were later condemned by some as being smug/bourgeois/whimsical. Winnie is like The Bee Gees — he tends to go in and out of fashion, but unlike The Bee Gees, he’s currently in fashion. People don’t complain about his whimsy much these days.
  • Roger Sale said that the Pooh books are essentially about the fact that Christopher Robin is now too old to play with toy bears.
  • Maria Nikolajeva says that ‘the books present a subtle balance between the creation of Arcadia and the subversion of it, so that our final interpretation of them can easily topple over to either side, which we also see clearly in many studies of Pooh’. She explains that Milne tries to create an illusion that Paradise is indeed eternal, while the text subverts the author’s intention.
  • Apart from his Pooh stories (written 1924-1928) A.A. Milne wrote plays for adults. After his four Pooh stories that’s all he wrote, until he died in 1956, dissatisfied that he had ‘only’ found fame as a children’s writer.
E.H. Shepard (British,1879-1976) Tiggers can't climb trees
E.H. Shepard (British,1879-1976) Tiggers can’t climb trees

FOOD IN THE POOH STORIES

  • Food is an important part of Pooh’s paradise, though surprisingly little is said about it compared to, say, The Wind In The Willows. Pooh is fixated, of course, upon ‘hunny’.

As a side note, human evolution explains why we love honey:

The honeyguide lives in much of Africa, where it eats the wax, brood, and eggs of honeybees. In this, it is relatively unique. Wax is indigestible to most animals. The honeyguide has been simultaneously blessed with the ability to eat wax and cursed with the dilemma of how to obtain it. Honeyguide beaks are too small to break into beehives. Humans have a different problem. We crave beehives for their honey. We are willing to do almost anything to get to honey. In Thailand, little boys are sent a hundred feet up into trees with a smoking stick to do big struggle with three-inch-long giant bees and take from them their honey… Honey, to paraphrase the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has “a richness and subtlety difficult to describe to those who have never tasted [it], and indeed can seem almost unbearably exquisite in flavour… [It] breaks down the boundaries of sensibility, and blurs its registers, so much so that the eater of honey wonders whether he is savouring a delicacy or burning with the fire of love.”

The Wild Life Of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn
  • Pooh is often punished for being greedy, though the punishment is rather mild compared to the punishment in most gluttony stories. (Compare with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
  • Food is always joyful. Most adventures end with Pooh going home to eat lunch. He is always excusing himself to go home to eat. He lives to eat. Pooh immediately interprets unfamiliar words as food, which is a good source of humour. A similar technique is used in the more modern book Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, in which the animal main characters structure their days around mealtimes, and almost don’t live to tell the tale. Contemporary children’s writers structure stories similarly. Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books always end with food. Pettson and Findus stories also end with the sharing of food. All of these stories are set in a safe environment where food is always there, always a comfort.
  • As in many children’s stories, a picnic in the Pooh stories is an important part of many an outing.
  • Food takes a less significant role in the stories once they move from mythic to linear (i.e. when changes start to occur), when Christopher Robin’s departure from this world is imminent and later becomes a fact. Food moves into the background because emotional development comes to the fore.

THE PLOTS OF WINNIE THE POOH

  • Drama and excitement centre on the capture of strange animals or the rescue of friends in danger.
  • The danger is always from natural causes: accidents, floods, storms, though Minotaur opponents can be imagined (e.g. The Woozle).
  • As soon as real fact or observation is introduced, the elaborate system the characters have concocted to explain how the world works collapses. The story about the Woozle illustrates this. (The Woozle Effect is a phenomenon whereby an incorrect fact is cited so many times that it becomes largely accepted.)

THE SETTING OF WINNIE THE POOH

  • Alison Lurie sees Pooh books as an intact idylls, with their strong “reversal of parental authority”. The Forest is a self-contained universe without economic competition or professional ambition. This is similar to the idyll in the Moomin stories. Apart from occasional bad weather, there’s nothing unsafe about this world.
  • Although the place has no GPS coordinates,  the setting suggests Milne was influenced by pre-1900 Essex and Kent, where Milne spent his holidays as a child. (At least, it’s more like this than like the more thickly settled countryside of Sussex, where he lived as an adult.) The landscape of the Pooh stories is quite bare and uncultivated, comprising mostly heath, woods and marsh. There are many pine trees, but the most common plants are gorse and thistles.
  • Rain, wind, fog and snow are all common — this is a world with all four seasons.
  • The world is a stable one. Tigger and Roo’s arrival in the Forest is like the appearance of a sibling in early childhood, inexplicable and unexpected. Both characters soon become an integrated part of the idyllic world.
  • Humphrey Carpenter sees in the Pooh books the First Golden Age’s farewell to enchanted places.
  • Some critics say that Milne wrote these books because he himself was estranged from his parents, and the world he created is a kind of escape. But other authors wrote similar worlds, and they were not estranged from their parents. (Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson etc.) I think we should be careful about psychoanalysing authors who create fantasy worlds and stick to the texts, sometimes in relation to other texts.
  • The toys represent the childish part of Christopher Robin. They cannot follow him out into the Wide World.
  • All scenes that take place at Christopher Robin’s house take place outdoors, including the party he gives at the end of the first book.
  • The small, self-contained world of Winnie The Pooh is a bit like the world A.A. Milne grew up in. His father was headmaster of a small suburban London school for boys — Hensley House. Milne’s sons joined classes as soon as they were old enough. In this environment there is no economic competition or professional ambition. There are also no cars, planes, radios, telephones or war.
  • Homes and houses play a significant role in the books in general, though. But home doesn’t exactly represent security — Owl’s house gets blown down. (This anticipates Christopher Robin’s departure.)
  • The Forest is a natural world, where civilisation has not yet entered, at least not in the beginning. It’s basically a modern version of an archetypal legend. A peaceful animal kingdom is ruled by a single benevolent human being. But the final threat to the Forest comes from knowledge and education. Pooh’s poems represent oral, mythical culture but the education Christopher Robin receives on the outside is written and therefore linear. When Christopher Robin writes his first correct sentence, he takes a step away from the world of innocence.
  • The Forest equals a child’s inner landscape. Forests equal the subconcious, across all forms of storytelling. Look to fairytales for the clearest examples of that.

THE CHARACTERS OF WINNIE THE POOH

Winnie the Pooh characters
  • The characters are humanised toys rather than humanised animals but there’s not much point in making a distinction. Each of their characteristics doesn’t have much to do with their real-world animal counterparts, except that Piglet likes Haycorns (as do real world pigs, apparently).
  • Milne claims that he did not invent most of the characters but merely took over the toys that Christopher Robin happened to have. He looked at their faces and “merely described” what anyone could see for themselves about their characters.  “Only Rabbit and Owl were my own unaided work.” However, for those inclined to take a closer look at Milne’s life, it is thought he subconsciously based the characters’ relationships on his own. Alan was his father’s favourite son. Likewise, Winnie-the-Pooh is the favourite of Christopher Robin. Milne senior is Owl — as a child A.A. Milne thought his father knew everything but later realised a lot of what he’d ‘known’ was wrong. (An experience that happens to any adult, perhaps?) His mother is thought to be Rabbit, living in a state of preoccupation with small responsibilities and bossy concern for the duties of others. (Notice that his parents are the only characters Milne invented for himself.) Milne was closest to his brother Ken, only sixteen months older than he was. Like Pooh and Piglet, these two were inseparable.
  • Apart from Kanga and Roo there are no family relationships — another similarity to a boys’ school.
  • Like a schoolboy, Pooh lives in a world of eccentric but loyal friends.
  • Their main activities: eating, exploring, visiting and sports.
  • Some feminist critics have ascribed Pooh with gender characteristics. Children’s literature critic Maria Nikolajeva argues for a gender-free Pooh. The Forest is a ‘pregender’ universe. Note that the voice of Pooh, when adapted for television/film is quite high pitched, though narrated by an older male. This is both ‘youthful’ and results in a gender-ambiguous character. I argue that no character can be genderless because in English we have no gender neutral pronoun. (This may be starting to change, with an increasing number of people identifying as non-binary or agender.) The characters are ‘sexless’ but this does not mean they’ll be read as genderless. The archetype of the wise owl, for instance, is always, always coded male. It doesn’t really work otherwise, because the realworld counterpart upon which Owl is based is the patriarchal male of academia — a role unavailable to anyone other than the highly educated white man. (These characters probably can’t be race free, either.)
https://twitter.com/Bombilly_/status/1296718789820780545

NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE IN WINNIE THE POOH

  • The story progresses toward an increasingly adult, detached view of the events.
  • The metadiegetic, didactic narrator gradually disappears. Some critics really don’t like this adult-like narrator’s voice, thinking it is intrusive. (Metadiegetic pertains to a secondary narrative embedded within the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element.)
  • This kind of narration is typical of idyllic fiction.
  • In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again.
  • There is much irony between the words and the pictures, for example when Pooh is stuck in the hole because he’s eaten too much honey. Christopher Robin reads him a ‘sustaining’ book, which happens to be an ABC book, and opens to the page for ‘Jam’. Both Milne and Shepard (the original illustrator) make fun of the child. This has been called the Mark Twain Wink.
  • There is another sort of irony addressed to adult co-readers. These passages mostly appear at the beginning of Winnie-the-Pooh — there are none in the sequel. They take the form of condescending conversations between the author and Christopher Robin. The following example shows that behind the godlike character of Christopher Robin (who fictionally created the cast in his mind), is the even more godlike figure of A.A. Milne, who created everything. (Similarly, E.B. White engages in double address via Fern’s father, who acts as the voice of the author.)

THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIENCE (PROTAGONIST)

  • Pooh has psychological shortcomings that make his character interesting. His virtues and faults are common to the Every Child: simple, natural, affectionate. He continually falls into ludicrous errors of judgement and comprehension. He is so greedy that he eats Eeyore’s birthday jar of honey on his way to deliver it. His executive functioning is yet to develop. All of us at birth are stupid and greedy but also loveable. Milne himself described this quality of children as ‘brutal egotism’, but always combined with natural innocence.
  • The characters of the Pooh stories can be viewed as a ‘collective protagonist’ (from Jungian thought), with each character representing faults and virtues particular to some adults and some children, but Pooh himself (the hero) has faults and virtues common to children.
  • Although slow, Pooh always comes through in an emergency. It is Pooh who rescues Roo when she falls into the river. Later he rescues Piglet.
  • The characters are introduced gradually, one or two at a time in each story, which is like a child’s gradual discovery of their own traits.
  • Pooh is the bland, confident, mystic child.
  • Piglet is the small, nervous but very brave child. Piglet moves in with Pooh, which might be seen as a fusion of character. Piglet eats acorns. Piglet is used to mock cowardice.
  • Tigger is the wild child. He is fussy about his food. His attempts to find suitable food for himself is a search for identity. He must find his place in the hierarchy of the Forest (remember, the Forest equals childhood). Tigger is the only animal who doesn’t have a house of his own and stays with Kanga. This emphasises his smallness. (Not his physical dimensions but his general bouncy demeanour, which is childlike.) Normally — if he were a real animal — he would have gobbled up Kanga. This further disarms him. He is at the ‘pre-mirror’ stage of child development, and doesn’t recognise his own reflection. He is a baby who has just been weaned, tasting his mother’s different foodstuffs. Milne uses Tigger to mock verbal hypocrisies of greed.
  • Roo is the baby, and critics find it difficult to say much interesting about Roo.
  • Rabbit often thought to represent is the egocentric, sarcastic adult. Rabbit is the most conservative part of the collective protagonist. He is against change. He wants to get rid of Kanga and then Roo, then Tigger. But Rabbit is also the most childish. He is the most reluctant part of the child. This is a stubborn child who has made up his mind and is unwilling to change. (Perhaps he is really a very old man.) Rabbit is used to mock polite etiquette.
  • Owl is the pretentious and insecure egocentric adult.
  • Kanga is the loving but firm mother.
  • Eeyore — together with Owl, Eeryore is closest to the world of adults. This is partly symbolised by his food. Eeyore eats thistles, rather than the sweet foods of childhood.
  • Christopher Robin is small, powerless and oppressed.  While Pooh is the child as hero, Christopher Robin is the child as God. He has the function of deus ex machina in the stories, stepping in to save the day. He is the ideal parent. He is both creator and judge — the two divine functions shared by mortal parents. He does not participate in most of the adventures but usually appears at the end of the chapter, sometimes descending with a machine like an umbrella, a popgun etc to save the situation. But Christopher Robin is never focalised, whereas all the other characters are.

“Was that me?” said Christopher Robin in an awed voice, hardly daring to believe it.
“That was you.”
Christopher Robin said nothing, but his eyes got larger and larger, and his face got pinker and pinker.”

  • Milne’s work contains hidden messages. He pretends not to understand long words and makes fun of people who use them.
  • He employs a special form of punctuation, capitalising words usually written with a lowercase letter — in the latter half of the 20th Century this was done in theatrical and film publicity, but is now done frequently on the Internet, often to mock the thing that has been capitalised. The subversive side effect of capitalising common nouns is to weaken the words and by extension the things that they stand for.
  • When Milne uses a word it means what he tells it to mean. ‘Expeditions’ and ‘Bears’ mean something specific to the world of the story.

ABSENCE OF THEME IN WINNIE THE POOH

  • ‘The Pooh stories are as totally without hidden significance as anything ever written.’ – Rowe
  • See: The Pooh Perplex, which is a satire of literary criticism. The Pooh books were perfect for that, since they don’t seem to stand up well to such criticism.
  • However, that doesn’t stop modern critics having a go. “The usage of Winnie the Pooh as a symbol of resistance should be studied and analysed by #folklorists is an actual tweet that lately came through my feed. Someone replied, “Wait, this is really a thing? 15 years ago, when France voted against LePen, I saw someone holding a giant Pooh bear at a celebration — I would love to know more!
Notes above are from
  • From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
  • Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

RELATED LINKS

The Ecology Of Winnie The Pooh, from Aeon

From The Hundred Acre Wood To Midtown – Winnie The Pooh in New York from Scouting New York

A catchy seventies song by a couple of guys with awesome shiny hair. It’s called Pooh Corner.

Celebrating Winnie-The-Pooh’s 90th With A Rare Recording (And Some Hunny) from NPR

Five Hundred Acre Wood: The forest that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood can be found outside London from Atlas Obscura

A.A. Milne was never particularly proud of his Winnie the Pooh books, always aspiring to see success in writing for adults. Nor did he especially enjoy children, though he’s not alone in that. A lot of the most beloved children’s writers did not like children — rather, they seemed to write to revisit the child within themselves.

How to sound as if you might have been reading the Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh

When naming anything, start with ‘in which’. ‘In which I write to thank you for the Birthday Present’, ‘In which I resign from my job’, ‘in which you receive my condolences’, etc.

Use German-esque capitalisation mid-sentence for words considered Psychologically Important.

Keep nothing but various jars and pots of honey in your larder. Complain regularly about low-blood sugar. Honey needs to be spelt ‘Hunny’.

Don’t eat cheese because you don’t like it.

Move to the forest, rather like the British version of a TEA Party separatist. Good luck finding a forest in Britain, however, as no one has been able to find more than 4 miles square of forest since the ten hundreds.

When asking a favour of anyone say, ‘Could you very sweetly?’

Be a young-earther, and use phrases such as, ‘Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…’

Carve ‘Trespassers W’ into a plank of wood and nail it to your front fence.

Start talking to yourself but only in rhyming couplets.

When making philosophical statements, begin by saying, ‘It all comes, I suppose, of…’ or ‘If I know anything about anything…’

When someone doubts your wisdom on any point, say, ‘You never can tell with X’.

Use the gerund to make new nouns, even if perfectly adequate nouns already exist e.g. ‘a remembering’ instead of ‘a memory’.

You do not do ‘yoga’ or ‘warm-ups; from now on you do your Stoutness Exercises. As you do these you sing ‘tra-la-la-la-la’.

Give up swearing. Replace with ‘Help’, or for truly dire situations, ‘Help and bother’. Or you might like to run about saying, ‘Oh dear oh dear oh dear’.

Direct confrontions are out and should be replaced with passive aggressive retorts; ‘It all comes of eating too much. I thought at the time that one of us was eating too much, and I knew it wasn’t me.’

We do not go to the butchers’; we instead go hunting for Woozles or Heffalumps.

Lunch time shall henceforth be known as ‘luncheon time’.

If you have lost something, rather than look for it, stand around looking gloomy saying ‘Wherefore?’ and ‘Inasmuch as which?’ and ‘Why?’

A donkey’s tail makes a fine bell rope.

Your biggest problem is inclement weather, or perhaps the wrong sort of bees.

If anyone disagrees with you, say, ‘You never can tell’.

Use ‘goloptious’ as an intensifier e.g. ‘a goloptious full-up pot of honey’

‘Jiggeting’ means to move around quickly e.g. an idea ‘jiggets about in the brain’.

If everyone forgets your birthday, wander about gloomily and feel very sorry for yourself.

Never give delicious foods as a birthday present as you are likely to eat it up yourself before it reaches its proper receiver.

A Useful Pot To Keep Things In is always a good present. Also, always keep balloons on hand. They come in useful for numerous things.

When writing down a plan of action, subheadings are: General Remarks, More General Remarks, Therefore, A Thought, Another Thought and so on. Applies to writing minutes of meetings, if you’re ever asked.

Expeditions shall henceforth be known as ‘expotitions’.

Find a pole, any pole, and stick a sign to it saying ‘North Pole Discovered by [Your Name]. [Your name] found it.’

If it rains a lot, an umbrella can double as a rescue vessel. Or an empty jar of hunny.

The Every Little Thing podcast dived deeper than I thought possible into the questionable age (in years) of Winnie The Pooh. Is he a little kid, or an old man? I go through this same thought experiment with our 13 year old dog.

FURTHER READING

Before there was Winnie-the-Pooh, there was a real bear named Winnie.

In 1914, during World War I, Captain Harry Colebourn, a Canadian veterinarian on his way to serve with cavalry units in Europe, rescued a bear cub in White River, Ontario. He named the bear Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war. Harry Colebourn’s real-life great-granddaughter Lindsay Mattick recounts their incredible journey, from a northern Canadian town to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England . . . and finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made a new friend: a boy named Christopher Robin. Gentle yet haunting illustrations by acclaimed illustrator Sophie Blackall bring the wartime era to life, and are complemented by photographs and ephemera from the Colebourn family archives. Here is the remarkable true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

A.A. Milne’s little books do not contain any blunt moral instruction, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned in the Hundred Acre Wood: the importance of friendship, the dangers of xenophobia, that even Very Small Animals can be brave on Blustery Days, and to not eat so much that you get stuck in a burrow. The other animals all look up to the wise Owl, though he misspells his own name, WOL. Reading this little irony, I look forward to the day my son can get the joke – but there is more to it than just a laugh. Later, Milne remarks on why Owl is so admired, “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count.”

There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count. That’s what I really can’t wait for my son to understand. It’s something I find myself saying to myself almost every day now.

That’s woe transformed to joy, right there.

Why Children’s Books Matter
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG