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. My Summer Of Love puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. This is a love story but it is a tragic one.
GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES
Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives, in which 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.
At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliche that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by what they’ve seen on the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.
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 it was thought that 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. She has been exposed to Nietzsche, and 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 are not seen as such. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps this should be compared to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter. Continue reading “My Summer Of Love Film Study”
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.
STORYWORLD OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
For the Victorians, child death was all around them. 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. Continue reading “The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen”
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.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”
Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage sat at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.
This cosiness is exploited in full in the horror genre for all ages. Take Misery, in which Stephen King goes out of his way to create a cosy, loving shelter after a brutal car accident, before inverting the cosiness to invoke terror.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes some related points:
The reason we feel warm is precisely because it’s cold outside.
Dreamers tend to love winter. More time to dream.
Edgar Allan Poe had a thing about big, heavy curtains. When the curtains are dark, the snow outside seems even whiter. It’s all about juxtaposition and contrast.
‘Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate’.
When snow covers everything outside, the outside world is pretty much obliterated. There is no longer any struggle between the house and the environment. The whole universe has a single, unifying colour. ‘The winter cosmos is a simplified cosmos.’
‘Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. … On snowy days, the house too is old.’
In Blackdog we also have a cosy house (on the inside) but it is snowing outside. In this house, ‘everything may be differentiated and multiplied’ (Bachelard).
In the film adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, snow makes a chase scene more treacherous, not least because of the ability to track paw prints. But when the camera pans to this cosy village, the audience is reminded that although a treacherous journey taking place, there is comfort to be found at the edges.
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.
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?
Unsurprisingly, Juno pretty closely follows the 22 steps of great storytelling as outlined by Truby. More surprisingly, Juno also follows the script of a 1960s ‘Preggers Novel’. For more on that, see here.
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.
Weakness & Need Of The Hero
Juno’s moral weakness 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 weakness 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.’
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 ADHD. (“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.
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.
Storyworld of Juno
The story world 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.
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.
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.
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?
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’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.
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.)
Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.
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’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.
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 weaknesses challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, children are likely to identify with Pooh’s love of honey. Human evolution explains why we love it:
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 battle 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 is registers, so much so tat the eater of honey wonders whether he is savoring a delicacy or burning with the fire of love.”
– from 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 protagonists structure their days around mealtimes, and almost don’t live to tell the tale.
As in many children’s stories, a picnic is an important part of any 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 center on the capture of strange animals or the rescue of friends in danger.
The danger is always from natural causes: accidents, floods, storms.
As soon as real fact or observation is introduced, the elaborate system the characters have concocted to explain how the world works collapses. For example, the story about the Woozle.
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. Any danger that can threaten always comes from natural causes. This is similar to the idyll in the Moomin stories. Apart from occasional bad weather, there’s nothing unsafe about this world.
Although the setting 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, compriison 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. Apart from occasional rough weather, this is a perfectly safe world.
The world is a stable one. Tigger’s and Roo’s arrive 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 Biriths Goldne 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 is a kind of escape. But this doesn’t explain why other authors wrote similar worlds, and they were not estranged from their parents. (Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson etc.)
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 compeition 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 civilization 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 is a child’s inner landscape.
THE CHARACTERS OF WINNIE THE POOH
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 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, a closer look at Milne’s life shows that he subconsciously based 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 probably 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 sexually ambiguous character.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. I argue that no character can be genderless because in English we have no gender neutral pronoun. The characters are ‘sexless’ rather than genderless.
Pooh has psychological weaknesses 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. 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.
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 int he 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.
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.
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.
“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 miessages. He pretends not to understand long words and makes fun of people who use them.
He employs a special form of punctuation, capitalizing 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 capitalized. 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. These books were perfect for that, since they don’t seem to stand up well to such criticism.
Notes above are from:
From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
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.