Donnie Darko is a 2001 film set in 1988, in a fictional Virginia town called Middlesex. This genre blend of drama, mystery and science fiction is precisely ambiguous enough to generate much discussion about what is meant to have happened. This is ideal ‘cult-following’ material. Note that Donnie Darko didn’t make much of a splash when first released, but achieved its cult following subsequently.
Today I offer my own take on What Happens in Donnie Darko — nothing that hasn’t been said before — but I’ll also come at it from a storytelling point of view. What makes Donnie Darko a satisfying story? Why do viewers who love this film really really love it?
The film Get Out opens with an image of blurred trees, as if seen from a car window. This positions the audience right there with the characters, who are about to take a journey into your archetypal snail-under-the-leaf setting. Later, by lowering the camera close to the road, the trees seem to curve in on themselves, foreshadowing the claustrophobic, entrapped feeling. Sure enough, we even have a shot of a dead deer — if you remember Bambi from childhood you’ll recognise the dead deer as a symbol of vulnerability in the face of imminent death.
Here’s another creepy tree, this time from the film Tokyo Drifter. Some trees are comforting, other trees are creepy. What makes a tree (or trees) creepy, then? Can we put this particular creepiness into words?
A Woggle of Witches is a picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Adrienne (“Dean”) Adams in 1971. In total, Adams wrote six of her own books; mostly they illustrated for other writers.
Adrienne Adams was a prolific illustrator through the 1960s and beyond, and a two-time winner of a Caldecott Medal (1960 and 1962). Adams was born in Arkansas in 1906 and grew up in Oklahoma. They studied in Missouri.
The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.
A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.
Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.) Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love. Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.
American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:
Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.
In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.
How To Make Friends With A Ghost is a 2017 picture book written and illustrated by Rebecca Green. This cosy supernatural story is written as a non-fictional how-to guide and because this book deals with supernatural subject matter, covertly teaches how to be a good friend.
Most commonly we mean a corpse brought back to life by a demon or by the original spirit. This spirit is unable to rest in death. These vampires are embodiments of social chaos and contagion. They are supernatural inventions to offer communities the comforting illusion that the cause of any societal problems can be eradicated. This is far more comforting than the idea that a society of humans is powerless in the face of some challenges.
Sometimes ‘vampire’ refers to a spirit or ghost who did not need a body in its hunt for blood. These kinds of vampires occur most often where communities worship and fear the spirits of dead ancestors.
Some countries have a very long history of vampire belief e.g. Greece and Bulgaria. Greece had its own vampire craze which occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Vampire stories are mostly conservative in their morality. In a classic (or typical) vampire story, once the vampire is slain, or driven away somehow, order is re-established and the community triumphs.
ARE YOU A CANDIDATE FOR BECOMING A VAMPIRE?
People who suffered a traumatic death (e.g. suicide or drowning), people who led an immoral life, people with visible disabilities, people who were unbaptised at time of death, people who had a curse put on them, were-wolves, the ex-communicated, designated witches, and people thought to have been killed by vampires. People with red hair were also at risk. Anything at all which made you stand out from the crowd made you susceptible to people thinking you’d turn into a vampire.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WITCHES AND VAMPIRES
There is quite some overlap between witches and vampires, and again between vampires and cannibals. Some beliefs around witches tell us that witches and sorcerers were thought to send out their souls to steal blood and do evil. They could do this without even dying first. Their bodies would fall into a deep trance. They would not recover until their souls returned.
Why all the zombies in stories? Zombies have unlimited potential as metaphor. Historically, storytellers have used zombies to explore tensions between conservative and progressive values. The zombies themselves represent widespread cultural anxieties of their era.
Some storytellers use zombie stories to reinforce the status quo while progressive storytellers use zombies to critique it.
Watching the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown protests in other parts of the world, shows me how inaccurate most zombie apocalypse fiction is. There would be groups of people getting themselves bitten on purpose, wouldn’t there?
The 1200s gave us ‘Eyrbyggja Saga’ (‘Story of the People of Eyrr’). This story is full of the walking dead, e.g. Thorodd and his men. In this story, the living aren’t especially worried about the walking dead. Thorodd and his men have been drowned. The living believed that drowned people had been well received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they attended their own funeral feast. It was only later that the walking dead became unwelcome. They loiter around the first every night and the living become unnerved. So the hero of the story sues them. They leave. These walking-dead stories are to do with the beliefs of pre-Northern Europeans — that the dead could still see, hear and feel.
The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.
The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.
Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will. These early zombie stories were influenced by colonialism. In this era, the zombie characters themselves allude to savage and unintelligent “colonial objects”.
The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.
The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.
SEPTEMBER 11 2001
After the 9/11 attacks zombies in stories were commonly interpreted as a metaphor for terrorism.
28 Days Later
Danny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.
“Powers” is the final story in the Runaway collection by Alice Munro, published 2004. I find this story the most challenging of the lot — as in, what in holy heck was that all about? I’m going to have to write about “Powers” in order to understand it.
Here goes my best shot. What can we learn about storytelling from this novella? About life?
If this is not an easy story to read, nor was it an easy story to write. This from her editor:
On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers”. Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due.
‘Melodramatic’ is an unusual word to ascribe to Alice Munro — a decidedly realist writer. Why would they have said that? I put it to you that this story is melodramatic if read at a more literal level. My own interpretation is highly metaphorical, as in, I don’t think Ollie is a real person. I think he’s a creation of Nancy’s imagination.
Hear me out.
SETTING OF “POWERS”
TIME AND PLACE
Set in a small Ontario town after the First World War, the story spans about 50 years of Nancy’s life, starting as she’s about to get married, and skipping over the middle, child-rearing years.
There’s a hint of fabulism in this one, which may partly explain accusations of melodrama. Except I don’t for one moment believe Tessa genuinely has clairvoyant powers — I read this as a metaphor for people who sit on the fringes of life in general.
When Nancy takes Ollie to see her clairvoyant friend they go through a tunnel. This tunnel feels like a fantasy portal. Even when the other side of a tunnel is in ‘the real world’ (rather than some high fantasy landscape), a tunnel within a story often indicates an other-world of some kind. Hayao Miyazaki loves a good tunnel. He uses tunnels in Spirited Away (reality > fantasy), in Ponyo (reality > magic tinged reality), and in My Neighbour Totoro (reality > magic tinged reality). Since one of the ‘rules’ of portals is that the characters must pass quite slowly through them, tunnels as portals tend to feature characters walking through them, on foot. (A car would be too fast.)
The world on the other side of this particular tunnel is perhaps leading to a heterotopia; perhaps it’s simply a separated place where the rules work differently, or where inhabitants are different and ostracised.
Perhaps this tunnel is, for Nancy, a portal into her own imagination? This is at the heart of my thesis.
Could we go even further? Does Tessa exist? Both Tessa and Ollie could be part of a paracosm Nancy creates for herself to cope with an un-companionable, aloof and vocationally-oriented marriage partner. After much thought, I think Tessa does exist, though with fantasy add-ons. Tessa is possibly a disabled person who Nancy imagines has superpowers. I think it’s just Ollie she’s made up as an alter ego.
When “Powers” turns to the psychiatric institution, Munro takes us into a gothic setting. This is where Munro starts to play with scale — ‘”Gothic” biomedical models rely on a metonymic process of substitution of the person for increasingly smaller cellular and ultra cellular units’ (Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman). In the dream sequence we’ll have a character dreaming of a character (mise en abyme effect) examining a pile of dead flies on a windowsill. It is noted that Nancy (subsumed by Tessa via a dream) doesn’t have a microscope, yet her eyes seem to zoom in on these iridescent fly wings. (She’s just met Ollie — perhaps imaginatively — and Ollie has trouble reading a menu. Equally old herself, it’s unlikely Nancy’s eyes would be capable of examining the detail of fly wings in real life.)
A CULTURE BUILT ON THE CONCEPT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA
When considering the setting of a story, we can’t ignore the major cultural forces which shape the characters. One dominant aspect of early 20th century misogyny involved the idea that women are prone to hysteria.
Freud’s “discovery” of hysteria was both anticipated by, and grounded in, 19th-century realist fiction. …the dark continent that Freud called femininity was brought to life by these realist novelists. The hysterical character, she argues, conceives of every relationship as tragic, imaginatively doomed — hence the warning which forms the title of this book. Yet this character speaks for everyone. The insights of Anna Karenina, Gwendolen Harleth, or Cassandra give to them a dignity beyond pathology or their social position. They are not merely literary “femmes fatales”. It is part of being civilized, the author argues, to fear the people and things we love, particularly when they are intimate to us. Knowing this, each person is responsible for the form this apprehension takes — whether awe or panic, respect or protest, desire or denial. […] Balzac, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Tolstoy and Florence Nightingale […] are rich sources for understanding hysterical states of mind because they offer scope for interpretation that involves everyone as readers.
The blurb of Never Marry A Girl With A Dead Father: Women’s Troubled Relationships in Realist Novels
It is known that Balzac expressed his admiration for Dante. So when Munro’s character Nancy wants to delve into Dante, what is she really wanting? Insight into her own human condition? Wilf encourages against that, instead arranging a ‘useful’ life for her — one of choosing wallpapers and childbearing and mothering. This is exactly how misogyny works.
Patriarchy is what’s upheld. Sexism is why it’s upheld. Misogyny is how it’s upheld.
While reading “Powers”, look for the ways in which fiction is portrayed as fraudulent, i.e., fiction has the power to obscure the truth.
Back to my enduring hypothesis of Ollie as imaginary character: A character you invent yourself won’t necessarily tell their inventor the truth. Not immediately, anyway, though even invented characters can help their inventors discover something about themselves.
[“Powers”] explores … the ramifications of the increasing dominance of biomedical approaches to mental illness and ageing on Canadians from the perspective of patients and their caregivers. […] “Powers” repeatedly emphasizes the ethical limits of fictive consolation — by that I mean the consolation provided by fantasy and, by extension, literature.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
But an imaginary world can eventually reveal as well as obscure, because people use imaginary worlds in all kinds of different ways. In the end, Tessa’s conversation with Ollie (whether real or imagined) takes place on two different levels of her mind: There’s the story he tells her and the story she knows lies underneath. Nancy teeters on that interstial space between conscious fantasy and unconscious fantasy.
Of course, this story was written later than it is set. Is Munro writing of hysteria as if it’s a quirk of the past? No, she is not, and this is what makes her a feminist writer. That old ‘women are crazy’ chestnut is still influential today and can be seen in statistics as simple as how men are prescribed more pain killers, because when men say they’re in pain, men are more likely believed.
With Freud’s claims about the female psyche mostly discredited and the advances in treatment of mental illness over the years lauded, the average bystander might conclude that we’ve come a long way from labelling a normal reaction to sexual assault “hysteria.” But a long legacy of prescriptive and sexist science remains at the foundation of psychiatric medical treatment for women. From the first diagnosis of hysteria to the present-day disparities in mental health treatment, the tradition of medicating women’s emotions has held constant. Within this context, the line between empirical treatment and medicating the lived experiences of women grows dangerously thin.
Could Tessa’s clairvoyance be an analogue for hysteria? Or rather, not for hysteria itself, but how hysteria has been viewed by the medical establishment? Early in the story, Tessa’s clairvoyance is taken somewhat seriously. It is later shown to be part of her mental illness. Or is it? In Nancy’s dream at the end, Tessa might actually know telepathically what’s in Ollie’s pocket. Despite clairvoyance clearly not being a thing (within the world of the story), despite science debunking that whole thing, there’s always a lingering what if? Science from the past continues to influence the present, and has a very real impact on women’s lives.
Some critics consider this aspect one of the most interesting of “Powers” — Munro’s exploration of dementia and hysteria, united in the power they have over us as a culture — women used to fear hysteria; now more likely fear dementia:
Whereas Tessa’s mysterious powers of consolation lie in recuperating what has been lost, Ollie’s power seemingly lies in dissociating from his own vulnerability, and reducing women — most obviously Tessa — to scientific specimens. Ollie’s strategy recalls late nineteenth and early twentieth century biomedical approaches to both hysteria and dementia, which entailed locating the disease processes in women’s minds and bodies and using them as scientific material.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PEOPLE WHO HAVE ‘FITS’
After World War I, when the return of thousands of disabled servicemen forced disability onto the political agenda, disabled people were hidden from history, shut away behind the walls of asylums with their voices silenced.
Disability discrimination endures into today, though its exact nature morphs over time. Today epilepsy is much better understood. But in the early 20th century and prior, people who had fits were cast out as those with lepers were cast out. The following images offer some context:
When a disease is not well understood, people worry that it may be contagious or that it may be a moral problem, or possibly even a supernatural one. This story deals with the supernatural misunderstanding of fits.
CHARACTERS OF “POWERS”
Every life in this story is marked and decided by accidents and the unforeseen. Hence the clairvoyance thread.
Munro juxtaposes two women, the brisk, self-absorbed Nancy, and Tessa, a strange girl with extraordinary, fragile powers [MIRROR CHARACTERS]. Yet it is Nancy, the skeptic and rationalist, who succeeds in peeling back the obscuring film over the past. She protests that she doesn’t want to live the past – she only wants to “open it up and get one good look.” That glimpse has such a weight of truth that though it may be dream or imagination, it is real and meaningful – like Munro’s own work.
Quill and Quire
At the beginning of “Powers” she has just finished high school. Nancy’s diary entries portray her as capricious and full of life — her youth and lack of maturity shine through. I’m reminded of Kelly Kapoor from the American version of The Office, whose focus on weddings is all-consuming — she hasn’t thought about what it will be like to be married.
But Nancy has more empathy for others than Kelly, who is utterly self-absorbed. By Nancy’s own admission, she marries Wilf because he has already been turned down, and she doesn’t want to embarrass either of them by saying no.
Nancy has been brought up in a culture in which a woman’s needs are subsumed by that of a man — she makes it a goal to find out more of Wilf’s interests so that they’ll have something to talk about. (At no point does she expect him to be interested in her — and he is not.) She becomes pregnant soon into their marriage and we learn later she has had multiple children. These children are not mentioned — the early childhood years are skipped over.
Much later, with childcare done and dusted, she is now caring for her husband with dementia. Now Nancy is asked by the psychiatric institution if she would also care for Tessa. The emotional burden heaped upon women is a thread across the stories of Alice Munro. Take for example “Deep Holes”. There is a scene early on in which the reader is made fully aware of the effort that has gone into preparing a picnic to suit the individualised tastes of each family member. These efforts go unrewarded. Her ungrateful son cuts ties with her after he grows up, and as an older woman, the main character must find a way to live with this ingratitude.
Nancy visits Tessa in the psychiatric institution. Facing a painful moral dilemma, Nancy must decide if she has it in her to care for the both of them. Don’t forget, she’s been taking care of other people her whole adult life.
The moral dilemmas throughout “Powers” revolve around balancing Nancy’s own needs against caring ‘responsibilities’ the culture has instilled in her. A lot of woman readers in particular will identify with this.
Older Nancy has undergone a character arc in the parts left out of the story. She doesn’t have the spoons to care for anyone else. She leaves Tessa at the institution and returns to her own home.
To this end, I think Ollie is an imaginary invention to help Nancy assuage her own conscience. When you’ve been brought up to put the needs of others before your own, and then you suddenly can’t, or don’t, you need to find a way to justify your own actions to yourself. Imaginary Ollie helps her with that.
Of course, none of this would explain how Tessa ended up in America. I don’t think it matters which parts of the story occur within the ‘real world’ of the story and which occur in the ‘imagined world’ of the story. It’s all highly mutable. The whole story exists is a dream space, after all.
Wilf is the thirty-year-old town doctor, who asks much younger Nancy to marry him. He’s just asked someone else and been turned down. He is portrayed as a very distant, self-contained character.
Unlike in “Tricks”, the previous story of this collection, the reader has no sense that Nancy and Wilf will be a good match. There is no “I understand you” moment” (as Matt Bird calls it).
Alice Munro has said in an interview that marriage was different when she was young — young people of marriage age just sort of picked someone and went along with it. In contrast, dating today is a game of enormous choice, made all the more confusing by the illusion of online choice, and it would now appear foolish to ‘settle’ on someone without going through an extended period of dating many partners first. Nancy and Wilf both belong to this older generation who expect different things from marriage (not friendship, for instance) and who would like to get married so they can get on properly with their adult lives.
Wilf seems to want a uterus more than he wants a partner — he tells Nancy to ‘give Dante a rest’. He doesn’t want someone who is a deep thinker or an equal in conversation. He doesn’t respect that Nancy may really enjoy more difficult things. And he knows he can mould Nancy into whatever he wants her to be. The era makes this easy — an era in which wives did as their husbands instructed. They had no other real choice.
Towards the end of “Powers” we learn that Wilf lives with dementia later in life. Nancy has faithfully served as his wife and caregiver.
As noted above, Ollie may be Nancy’s invented, male alter ego.
Ollie is supposedly Wilf’s younger cousin, Nancy’s own age (by no coincidence).
Ollie starts out wanting to be a science journalist. Perhaps if Nancy were a man that’s what she’d like to do. Her interest in Dante suggests a youthful interest in deeper things than wallpaper and mothering.
Ollie is mercenary and capitalist. He could be the human embodiment of all that is wrong with modernisation (“getting and spending”). When he thinks Tessa has psychic powers he marries her in order to exploit her for money. He runs off to America with Tessa but sticks her in a dodgy institution which is not approved by the authorities.
Why does Ollie treat Tessa the way he does? Shouldn’t he know what it’s like to be so vulnerable? Well, that’s not how lateral violence works.
Pain that is not transformed is transferred. — Fr. Richard Rohr
Readers learn that prior to visiting with Wilf and Nancy, Ollie spent three years in a TB sanatorium. As a patient he was subject to protracted, invasive treatments. Wilf, who is portrayed as an extremely dispassionate and detached physician, explains that doctors collapsed one of Ollie’s lungs so that they could treat the infection. While Wilf calmly recounts Ollies’ treatment, the latter puts his hands over his ears. As Ollie confesses, he prefers not to think about what was done to him. Instead, as he admits to Nancy, he “pretends to himself he is hollow like a celluloid doll”. Ollie’s experience as a TB patient is relevant for several reasons. First, it recalls Sontag’s discussion of the dread that attended TB — a dread that currently haunts Alzheimer’s disease. Second, Ollie’s traumatic experience may have motivated him to pass on this sense of dread. Ollie’s response is significant because it offers insight into the predicament of the elegist, who, confronted with the death of the other, recognizes his own vulnerability and mortality. In the masculine elegy, the poet responds by deifying the deceased and, at the same time, celebrating his own survival. […] Ollie’s treatment of Tessa echoes this patterns.
Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada by Marlene Goldman
I find Ollie and his backstory unlikely, which is why I consider him a character inside Nancy’s imagination. Conversations she puts down to Ollie could easily be conversations she has with herself, or when other characters seem involved, what Ollie says could easily be what Nancy says, or what she would like to say.
Naturally, we can read any literary character in this way. Here’s the list of reasons why I suggest this guy be coded as Nancy’s creation:
Nancy’s diary demonstrates she wants more from life than she gets, and inventing a parallel, peopled life would be one way of getting that.
Ollie might be an invention to assuage Nancy’s own guilt — guilt that she doesn’t have it in her to care for both her own husband, own children as well as her childhood friend who winds up in a horrible institution. She can imagine she’s cared for by Ollie.
Ollie may also be an invention to help Nancy cope with loneliness within marriage.
Ollie’s hinted-at bisexuality may be more of a gender fluidity, in which Ollie is partly made up of Nancy, partly made up of Wilf (she’s made him Wilf’s cousin, after all). What she doesn’t get from Wilf (companionship and conversation) she is getting from Ollie, more or less. That said, Ollie doesn’t exactly tell her the truth. Why not invent a fictional character who at least tells you the truth? Because you may not even know the truth yourself. You can’t have an imaginary character tell you the truth until you’ve wrestled with the real situation yourself.
Imaginary worlds come and go throughout a person’s life — busy with young children, it would seem natural Nancy had no time to even conjure Ollie for all those years, explaining the time jump. It’s at the ends of her life that she has the space to invent, and think, and overthink, and blame herself, and to try and make amends.
Wilf clearly knows little about his own cousin. I accept that he’s an inward looking man, but still.
Ollie ends up on Texada island. Islands are highly symbolic other spaces — especially in other Alice Munro stories. For example in “Cortes Island” the island is an imaginary space for main characters — imagined as a way of coping with day-to-day life.
Ollie took Tessa around the vaudeville circuit. The vaudeville world itself is another fictional arena — perhaps a fictional world within a fictional world. It’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill way to live a life — more likely to occur in fiction than in reality.
The reader is not afforded a look into Tessa’s mind, except perhaps at the end as Nancy’s dream lets her look through Tessa’s eyes.
Tessa is Nancy’s childhood friend. She dropped out of school when she was 14 due to an unnamed illness, later revealed to include seizures. She is small in stature, as if illness has caused lack of growth.
Nancy cryptically explains to the reader that Tessa is “not in the world that the rest of us are in”. (This may give them something in common, if Nancy has this really rich imaginative life.)
We are eventually told that Tessa is a clairvoyant. Tessa uses these so-called psychic powers to help the townspeople find hidden or mislaid objects, sometimes even dead bodies.
Vulnerable, childlike Tessa marries Ollie, who has written an article about her, sending many people to her house. (This minor celebrity creates some havoc.) As Nancy has passively accepted her own entry into wife- and motherhood, Tessa seems to passively accept all this, and goes along with Ollie who transplants her to America.
But Ollie is a man and his caregiving capacities are limited. He puts her in an institution, which eventually closes in the late 1960s.
Like Wilf, Tessa also suffers memory loss as an older person. Dementia may combine with mental limitations caused by a lifetime of seizures — the difference is unclear and unimportant to the story.
NARRATION OF “POWERS”
The Guardian’s view of Nancy is less kind than my own:
“Powers”… is a little masterpiece of impersonation, an uncanny inhabiting of the mind of a meddling, egotistical girl and of a distinct historical period. The long range of Munro’s stories is only made possible by her apparently effortless possession of decade beyond decade of the past, her technique being the opposite of so much information-bolstered fiction of the present: she knows that life in the past was unhampered by any sense of its future quaintness, so she doesn’t explain. She gives us a past as unselfconscious as today. […] The sweep of the thing, the unfolding picture of the unforeseen life, the interlocking strangeness and ordinariness, the unravelling narrative of Nancy’s own consciousness, together make a deep impression.
“Powers” is divided into five parts each with chapter names:
Give Dante a Rest
TIME: Spring, 1927 NARRATION: first person diaries of an unnamed character
Nancy, fresh out of high school, is convinced that she is destined to live a life of importance.
She has a joking, trickster side. She startles the town doctor, Wilf, on April Fool’s Day by rocking up at his house pretending to have a sore throat.
He does not share her sense of humour at all and tells her to get out. (He’s probably a good 12 years older than she is, which would be intimidating. This scene is the inverse of an “I understand you” moment. The reader can see that these two are wrong for each other.
Rather than blaming the doctor for his lack of humour, she feels really stupid. She was only having some fun, and perhaps trying to get his attention. The difference in maturity (borne of age difference) is also a factor here.
She sends a note of apology and hears nothing back, but when she’s trying to get through a novel by Dante, the doc turns up at her door, takes her out to see some ice breaking, and completely out of the blue offers his hand in marriage.
Nancy accepts his proposal, not because she feels affection for him, but because she can’t think of a good reason to say no — she doesn’t want him to feel bad, because her friend has already turned him down.
In her diary she seems disappointed that her life has turned out so mundane after all. Like all the other eligible young women she knows, she’s going to get married. (And she’s about to marry a doctor — financial stability for life.) Her path is set now. She’ll have his babies. He assumes so, too. She’s not going to have the special life she dreamed of.
This reminds me of Angela Hayes from the film American Beauty. Angela’s biggest fear is to be ordinary.
One of the worst criticisms that can be levelled at a young woman: “She thinks she’s all that.” She has ideas about herself.
In fiction, young women with aspirations above their station will invariably have rich imaginative lives. Of course they do, right? These characters have the ability to imagine how their lives might be, and that in itself requires imaginative power.
[NANCY’S PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] Imagination itself can be a liability when you start to recast yourself. Safer, indeed, to invent a paracosm with a wholly original cast. Keep yourself right out of it, stories tell us, time and time again. In American Beauty, Angela’s story about herself (as a sexually experienced ingenue) seeps into the real world, making the actually virginal Angela highly vulnerable in the presence of her best friend’s sexual predator father.
Alice Munro doesn’t let us in on the exact nature of Nancy’s fantasies about herself. Or does she? (Cue the invention of Ollie. Perhaps she wants to be a science journalist, freed of the burden of caring for others, living on an island.)
Girl in a Middy
TIME: several months after Give Dante A Rest NARRATION: third person
Nancy and Wilf are engaged and preparing for their wedding. Wilf’s cousin Ollie is in town to attend the ceremony. Nancy becomes fascinated by his worldly affectations.
In an attempt to impress him, she takes Ollie to visit Tessa, Tessa correctly identifies all of the items in Ollie’s pockets. Ollie seems to dismiss her, but Nancy fears he has ulterior motives.
Nancy writes to Tessa, warning her to avoid Ollie. Tessa responds, revealing that she and Ollie have already eloped to the United States. They intend to get married and test her abilities scientifically. Tessa ignores Nancy’s cruel but shrewd injunctions that Ollie only wants to exploit her gift for commercial ends.
Here’s a feature seen across Alice Munro’s short stories: There is a revelation, we expect the story can close now, but no — Munro is just cranking up. Each of these sections contains its own mini anagnorisis.
One might have thought the climax of the story occurred with the revelation that a couple had run away together at the end of “Girl in a Middy”. It is certainly a surprise, though one ushered in with little pomp, right at the end of the segment.
But if one identifies the climax of the story as falling in the third “act”, one must choose a moment other than this one, something in “A Hole in the Head”. (Well, that seems like an obvious moment, doesn’t it, but in fact that hole already existed, or never existed, or still exists. In typical Munro-fashion, each of these scenarios seems possible.)
Perhaps the moment in which one woman realizes that the other is operating under the assumption that her lover is dead, the moment at which she chooses not to correct the misunderstanding, the moment at which she turns her back on her and leaves her there, isolated and confined.
Nancy is now an ageing woman visiting an American mental hospital. Along with many such facilities of this era, the ward is shutting down. Nancy has received a letter asking that she retrieve Tessa, who has lived there for some time.
When Nancy and Tessa meet, Nancy tries to learn about Ollie and his life with Tessa. Tessa, however, cannot remember anything. Perhaps electroshock therapy has ruined her memory. Tessa claims that someone may have strangled Ollie, but recalls nothing else. Tessa then guesses that Nancy plans to abandon her at the facility. This is true. Feeling guilty, Nancy promises to write her letters. She never does.
A Square, A Circle, A Star
TIME: moves forward a few more years. NARRATION:
Wilf has died from the complications of a stroke (suggesting he had vascular dementia). It’s only now that Wilf is dead that Nancy has the spoons to consider her obligations to Tessa.
Nancy’s friends have filled in where Wilf left off, urging her against getting too invested in her own demons. They tell her to get out and about, to get involved in social activities. As she has done her whole life, despite seeming capricious in her diary entries, Nancy does as she’s told. She goes on a ghastly geriatric cruise at their behest. But now it seems she’s done with people telling her not to go deep into her own mind. Though this part is summarised rather than shown, her experience on the cruise ship seems to have switched something over in Nancy — she will no longer fill up the rest of her life with frivolities that keep her entertained on the surface.
So she visits Vancouver. What a coincidence. She bumps into Ollie. (Not a coincidence at all if you’re with me here and Ollie isn’t real.)
She and Ollie go to a Japanese restaurant, then to a coffee shop, where they continue their long discussion. Ollie discusses his travels with Tessa in the United States. He says that funding for research disappeared after World War II, forcing he and Tessa to work on the vaudeville circuit.
Vaudeville a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the USA in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of speciality acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance.
The only way to make any money that they discovered was to go with the travelling shows, to operate in town halls or at fall fairs. They shared the stage with the hypnotists and snake ladies and dirty monologuists and strippers in feathers.
Focusing on the burlesque aspect, I see older Nancy as a burlesque witch. (Better to click through on that to know what I mean.) The modern burlesque witch tends to view herself as a younger woman trapped in an old woman’s body. The following passage demonstrates this exact experience in “Powers”:
It happens only a few times in your life—at least it’s only a few times if you’re a woman—that you come upon yourself like this, with no preparation. It was a bad as those dreams in which she might find herself walking down the street in her night-gown, or nonchalantly wearing only the top of her pajamas [FEAR OF DEMENTIA OR ACCUSATIONS OF HYSTERIA].
During the past ten or fifteen years she had certainly taken time out to observe her own face in a harsh light so that she could better see what makeup could do, or decide whether the time had definitely come to start coloring her hair. But she had never had a jolt like this, a moment during which she saw not just some old and new trouble spots, or some decline that could not be ignored any longer, but a complete stranger [SHE HAS HAD A MAJOR ANAGNORISIS, OR REVERSAL].
Somebody she didn’t know and wouldn’t want to know.
The strain of performing gave Tessa headaches and gradually eroded her powers, but they developed a system to deceive their audiences. (Much as Nancy has ‘developed a system’ to deceive herself — the invention of Ollie.)
Eventually, Ollie tells her, Tessa died. Nancy does not contradict him but feels all through the conversation that he has not been telling the truth. Ollie drives her back to her hotel, and she is about to invite him to spend the night in the other bed of her motel room. This is because he appears to have nowhere to stay but inside his jalopy. Before she speaks, however, Ollie turns her down, as if he possesses a less magical form of clairvoyance himself. Or perhaps there’s no clairvoyance, so much as Ollie being literally of Nancy’s own mind.
Nancy feels complicit in Ollie’s lies to the point where she feels she is lying herself in not protesting at it. (If Ollie is an invented character than she is indeed lying to herself, via Ollie.)
To make things right, Nancy decides to find Tessa and bring her to Ollie. However, she does not succeed.
Flies on A Windowsill
TIME: decades later NARRATION:
Nancy’s grown children have been kept off the page, but now we learn they worry that Nancy is living in the past. In other words, they worry she’s living inside her imagination, not in the real, current world. (I suspect ‘living in the past’ is an accusation levelled at older people, whereas a young person would be accused of living ‘inside her head’.)
The story closes with a dream. Nancy falls asleep and dreams about Tessa and Ollie. They are staying at a motel. Tessa suffers from a terrible headache. In the dream, Tessa sees a messy little pyramid of flies hidden on the sill behind the curtain. Excited that her psychic powers have returned, she awakens Ollie and they embrace. As they embrace Ollie worries that Tessa can sense the papers in his front pocket, which will commit her to a mental hospital. It is implied that Tessa does indeed sense the paper’s presence. But she no longer cares what happens to her. Nancy then dreams that Ollie decides to spare Tessa. As she does so, a feeling of reprieve lights up her dream. Nancy is pulled out of it as her consciousness disintegrates around her.
It is a bold choice to end a story with a dream sequence. Do you consider this a successful short story? What did you get out of it?
Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.
I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.
Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.
THE GOTHIC TRADITION
As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.
‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”
“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.
1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)
MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!
During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.
I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.
The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).
Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.
Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.
KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES
To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.
Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in big struggle, form a rich visual display in the church.
The plot of “Man-size in Marble” isn’t the most interesting thing. Far from it. If this short story contained only the surface layer of the spooks in a church, I’d have called it underwhelming. Instead, the most interesting thing about this story is the characterisation of the young newly wedded man, whose attitude towards his wife comes through during his night of indescribable terror. In true Gothic convention, the story opens with a paragraph in which the narrator tells the reader the events contained within are indeed true. As you’ll see below, we are to read this ironically. This is a story critiquing Jack’s ‘rationalism’. The narration is a first person male, which fooled quite a few people at the time into thinking the author was male. This was useful.
Man, I don’t like this Jack guy. How much of this was intended by Nesbit and how much is my modern interpretation? There’s an unanswerable question, even bearing in mind Nesbit was ahead of her own time. Jack has been described as a ‘floppy-collared aesthete’. I’m reminded of Nathaniel P from the following contemporary novel:
Waldman’s novel ‘offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman‘, which isn’t what Nesbit’s story does, but both offer insight into a man who, on the surface, is feminist but dig a little deeper and although he is not sexist, he is nonetheless constitutionally inclined to uphold the system of misogyny. (For a clear delineation between sexism and misogyny, go no further than Down Girl by Kate Manne.) Jack doesn’t treat women as adults. He treats his wife like a child by refusing to tell her what he has learned about the house from Mrs Dorman, as it might upset her. Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.— The New Yorkerreview
Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:
He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
He makes a show of having emotions himself
But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
Ergo, this is performative empathy.
As I read the opening to “Man-size In Marble” I’m reminded of that show Escape to the Country and all those city people who go touring various country houses — oftentimes none of the houses are good enough and we learn the city folk didn’t really want to move to the country after all. Well, these two do eventually find a house to their liking, fussy as they are, and then the husband complains they don’t have any money. Next minute they’ve employed a ‘peasant woman’ to do all the housework.
‘Poor’ is such a variable concept, isn’t it? These two aren’t poor poor. They are living in ‘genteel poverty’, like the women in Sense and Sensibility. I mean, if you can afford to employ someone from a lower class to do all your drudgery work, you ain’t poor. When the peasant woman housekeeper takes off, this guy won’t believe her reasons. She tells him her niece is sick. He doesn’t buy it because the niece has always been sick. It doesn’t occur to him that sick people often get sicker — no, it’s all about him.
Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.
At this point I refer you all to The Wife (both book and film), by Meg Wolitzer. Jack’s rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”.
The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.
His wife, Laura, is the one who won’t listen to the housekeeper (according to Jack), and is very much down in the dumps about losing Mrs Dorman — this means they will have to do all the housework themselves. And by ‘they’, we do mean Laura, don’t we. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” the husband tells her. “There will still be time to do art even if we have to do everything ourselves.” Meanwhile, it’s a point of pride that he’s useless around the house. He tells us he has surprised himself by doing an excellent job of washing the plates. Well, if you’ve ever seen that documentary series where they take a modern family and make them live like it’s 1900, you’ll already know this, but the loss of the housekeeper really does mean the loss of the young wife’s artistic life. The husband doesn’t realise it because he’ll be swanning around doing the bare minimum at home (a bit of polishing here and there, fixing what’s broken and so on) but the day to day drudgery of cooking, cleaning and washing will be the dawn-to-dusk job of his wife. Soon children will arrive and there will be literally no time for her to pursue her creative goals.
In short, this guy has plenty of Shortcomings. But it’s up to the reader to pick up on those, because it’s written in first person so we have no detached narrator to guide us in this direction. Would a guy from 1893 have had the same reaction as I just had?
They find themselves a housekeeper but it goes tits up when she leaves. Now he will have less time to pursue his creative goals. The Minotaur Opposition is of course the spooks in the church.
Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.[…] Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.
He will try to persuade their excellent housekeeper to come back. He will also wheedle out of her why it is she has left, presumably so he can tell her that her reasons for leaving are not adequate. He doesn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of What Spooked The Housekeeper, but he does happen to wander into the church at the exact time on All Saint’s that the statues are meant to come to life. (Coincidence works fine in gothic fiction, which is inherently melodramatic.)
While the narrator is chatting to the local blokes about spooks his wife is busy getting murdered. This happens off-the-page. Though at first pretty comical, consider this a symbolic rape and the finger as phallus. Not so comical now. No wonder that was left off the page. Writers are often advised to put the Battle on the page, otherwise the reader feels cheated. A lot of build-up over nothing. Bear in mind that this story is a Gothic ghost story in the same way that Alice Munro’s “The Love Of A Good Woman” is a murder mystery — i.e., not at all. Readers expecting genre fiction may be disappointed. Why did Nesbit choose the husband as narrator, which meant he wouldn’t be there to see his wife get murdered? Well, first, what we can’t see is indeed more scary. So there’s that. But also, this isn’t about the spooky walking statues at all. It’s about the young husband and his patriarchal attitude towards his wife.
In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.
Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband. Nesbit’s marble knights were once men, part of a Roman Catholic tradition which allowed their wealthy relatives to buy them a place beside the altar, even though the knights had done terrible things (‘deeds’) in their lifetimes. Of course, they’re continuing to do terrible things beyond the grave. They have no place beside the altar. Nesbit is critiquing the practice. And if we haven’t realised it by now, we know that if Jack had treated his wife as a fully-functioning adult and warned her of impending doom, Laura might still be alive.
I extrapolate that this guy won’t be getting his housekeeper back. I guess he’ll leave the area and find another wife, and he’ll never be quite the same again. If the young woman was killed, can this be a feminist story? The question has been asked. I argue that it can because, as I keep saying, subversion works better than inversion (in which ‘inversion’ would result in an ending in which the vulnerable maiden toughens up and defeats her opponents).
“Man-Size In Marble” is instead an example of subversion, but not at a plot level — at a metaphorical level. Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction.