Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wall and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole, who was a tidy animal when at home, could not stand having hiw ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth heaps. On the walls hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary — Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy. Down one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing goldfish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. A description of Mole’s underground home. He returns after a long absence, and after a near death experience in the Wild Wood.
Fritz Baumgarten illustrated so many underground scenes I consider him a specialist in cosy animals living underground in picture books.
Since we’re all going to hell (by someone’s rules), here is a glossary of terms you may need before you get there. I’d provide a map, but that is coming.
One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades, according to Ancient Greeks. This is an actual river located in northwest Greece. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘river of woe’. Homer and Virgil contributed to the mythology around it. Virgil called it the main river of Tartarus, which is where you go if you’ve been bad.
Of the Fields of Asphodel. According to Ancient Greek thought, this is the part of the Underworld where ordinary people are sent.
The Romans geolocated the place where Virgil’s Aeneus is meant to have entered the Underworld, and they reckon the entrance is located at a placed called Avernus, a crater near Cumae. To the Romans, Aeneus refers to Hell/The Underworld.
The symbolic underworld of the dream house is the basement. Naturally, stories with basements are more frequently found in fiction written by authors who live in countries where houses tend to have basements. Canadian writer Alice Munro makes use of this in her short story “Cortes Island“. Her main character lives in a basement, but the fairytale upon which is seems based takes its main character to the underworld.
Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.
But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.
The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.
In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.
Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.
La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.
The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.
Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.
Skeletons As Death
Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.
The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper
In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.
DEATH AND THE ANCIENT GREEKS
You don’t see much of Hades, God of the Underworld, in Greek art because the Ancient Greeks were so scared of him! They didn’t even want to say his name, so he goes by many other names.
Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — it is Thanatos, son of Nyx and Erebus, who is the actual personification of death, although Euripides’ play “Alkestis” states fairly clearly that Thanatos and Hades were one and the same deity, and gives an interesting description of Hades as being dark-cloaked and winged; moreover, Hades was also referred to as Hesperos Theos (“god of death & darkness”).
Death never takes a day off. Until he gets a letter from the HR department insisting he use up his accrued vacation time, that is. In this humorous and heartfelt book from beloved illustrator Brian Rea, readers take a peek at Death’s journal entries as he documents his mandatory sabbatical in the world of the living. From sky diving to online dating, Death is determined to try it all! Death Wins a Goldfish is an important reminder to the overstressed, overworked, and overwhelmed that everyone—even Death—deserves a break once in a while.
In symbolism, there is often a manmade and naturally occurring equivalent. The tunnel is the manmade version of a cave, the sewer a sea (littoral) cave.
Jack Panton’s weakness was caves. Where another boy would go mad over football, postage stamps, birds’ eggs or running away to sea, Jack Panton studied caves. He collected books about them, and photographs and engravings, and had at his finger ends–and his tongue’s end, too–all the information, I verily believe, that has ever been published concerning them. Jack had never been in a cave–that is to say, nothing bigger than the caverns in the serpentine rocks of Kynance Cove at the Lizard–but he was so familiar with their internal geography and measurements, and the strange beasts that inhabit them, that I have often fancied I was listening to the descriptions of a traveller and keen observer as he has talked to me of the great caves of the world.
I have had many a long chat with Jack upon his pet subject; not because Jack has forced it upon me, for he is no bore. But he is quite ready to be drawn out by an appreciative listener, and when he feels he has got that–well, he lets himself go. I had always thought caves were uncomfortable places, chiefly patronised by people of bad character, outlaws, bandits, smugglers, and the like; but Jack taught me to look upon them with a different eye. He would start off with the caves of the Bible, and get on to Kent’s HOle, at Torquay, and the Brixham Cavern, with the wonderful exploring work carried on in them by Mr. Pengelly, who found the bones of the great woolly elephants–the mammoth–bears, rhinoceros, reindeer, cave-lion, hyena, and other cheerful beasts that used to range the hills of Devon. Then would he drift to Fingal’s Cave at Staffa, and glance in passing at Whernside, and the Derbyshire caves, but before long would have you safe in the caves of Adelsberg in Southern Austria, or the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky in the United States of America.
The cauldron is the manmade, utilitarian equivalent of a woman’s womb.
This is a bit different again, since both rugs and gardens are manmade, but the Persian rug symbolises a garden. (Check our my post on heterotopias.)
The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Over a quarter million underage British boys fought on the Allied front lines of the Great War, but not all of them fought on the battlefield–some fought beneath it, as revealed in this middle-grade historical adventure about a deadly underground mission.
Secret Soldiers follows the journey of Thomas, a thirteen-year-old coal miner, who lies about his age to join the Claykickers, a specialized crew of soldiers known as “tunnelers,” in hopes of finding his missing older brother. Thomas works in the tunnels of the Western Front alongside three other soldier boys whose constant bickering and inexperience in mining may prove more lethal than the enemy digging toward them. But as they burrow deeper beneath the battlefield, the boys discover the men they hope to become and forge a bond of brotherhood.
the womb of Mother Earth (the vagina would then be the entrance)
mothers in general, fertility
resurrection and rebirth (the Easter Bible story)
place of initiation
place of earthly energy
the human mind, especially the unconscious and subconscious, or the primitive part of the self, or where Self meets Ego. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf meant when she chose the word ‘tunneling’ to describe her technique of how she burrowed into her characters’ backstories in order to show who they are in the present.
the heart and centre (especially in Hindu tradition, where Atma is seated)
where failed mothers hide in shame (e.g. Lamia, wicked cannibalistic fairy-ancestor of Greek myth)
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where people literally believe their villages and families comprise multitudes of witches, even babies aren’t safe. This is apparently because witch mothers take their babies to the cave at Owia Stone:
[Witch mothers] go to the stone, and file their teeth and when they see that they are sharp, then they know that the child is ready. They can eat people now … kill people … destroy people. From the time they are babies they are prepared …. Now many of the little children — they are witches. But you can’t tell ….
Bad things happen in caves! Equally, though, to enter a cave can symbolise entering the womb, or somehow returning to one’s beginnings. Safety, not danger.
Passing through a cave can symbolise overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle, leading to rebirth and anagnorisis.
In Native American tradition, a series of caves one above the over symbolises the different worlds.
In Celtic tradition the cave is the portal to another world. In the music video below (99 by Elliot Moss), the tunnel is also used as a portal to a person’s emotional landscape.
In China the cave is the feminine, the yin, and the gate to the Underworld.
According to Jewish thought, Obadiah is supposed to have received the gift of prophecy for having hidden the “hundred prophets” from the persecution of Jezebel. He hid the prophets in two caves, so that if those in one cave should be discovered those in the other might yet escape.
THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE
The Allegory of the Cave is a Platonic story in which Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Also known as Plato’s Cave.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, Plato, and several of their fellows debate the nature of ideal government. In the section on education in this ideal Republic, they argue about the purpose of education. As part of Socrates’ argument, the discussion veers into an allegory in which human existence is being trapped in a cave of ignorance, chained in place and unable to view anything except shadows cast on the wall. Some of those shadows are vague outlines of actual unseen truths beyond the perception of the senses; others are false images deliberately designed to mislead the cave-dwellers, keeping them content and unquestioning. The purpose of education becomes freeing the imprisoned human and forcing him to leave the cave, to look at the actual objects that make the shadows. Cf. Platonic Forms.
While reading Plato’s cave as an allegory of education is a common interpretation, some philosophers (especially medieval readers) often took a more mystical approach to the Greek text, interpreting the cave as the material or physical world, while the shadows were mere outline of a greater spiritual truths–hidden and eternal beyond the physical world. C. S. Lewis coopts this idea in The Last Battle, in which the characters discover after death that Narnia has merely been a crude approximation of heaven, and the further they travel in the “onion ring,” the larger and more beautiful and more true the inner rings become.
The cave has unambiguous sexual connotations, associated with an historically taboo part of cis women’s bodies. (Sea caves even more so.)
“You know how you feel when someone whispers to you that so-and-so is ill and you say, ‘Too bad,’ and ask what the matter is and they whisper ‘Women’s troubles’? You never pursue it. You have this vague sense of oozings and drippings, blood that insists on pouring out of assorted holes, organs that drip down with all the other goo and try to depart, breasts that get saggy or lumpy and sometimes have to be cut off. Above all there is the sense of a rank cave that never gets fresh air, dark and smelly, its floor a foot thick with sticky disgusting mulch. Yes.”
Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
CAVES AND GREEK MYTHOLOGY
The sirens in the painting below are presented to us as sexual objects. Here’s the thing about femme mythical creatures: They spend part of their history as formidable, then eventually are ‘tamed’ and rendered useful by artists and storytellers who sap their powers by presenting them as consumables.
That said, I don’t think the dangerous side of sirens has been forgotten entirely. It lurks within our collective psyche. These sirens may be presented as helpless, highly sexualised objects, but there’s something dangerous and troubling happening in the background. Where there are sirens there is trouble. Using sexuality, they are supposed to lure sailors to their deaths.
The painting below shows the Greek god Vulcan hiding in a cave. Vulcan was the only ugly god, which was a real problem because even his mother couldn’t love him. Juno kicked him off Mount Olympus. (In her defence, he did have a bright red face and cried constantly.) He fell for an entire day and night and eventually landed in water. This broke Vulcan’s legs. Fortunately for him, sea nymphs found him. They raised him. According to the painting below, he might’ve lived in a sea cave. When he grew up, Vulcan tricked his mum into sitting in a jewelled chair. This chair wouldn’t let her go, and Juno was mad as hell. Jupiter persuaded Vulcan to let her go. If he let his mum get out of the damn chair, he’d get beautiful Venus as a gift. So here’s Venus, visiting Vulcan in his cave. They didn’t live happily ever after in this cave, by the way. Vulcan returned to Mount Olympus. He had a beautiful wife now, so she compensated for his ugliness.
Australian Aboriginal culture also features a fearsome woman in a cave. She is similar to the Greek Lamia but has sharp teeth and cannibalises her lovers (in common with some spiders). She is a figure from a series of Aboriginal cautionary tales. These tales were designed to prevent young men from too much sexual adventure. (Others were the Mungga-Mungaa and the Abuba.)
Today, the cave is littered with broken bottles, old roof tiles, and other scraps of rubbish. But it carries an important story.
For hundreds of years, caves like this were used by local Indigenous communities to quarantine people who became sick.
“[People] probably would’ve died here,” says Aunty Barbara, a Bidjigal, Gweagal and Wandi Wandian elder.
Tunnels inherit much of the symbolism attributed to caves but, on top of that, tunnels signify focus. Sometimes the dominant culture feels someone has too much focus. We call that tunnel vision. In that case the word ‘monotropism‘ is often applied to people with autistic phenotypes.
A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel.
Tunnels, more than caves, are also thought to lead somewhere. tl;dr: Nowhere good. In stories they are often a kind of portal.
Hayao Miyazaki features many caves in his anime. I’ve written about tunnels in Totoro and Ponyo. Tunnels feature large in Japanese superstition. Until quite recently women were not meant to enter tunnels. Naturally, this restricted women to their local areas, since Japan is a mountainous country. The superstition is based on the misogynist notion that women are jealous by nature:
According to the superstition, the god of a mountain is a jealous woman who will cause accidents if a woman enters the construction site of a tunnel.
Canadian author Alice Munro makes use of tunnel as a kind of portal in her short story “Powers“. This is an excellent example of speculative fiction with grounding in the real world. (The supernatural powers are probably no such thing… but could be.) The tunnel is therefore a good choice of fantasy portal because tunnels exist in real life and a tunnel could be just a tunnel.
Sea caves are especially scary because the tide sends water rushing in. You don’t want to hang around for too long inside a sea cave. If you get disorientated due to utter darkness you might end up drowned. This puts a natural ticking clock storytelling device on narratives featuring caves by the sea.
SEWER AS URBAN LITTORAL CAVE
In the realm of the city, the sewer is the manmade symbolic equivalent of the sea cave.
The snail under the leaf setting is an appealing horror setting, epitomised by comfortable suburbs. The definition of an snail under the leaf setting is ‘something rotten lurks beneath the surface’. Sewers epitomise that feeling of dread. Rats are the animal most closely associated with sewers. (Though turtles may have stepped into that mental picture for kids of the 80s and 90s.)
In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.
EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT
The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.
First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)
“It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches —a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)
She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.
Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:
There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum—all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen—it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.
When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.
This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.
Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.
You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”
How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.
A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)
Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.
But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.
Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.
As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.
The Utopian Basement
In Arcadia, the basement is a storehouse, full of things you may need in times of famine.
A witness who remembers nothing is in mortal danger.
A young woman regains consciousness and finds herself on some cellar steps. At the bottom of the steps there is the corpse of a dead girl. She cannot remember who she is, what has happened or why she is there. Terrified and confused she manages to find a way out and as she flees she runs into Miss Silver, who offers to help her.
A letter in her bag is the only clue to her identity. But by investigating what has happened to her will she find herself in danger? Can she trust the letter writer? And who is the girl in the cellar?
Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826
“Cortes Island” is a short story by Alice Munro, included in the 2013 collection The Love Of A Good Woman, which won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like another story in this collection, “Jakarta“, the title of this story is set in a place away from where the action takes place. Writers often say that the characters who exist off the page are as important as the character who exist on the page (engaged in the action). The same is true of places, especially for a writer like Alice Munro. This is yet another way in which a setting can be considered a character.
In this case, Cortes Island is the place where the first person narrator’s landlady used to live as a young woman. The real Cortes Island lies off the coast of British Columbia. In 2016 it had only 1,035 permanent residents. Its school has since been closed. You get there by plane or ferry.
STORYWORLD OF “CORTES ISLAND”
“Cortes Island” is set in Vancouver, a few blocks away from Kitsilano Library, in an era when ‘television was still a novelty’. This must be the early 1950s. Most Canadians owned a television set by the end of the 1950s, though it took a little longer for TV to become ubiquitous in Canada for fear of too much American influence on Canadian culture.
The Cortes Island part of the story took place in 1923. White people hadn’t been there long. To them, the island would have seemed very wild indeed. My first instinct is to judge Mrs. Gorrie a little for failing to appreciate the beautiful scenery that would have surrounded her, but it’s hard to imagine now the level of solitude involved in living in a place like that before modern infrastructure, before adequate medical services, before help of any kind. The day-to-day basics of life would’ve been hard to come by.
Stories set on islands are, of course, often about solitude. The island functions as a metaphor for a character’s feelings of isolation. In this particular story, the island also comes to represent welcome privacy — privacy of fantasy and thought.
As a new wife the narrator lives symbolically in a basement, which is hidden from the outside world. She wants to remain hidden (to live within her own imaginative worlds) but the flip side of that — she is invisible. Or, she thinks she is. It is revealed as the story progresses that she cannot escape the watchful eye of Mrs. Gorrie nor of the older women who work in the library. They all want to know what she’s scribbling down in her notebooks.
CHARACTERS OF “CORTES ISLAND”
Narrator — This is quite distant, extradiegetic narration. By the time she writes this story she is a much older woman herself, with the benefit of lived experience and hindsight. At the time of this story she is a newlywed, living in a basement with her husband in Vancouver. Upstairs lives a woman called Mrs. Gorrie. She describes her younger self as bashful and acquiescent. The fact that she knows this about herself tells us it is somewhat performative, or perhaps this comes via hindsight. She is a shy writer. She sometimes pretends she’s not home when Mrs. Gorrie comes knocking.
Chess — The narrator’s husband. Works for a wholesale grocery firm. In hindsight, the narrator understands that Chess is in his own kind of gender prison — men were expected to submit themselves to the corporate life in order to support a wife and family. (They too often blamed women for this rather than the patriarchy.) Chess has suppressed his own desire to become a history teacher in the hope of earning more. And like a man of his time, he is dismissive of women. “What is the point of old women anyway?” (This must hurt — the narrator saw herself as his old woman one day.)
Mrs. Gorrie — The narrator’s (sort of) landlady. ‘Her face was think, rouged, vivacious, her teeth large and glistening’. Mrs. Gorrie is presented as bored, interfering and boring. She ignores boundaries: ‘Her appetite for friendliness, for company, took no account of resistance’. The house she lives in is owned by her son. Lives on Mr. Gorrie’s pension, but tells the narrator she’s not nearly old enough to collect one herself. (This is at odds with the description given, of a little old lady.) Mrs. Gorries views on socialism are revealed via her attitude towards Irene, a child with cerebral palsy. While Mrs. Gorrie expresses sympathy, she denies the girl’s humanity, saying that she thinks there should be a law that healthy people can’t get married to people like that. She gives advice indirectly using ‘I’ statements, because a woman of her generation was required to be ‘polite’, though ‘politeness’ has different outworkings. (Respecting other people’s boundaries is the greatest form of politeness.) All of this points to a solipsistic outlook on life.
Ray Gorrie — Mrs. Gorrie’s son. He comes to do maintenance on the house but stonewalls his mother. Unlike the narrator, he feels no need to be polite to her.
Mr. Gorrie — When Mrs. Gorrie takes him out he uses a wheelchair because of a stroke. Mrs. Gorrie refers to him as ‘my husband in the wheel chair’. He spends his days staring out at the street. He can manage to drag himself to the toilet and grunt, but that’s about it. The narrator has trouble looking at him — not because she is repelled by his disability but because she can’t stand looking at his very human eyes.
Mrs. Cornish — Ray lives in a house with Mrs. Cornish, somewhere in East Vancouver. Since Mrs. Gorrie can’t get anything out of her own son, she sometimes talks to Mrs. Cornish directly to get details of Ray’s life.
Significantly, the narrator is not named. I’ve found that when I avoid giving a character a name in writing, especially when the character is female, some critique partners in the past have accused me of a form of sexism in which women are not considered important enough to be granted a name. But I resist this blanket interpretation — sometimes when an author avoids giving a marginalised character a name, it’s deliberate! Unfortunately, it’s then up to the reader to understand why the character doesn’t have a name. (And not every reader brings feminism to the table.)
(I will say it’s quite annoying to write about unnamed characters. I have to keep calling her ‘the narrator’.)
The narrator’s Shortcoming is symbolised by the term of endearment she is given — ‘our little bride’, which is completely in line with her losing her real name. She no longer exists in the world as an autonomous human being, but belongs collectively to a culture in which her job is to make others feel good. She is ‘small’ as in diminished, no stature of her own. The narrator’s Psychological Shortcoming comes through best in the following sentence:
In the full spate of sex, and during its achieved aftermath, that fabric was in front of my eyes and became a reminder of what I liked about being married—the reward for which I suffered the unforeseen insult of being a little bride and the peculiar threat of a china cabinet.
If she has a Moral Shortcoming (a way in which she treats others badly) it is introduced earlier — despite knowing the old woman upstairs is lonely, she pretends to be out when the woman comes knocking. This is only a moral shortcoming if we start from a position of ‘women must be kind and giving to others at all times, suppressing their own need for quiet and solitude.’ To me, this is clearly a story which asks the reader to question how much women really owe others and, more widely, how much we owe our parents, how much we owe our neighbours. Who are we responsible for? The men in this story are abrasive to Mrs. Gorrie in a way the narrator dares not speak to her, always responding politely, despite being bored to death in the company of someone she doesn’t really like.
Though it wasn’t known as ‘anxiety’ back then, the narrator shows lack of confidence when going out for job interviews. She doesn’t believe herself capable of learning to work a cash register. This makes her economically vulnerable. Vulnerability scares her. We see this in her reaction to Mr. Gorrie in the wheelchair.
The narrator wants to cocoon herself in the safety and cosiness of marriage (symbolised by the basement) but doesn’t want to lose herself entirely (also symbolised by the basement). She wants to read voraciously and write.
Since Mrs. Gorrie is constantly seeking the narrator’s company, she is standing in the way.
More generally, though, Mrs. Gorrie is the sort of old woman the narrator does not wish to become. This repulsive side of older-womanhood is symbolised by Mrs. Gorrie’s china cabinet in particular. The older woman has such an empty life, and such an empty head, that she dusts and polishes the contents of this china cabinet every week.
There is a hypodiegetic narrative which Mr. Gorrie asks the narrator to read to him from a book on his shelf — the story of the burned house. By the end of this article we know Mr. Gorrie’s connection to the story — the young boy used Mr. Gorrie’s boat to escape the house (which he probably burned down).
This is only a peripheral connection, but it must surely be meaningful to the narrator. How? What exactly has she realised. I believe the moment she smells his urine and unexpectedly likes it, she has embraced a wilder part of herself which will carry her through the domesticity of her later life. What led to this realisation was the story set in the utter wilderness of the imaginary (to her) Cortes Island, replete with the fairytale settings of conflagrations, boats, lakes and forests.
More generally, at a slower pacing, “Cortes Island” is coming-of-age story in which a young woman learns to become a part of the wider world rather than living in ‘life’s basement’.
Throughout the story we get hints that the narrator’s marriage is not going to last quite as happily. The Western world is on the cusp of a sexual revolution, though didn’t know it then. She didn’t realise that her attitude towards small housekeeping things would become more important later. She didn’t ever see herself as a mother with a pram, but has happened within the bounds of the story time.
After she and her husband move out, she continues having sexual dreams about the unlikely Mr. Gorrie. The setting of these fantasies is the wilderness of Cortes Island. I’m guessing this indicates the loneliness and isolation the narrator will feel in her life as an introverted 1960s housewife.
The narrator tells us that she is satisfied with this arrangement. She is able to find satisfaction in her married life by furnishing her mind with wild, grotesque and very private fantasies.
Commentators have noted that Munro’s “Cortes Island” is a new take on a long-established fairytale tradition.
See the fairytale known as “The Girl Who Married the Bear” or “The Bear Mother”. This is the Canadian/Alaskan, feminine branch of a fairytale which, in Eurasia, is more masculine.
In both the Eurasian and North American tales, a bear and his human wife have a child. That’s the similarity.
The Eurasian plot goes like this:
The child turns into a strongman dragon slayer
With his friends/brothers he enters an underworld
Down there he fights and wins against some kind of Minotaur opponent (it might be a devil or a dragon, depending on the tale)
He also rescues three princesses who have been kidnapped.
He marries the youngest princess and becomes king.
In that form, the fairytale goes by titles such as “Strong John”, “John the Bear”, “The Three Stolen Princesses”. Clearly it exists as a masculine wish fulfilment, and is also a classic mythic journey, also known as a masculine myth. You can see elements of this tale as far back as Beowulf, an eight-century English epic in which the hero goes down to an underworld and kills a monster called Grendel.
But the North American story is quite different, and clearly has more feminine influence:
A haughty woman returns to civilisation with her strange son after being in the wilderness for ages
During her time in the wilderness she was married.
Humans have been making transactions with money for about 5000 years. Before that, our ancestors traded goods; before that, favours. We are a species highly attuned to swapping, making deals, owing favours and keeping stock.
So it’s not surprising that we personify ‘fate’ or ‘life itself’ or God or whatever, and feel, deep down, that if one good thing happens to us we must make a sacrifice later. Sacrifice as a cultural practice has largely disappeared around the world but has it really gone away?
The emotions which drive deal with the devil stories are very much alive. Humans have developed various ways of dealing with inequalities. Here’s how an anthropologist puts it, in relation to supernatural and Pentecostal beliefs in parts of Papua New Guinea:
Witnessing inequalities in attractiveness, wealth, or health, provokes feelings of either pity or poverty depending on perspective. To rectify this imbalance, the morally appropriate response is the exchange of a gift that reestablishes mutual respect and recognition: “Until … the feeling of imbalance is counteracted, the perception of imbalance has the potential to assume a negative form, jealousy, that may lead to destructive actions” (Bashkow 2006: 123).
This post is about Faustian stories. I’ve previously written about a related concept known as the ‘tragic dilemma‘. Also related is the pyrrhic victory. We could plot these outcomes on a continuum — all would be clustered at the tragic end.
You may hear the term ‘inflection points’ to describe the metaphorical crossroads we encounter in life. Psychologists use this term and investors use it as well.
WHAT IS A FAUSTIAN STORY?
The Faustian story is an ur-story, which means it’s the ancestor of many modern tales. TV Tropes calls Faustian plots Deal With The Devil plots.
Many stories, Faustian or not, include a stark ‘moral dilemma’ scene. The Faustian story is one in which the moral dilemma is taken to its extreme: Great riches and the hero’s very life. Alternatively, if the main character chooses ‘no deal’, no riches at all and nothing good, ever. Faustian stories are a thought experiment regarding sacrifice: Everyone has a price. What would yours be?
“Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now imply, more widely, a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.
But the story of Dr Faustus wasn’t the only ‘Faustian’ tale in the first 1000 years after Christ. Medieval audiences really liked the tale of the guy who sold his soul to the devil.
We also have the similar tale of Theophilus, who started to bitterly regret denouncing Christ and the Virgin in favour of Satan, so he repented. After that he was known as Theophilus the Penitent. The contract with Satan got burnt up. This was a Faustian tale but it was also a redemption tale. (Audiences love those, even today. Especially in America.)
The story of Faustus became the most enduring because it coincided with a time in the medieval era — the 1500s — when certain privileged men were starting to become really schooled up in certain esoteric areas. We take it for granted these days that every professional has their speciality, and no one outside that profession will ever understand what goes on in that specialty area, but in Medieval times, if you had a specialised job, people thought you a sorcerer. Ironically, it was in the age of Newton that these ideas were in the air. Turns out we have always been suspicious of science:
It was medieval philosophers who argued that revelation was to be found hidden in nature, and uncovered by experiment. This was the true scientific revolution. And it was Newton’s age that was the great age of superstition. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that people started to believe that human beings could make a pact with the Devil, and thereby gain supernatural powers.
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones
WHO IS FAUST?
Faust is the main character of a classic German legend. Fictional Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.
But the fictional character of Faust is based on a real man. Johann Georg Faust, born around 1480. He was well-known as an astrologer (an academic in those days) and a necromancer (talking to the dead). He used a magic lantern to conjure up shadows of the dead, which, yes, I can see how people thought that a bit creepy.
The real life Faust was born in Kundlingen but settled longest in Witternberg. He died around age 40 because his chemicals exploded during an accident. If that’s not an interestingly tragic life, I don’t know what is. People at the time thought so, too.
The story of Faust’s life was first published in Frankfurt but had been translated into English by 1592. The title is wonderful: The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Whoever translated the German story into English (known only by the initials PF), added many embellishments of their own. This was common back then. I suppose it enlivened the job of translator.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe turned the story into a play which proved very popular with audiences. (Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, to put it in context.) Marlowe called the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like something Anne Shirley might have come up with.
The story of playwright Christopher Marlowe is as interesting as the story of Dr Faustus. Marlowe was a gay blaspheming atheist at a time when all three of those things were not permitted, but he was actually killed in a tavern brawl over the payment of a bill. Gory as it would’ve been to watch, I wonder how that evening played out exactly.
In any case, we might suspect Marlowe himself had made a pact with the devil. After an illustrious career as a playwright, he was executed at the tender age of 29.
Christopher Marlowe wrote his play, but Goethealso had a go at the Faustian story. Goethe was a German writer born in the mid 1700s. Goethe wrote his Faust story as a ‘closet drama’, which looks like a play on the page, but which is never intended to be performed, but read by a solitary reader ‘in their closet’. It is Goethe’s version which is now known as the Ur-story of Faust.
Faust tries to kill himself but botches the job. Starts with a suicide. Suicide is considered sinful by the Christian church of this time.
Faust calls on the Devil. He wants further knowledge and magical powers which will let him indulge in all the pleasures of the world.
In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears.
Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and Faust will be eternally damned. (In the early tales it is usually for24 years, one year for each of the hours in a day.)
More On Mephistopheles
Mephisto/Mephistopheles is a character of Germanic origin. He appeared around the time of the Renaissance and comes out of medieval beliefs and traditions around carnival. He appears in the carnivals around Lent. He has a white face (a death mask). He is said to be a ‘fallen angel’, but he has godlike aspects. He is supposed to have created ocean animals.
Mephisto bcame jealous of humans so teamed up with Lucifer. He is connected to the underworld and represents temptation. (Lent is all about resisting temptation.)
Lent is a very old carnival, but in later carnivals, the character of Harlequin and Mephistopheles become intertwined. In make-up, both are sometimes portrayed with that white face and the sweeping black line above one eyebrow that’s meant to signify intellectual arrogance. (See Gustaf Grundgens’ famous Mephisto make-up.)
The Term Of The Bargain
Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways.
In many versions, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. However, Gretchen’s innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven. [Misogynistic bullshit, typical of the era. Perhaps an early take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.]
In Goethe’s rendition,Faust is saved by God’s grace via his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God in the form of the Eternal Feminine. [Happy Ending]
However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven. When the term ends, the Devil carries Faust off to Hell. [Tragic Ending]
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE FAUSTIAN PLOT
WE ARE BLOODTHIRSTY
First, audiences really seem to like it when bad acts are justly punished. This remains true in Hollywood today and speaks to an inherent conservatism. Adult audiences (at least) also seem to appreciate when bad children are punished in children’s stories. The Faustian punishment is the ultimate punishment. It appeals to something dark within us as humans — we get some sort of thrill out of revenge, or from knowing that no bad act goes unpunished.
IT RINGS TRUE
A proportion of us really seem to think of the world in Faustian terms, even today. Why does it seem like deals with the devil really do exist? When I think of people who live big lives — often they have a special skill, take lots of drugs and die age 27 — I can imagine they made a deal with the devil for 24 good years in return for the great sacrifice of a hasty death.
Of course, I know no such deal took place. But when it comes to risk-taking behaviour, the very behaviours that were initially rewarded also led to the individual’s downfall. We don’t see all the risk takers who took a risk without the great rewards. But the individuals who do lead Faustian lives stand out.
STAKES ARE HUGE
We find Faustian stories terrifying and alluring in equal measure. These stories are designed to help us understand ourselves, and our own motivations. They also help us to solidify our values.
WE TEND TO THINK WE CAN CHEAT DEATH
One of our most persistent collective wishes is to postpone death. There are always longevity clickbait articles popping up in newsfeeds. Folktales describe many such attempts. Characters rarely succeed, not even in the fantasy world of the fairytale. “Godfather Death,” retold below from a Swedish version, is typical. Although death can’t be cheated longterm, many folktales that describe temporary respites. Is it the temporary respite that we crave?
A poor man with a large family could find no one to be godfather for his latest son. Finally Death appeared, and the poor man chose him, saying: “You make no distinction between high and low.”
Years later, on the godson’s wedding night, Death called him from his bed and took him to a cave where countless candles were burning.
“Whose light is that?” asked the godson, pointing to a candle that was flickering out.
“Your own,” answered the godfather. The godson pleaded with Death to put a new candle in his holder, but the godfather did not answer. The light flickered and went out and the godson fell down dead.
We find from this that you can neither persuade nor cheat Death.
from Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 18, type 332
The story of the blacksmith who tricked death (sometimes identified as “the devil”) is one of the most popular folktales in Europe:
The Lord granted a smith three wishes, and the latter chose a pear tree that would detain anyone who climbed into it, an easy chair that would hold anyone who sat in it, and a bag that would imprison anyone who climbed into it. The devil came to get the smith, and the smith invited him to help himself to some fruit from his pear tree. The devil climbed into the tree and was stuck there. The smith would not release him until he promised to give the smith four more years of life. When the time was up the devil returned, but he made the mistake of sitting in the smith’s magic chair, and he had to promise four more years before the smith would release him. On the devil’s third visit, the smith tricked him into his bag, and then beat the bag with his hammer until the devil promised to leave him alone.
Later the smith got to thinking that he had perhaps acted unwisely, and he knocked on the gate of hell to make amends. However the devil would have nothing to do with him, so the smith found his way to heaven. He got there just as St. Peter was letting someone in, and the gate was still ajar. The smith made a rush, and if he didn’t get in, then I don’t know what became of him.
from “The Master-Smith,” type 330 (Asbjørnsen and Moe, East o’ the Sun, p. 105.) For additional variations on this very popular theme see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 73-75
Note how the devil in these tales is not very similar to how we see the Devil depicted in stories today. The devil of traditional religion is cunning, sinister, wicked, and almost as omnipotent as God. But in these folktales he is a fool, and he can be outwitted by a clever, trickster mortal.
This is not an unusual set-up in folktales. In those older stories, even St. Peter is frequently portrayed as a fool. His stupidity also makes Jesus look a lot smarter. (See Godfather Death: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 332.) The idea that we can outsmart evil is reassuring, and I imagine this is why audiences enjoyed these folktales so much.
EXAMPLES OF MODERN FAUSTIAN STORIES
You can take my body You can take my bones You can take my blood But not my soul
The story of this song by Rhiannon Giddens centers anyone who has ever had to use their body for someone else’s gain. In this case it is a story of slavery. Slavery itself contains Faustian similarities.
Sometimes the entire plot deviates little from the early Faustian ones. In other stories it’s less obvious.
The Book of Job — “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). Job is antithesis to Faust — saintly and completely dedicated to the Lord. Faust is not dedicated to the Lord. He’s all about knowledge rather than faith.
There are various Grimm tales about deals with the devil. Contained in the first of the Grimm collections is “The Blacksmith and the Devil”. A blacksmith almost hangs himself after losing all his money but a man with a long white beard appears from behind a tree and promises ten years of good life, after which the blacksmith belongs to him. Similar tales include “The Godfather” (Grimm, no. 42) and “Godfather Death” (Grimm, no. 44).
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
Faust was made for film in 1994 by Jan Svankjajer. Faust is portrayed by actors, puppets and animation in a setting cast in darkness and shadow. Darkness and shadow tend to be common to cinematic Faustian stories.
The Firm — in exchange for a well-paid job in law, a young law graduate gives his life. Now he’s part of the firm, he’ll never be allowed to leave.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) —Hannibal Lecter is Faust’s Mephistopheles. He tempts Clarice Starling with greater knowledge in exchange for his participation in evil. Clarice is Faust. She confronts and deals with evil so she can contain it (to stop her private ‘lambs’, from screaming). She learns the lambs will never stop screaming because evil will always be there. Clarice isn’t interested in Hannibal Lecter so much as she’s interested in evil itself, and the evil within all of us, inclining in herself. (For more on this read Film as Religion by John Lyden.)
The Picture Of Dorian Gray
Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002) — a children’s cartoon starring caped crusaders. They are able to defeat all them them, until an ancient magician puts all the League under a spell. The only one who can win against Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene. They all escape with lives intact.
Thelma & Louise sees main characterThelma finally achieving emotional independence and true freedom, but she must pay the price of death.
Batman Begins (2005) — Batman is Faust in a cape.
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” is an American short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which a man trades his soul with the devil. In ‘selling soul story’ tradition, this one takes place at a crossroads. Crossroads are highly symbolic. They represent moral dilemmas and major life decisions in general. Sometimes there is no literal crossroads. As a new spin on old tropes, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” contains no cross road in the traditional sense — rather, the story takes place at the meeting of three American state borders: It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
Breaking Bad is a Faustian story. Walter White earns ridiculous amounts of money, but he won’t have enough time on earth to spend it. He’s going to die now.
FAUST AND LITERARY MONSTERS
Thomas C. Foster considers Frankenstein a take on the Faustian tale:
We keep getting versions of Faust, from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to Goethe’s Faust to Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster to Damned Yankees to movie versions of Bedazzled (and, of course, Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side) to bluesman Robert Johnson’s stories of how he acquired his musical skill in a meeting with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. The enduring appeal of this cautionary tale suggests how deeply embedded it is in our collective consciousness. Unlike other versions, however, Frankenstein involves no demonic personage offering the damning margin, so the cautionary being is the product (the monster) rather than the source (the devil) of the unholy act. In his deformity he projects the perils of man seeking to play God, perils that, as in other (non comic) versions, consume the power seeker.
How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster
THE STORY OF ROBERT JOHNSON
On Netflix right you can find a number of stories about characters making deals, with something unseen and unknown (maybe the devil). Documentary Devil At The Crossroads is about the myth surrounding real life, hugely influential musician called Robert Johnson, who learned guitar so quickly and so well that nobody believed he could have.
In reality, Johnson had large hands, which allowed him to to do things others could not. (This was not the full story, but part of it.)
My own interpretation of the Robert Johnson story goes like this: If you happen to know any musical savants, you won’t be all that surprised about Johnson — someone whose brain is wired for music can learn it quickly. Robert Johnson was denied musical opportunities as a child, partly because he was poor, partly because he was Black. When he was finally given a guitar and a bit of tuition in early adulthood, he was at first ‘not very good’ but then he disappeared. When he returned a year and a half later, his skills had exceeded that of his mentors.
There is a documentary series on Australian TV about child geniuses called Making Child Prodigies. One of the boys featured is a modern Robert Johnson on the electric guitar. What if Callum had been denied access to a guitar until early adulthood? I believe he would’ve picked it up within a year and a half, because that’s how his brain is wired. On YouTube, Callum McPhie’s channel is called The Heavy Metal Kid.
What really strikes me as eerie: Similarities between Robert Johnson and Christopher Marlowe’s experiences in pubs. Marlowe was actually killed in a tavern brawl age 29. No one knows for sure how Robert Johnson died, but he was dead at age 27. He was a well-known troublemaker in pubs.
According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologistRobert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.
SMALL DEALS WITH THE DEVIL IN OTHERWISE NON-FAUSTIAN STORIES
In her short story “Tableau Vivant”, Robin Black deftly depicts a common thought-pattern: that happiness must be repaid by misfortune. The story is about an older woman who has had a stroke. The story goes into Jean’s backstory:
She could remember [her daughter’s] very first few months, how she had been so little trouble, so docile really, that Jean had endured regular bouts of fear, not only that the baby wasn’t normal—by which she then still meant exceptional—but also that so easy an infancy would be paid for one day, fear that it all evens out somehow, suspicious even then of the deals life might make on our behalf.
Robin Black, “Tableau Vivant”, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
How many of us recognise this thought-pattern? Something good happens… but it can never last. Something bad will happen, and that will be a kind of payment for enjoying happiness and good fortune. We are inclined to make cause and effect connections when none are present.
This particular cognitive bias can lead to unhappiness. Problematically, we may be loathe to shuck it off, because it can also provide us with consolation during the lowest times. “Something terrible just happened to me; I’m owed something good.”
Hmm, life hasn’t been very kind to me lately (Well) But I suppose it’s a push for moving on (Oh yeah) In time the sun’s gonna shine on me nicely (One day yeah ) Something tells me good things are coming And I ain’t gonna not believe
A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.
France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.
Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.
FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BABA YAGA
The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.
Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny‘ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone‘, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka‘ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.
She might be a chthonic goddess. (Chthonic means relating to or inhabiting the underworld.) Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.
‘Yaga‘ may be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl, or to the Russian word for eating.
Baba Yaga may be a genius loci (protective spirit). On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to be a protectress of specific social groups. She’s not their enemy, either.
BABA YAGA’S BACK STORY
Femme coded monsters in general have backstories in which they become monsters because of masculine brutality and injustice.
BABA YAGA AND YOUNG PEOPLE
Cannibalism more generally is related to pregnancy, and our collective fear around it. (Before people had a good understanding of human anatomy, a pregnant woman appeared she had eaten someone.)
Baba Yaga is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons). Actually, though, in the classic Baba Yaga stories, she never actually eats the children. She threatens to. She also teaches the girls to do housework. She is a tool in a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood. In this way, Baba Yaga fulfils a specific cultural function: She teaches young people traditional values and rules of adult society so that they will grow up to be useful, functioning members of it. How does she select her victims? She preys upon those who deviate in this way.
She’s the slavic folktale equivalent of the Aunt Lydia character invented by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, upholding the social norms of her own oppressors.
CONNECTION TO OTHER SUPERNATURAL CREATURES
In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches. She is sometimes compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.
Like your bog standard witch, Baba Yaga is cunning. She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies. She dispenses hospitality capriciously: Sometimes she’s welcoming, other times wants you to leave her the hell alone.
Here’s what Jack Zipes has to say about her:
[She is] not just a dangerous witch but also a maternal benefactress, probably related to a pagan goddess. [She] is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not ow allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a pathogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.
(Pathogenetic: Pertaining to genetic cause of a disease or an abnormal condition.)
Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.
BABA YAGA’S HOUSE
Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom“, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.
Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated. In fact there is something very specific and unusual about her: She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock, with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it. Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies. A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
Also, she fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
HOW DOES SHE GET ABOUT?
Baba Yaga also has an unusual mode of flight. She ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.
This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.
THE DUALISTIC WOMAN
Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.
One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL
Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.
The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.
The emphasis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.
Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
BABA YAGA IN JAPAN
Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.
Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba inSpirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.
Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?
Where were you when you first watched The Silence Of The Lambs? I was about fifteen, mid-nineties. The film had made it to midday TV. It was a rainy, wintry day outside and my mother sat knitting in the recliner chair. I was on the floor making flashcards for high school Japanese, but as relaxing as I found this task, the film won out that day. The cosiness of my environs juxtaposed against the content of the film stands out in my memory.
Some years later, on a fine Monday morning, I was walking to work and saw a man struggling to put a sofa into a van. He didn’t accept my help as it happens, but I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t actually get inside the van.” Sometimes films do that to you. I can’t see a glass of water wobbling without thinking of Jurassic Park. I can’t see a man loading furniture into a van without thinking of Buffalo Bill.
The Silence of the Lambs mostly holds up to multiple viewings, and maybe even requires it. It took me a while to work out exactly how Clarice got to the right house before her colleagues did, and I’m still not sure I’m meant to know exactly what went wrong there. Here’s the thing about rewatching in 2017, though: It’s clear this film has not helped dominant attitudes towards gender non-conforming people. In 1991 the film-going public didn’t really know the difference between transvestite, transgender, gay and transsexuality. We certainly didn’t give that community a second thought.
The Silence of the Lambs demonizes and delegitimizes transgender individuals by portraying the serial killer as a psychotic transgender person. (Hitchcock’s Psycho was bad in a similar way.)
Transgender women are often represented as psychotic killers as a lazy method of responding to mainstream society’s fear of gender nonconforming people.
This trope promotes fear by reinforcing the idea that being transgender is unnatural and perverted, and pathologizes gender fluidity.
In reality, transgender people (especially women) are far more likely to be killed than to be killers.
In addition to crazed killers, Silence of the Lambs portrays transgender women as imposters. Any story with an emphasis on the transition — the close ups of her putting on lipstick and so on, is pretty much guaranteed to be emphasising an ‘imposter’ view of transsexuality. This is specifically transmisogynist, as trans men are not picked on in quite the same way.
The writers try to lampshade the transmisogyny by explaining that Buffalo Bill isn’t a real ‘transsexual’ and that real transsexuals are generally gentle people. (I’ve seen this referred to as Jonathan Demme’s fig leaf.) Clarice says to Hannibal, “Clarice explicitly states that, “there is no correlation between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” expressing one of the sexist requirements to access a diagnosis. Rather than proving the killer here is not transgender, this highlights the reality that transwomen have to conform to feminine stereotypes in order to be granted gender reassignment surgery. Transgender people have also been denied surgery because they have been abused. Many have been abused because they are gender non-conforming, as has Buffalo Bill. This remains the reality for transgender people seeking reassignment surgery today.
Hannibal replies to Clarice, “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” This quote enforces the idea that other people can determine a person’s gender identity. If Jame Gumb identified as a woman, she was a woman. If a person thinks they are transgender, they are. Hannibal Lecter’s use of the word “more” before “savage” and “terrifying” implies that there are savage and terrifying elements to actual transgender people.
Though the term isn’t mentioned it’s clear Buffalo Bill is meant to be what’s known in some circles as an ‘autogynephile’. This pathologises transgender women, and describes a ‘disorder’ in which a man is sexually aroused by dressing up as a woman. (The gender inverse here is called autoandrophilia’.) Many people would like to see Transvestic Disorder taken right out of the DSM, but unfortunately that would lead to even less funding for gender reassignments, so other groups oppose its removal at this point in history.
If we consider this character as a man who inhabits a woman’s body after killing her, this is the ultimate, most heinous form of rape. This character is an extreme representation of ‘male’ violence. That is perhaps the intention, but not the way the character is read.
Buffalo Bill is supposed to be scary not only because she murders and skins her victims, but because she is male-bodied in women’s clothing. The “cross-dressing” is portrayed as especially sinister and perverted, but to stand or dance in front a mirror with one’s penis tucked between her legs is an exercise many transgender women actually perform. This scene is often touted as the film’s most disturbing moment. In short, a man dressing and posing as a woman is more terrifying for an audience than actual scenes of murder, torture and dead bodies.
The Silence of the Lambs idealizes normative gender expression. Conformity to gender roles is seen as innocent, an antithesis to gender variance.
This film is often hailed as a feminist film because of the strength of Clarice Starling, but trans women are women, and need feminism even more than cisgender women.
HISTORY OF THE STORY
The Silence of the Lambs is a novel by Thomas Harris, originally published in 1988. It is the sequel to Harris’ 1981 novel “Red Dragon” and the second book by Harris featuring the cannibalistic serial killer and brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The film follows the book quite closely, but one aspect missing from the film is Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with his mother. Despite the fact that his mother abandoned him, Jame Gumb feels an attachment to her. The novel depicts scenes of Jame Gumb watching a video of his mother participating in a beauty pageant. He ritualistically watches the video, rewinding and re-watching certain parts again and again. We see Jame Gumb dancing in front of the TV but we don’t know exactly what he’s watching.
By the early 1990s, audiences had seen a lot of slashers and remakes. They were totally ready for something new and the adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs came along at the exact right moment. Compared to similar films, this story has little in the way of gore and violence. We don’t see Buffalo Bill actually killing anyone. When Clarice is shown what Dr Lecter did to someone, she sees the photo but we only see the look on her face. There’s a post-mortem scene, but we don’t get the same level of gory detail that is often indulged in today. The camera is mostly on Clarice, not the dead body. We do still see the head in the jar. We still see the dead women. But this is not slasher material.
OVER-MOTIVATION OF CHARACTERS
Another big difference between book and film: In the book Clarice Starling is fired from her task. She goes to Ohio on her own dime to catch the killer, sure of where he is. She’s right.
This is Hollywood ‘over-motivating’ its characters. What does that even mean? Writers don’t let the characters of thrillers become intrinsically motivated over the course of a story. Even in the third act they’ll be forcing their heroes to do something even when in the real world of the story, the hero would be doing these things anyway. The screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs was advised to remove this bit of over-motivation, and he did. The film is better for it. More modern stories such as Homeland and The Killing are still over-motivating their detectives by getting them fired from their jobs.
Be mindful that if you are writing a crime story and you get your detective fired, you’re using an overdone trope. Ask: Is my character already sufficiently motivated to solve this mystery even if they don’t get fired?
AN AWARD WINNING HORROR FILM
The Silence of the Lambs is said to be the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And it won a lot more than that: it’s only the third film in Oscar history to take home wins in the Big Five categories, a.k.a. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adapted Screenplay, in Silence’s case), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster.)
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a horror, though. The Silence Of The Lambs is a subcategory of thriller with crime and drama thrown into the genre mix. Award seasons still don’t think much of horror, though this might change. Come 2017, horror looks set to save cinemas from bankruptcy.
INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS
Buffalo Bill was based on an amalgamation of a number of high profile killers.
One was Ted Bundy. Theodore Robert Bundy was an American serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar and necrophile who assaulted and murdered numerous young women and girls during the 1970s, and possibly earlier.
Another was Ed Gein — a man who stole corpses from cemeteries, skinned them and cured the skin in order to wear it. Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are also inspired by this person.
WHYDUNNITS REPLACING WHODUNNITS
A whodunit (whodunnit) is a type of mystery best described as a ‘mind-riddle’. The reader is encouraged to put pieces together themselves.
A whydunit (whydunnit) is a type of mystery where the audience knows who did it from the outset. Emphasis has now shifted onto how the situation got this bad. In this type of mystery we’ll generally be introduced to the criminal at the outset.
Although it’s easy to dismiss The Silence of the Lambs as a run-of-the-mill whydunnit, it was the first of its kind, breaking new ground in the crime thriller genre in the late 1980s. Until The Silence of the Lambs, readers were used to whodunnits, but not whydunnits. In this new kind of story, the audience knows from (near) the beginning who is committing the crimes — instead, the intrigue comes from why s/he is committing the crimes. There are more whydunnits around now and some have been hugely original and successful e.g. Fargo by the Coen brothers.
FAIRYTALE AND LEGEND AS UR-STORY
The Silence of the Lambs functions as a myth or fairy tale. We have a small society set against the deep, dark woods (which functions the same as a forest). Clarice is the good princess. Beautiful and capable, she has no real moral shortcoming — she only wants to do good. She has a psychological shortcoming — her vulnerability — but apart from that she’s almost a blank slate.
What specific stories were the most influential on The Silence Of The Lambs?
Stories in which good characters make deals with evil characters are preceded by Faust, the main character of a classic German legend. According to this legend, Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. “Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now refer to a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success.
In The Silence Of The Lambs, the danger is that Hannibal Lecter will get into Clarice’s head. While there’s nothing supernatural about this, it might as well be — Hannibal has the power to destroy someone’s career at the outset if she does not have sufficient mettle.
TAPPING INTO AMERICAN FEARS
Underworld narratives also formed part of Hollywood’s response to widespread moral panic around ritual abuse and child murder that spread throughout America in the 1980s and 1990s. The horrific sprees of society’s new apex predators like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, linked to hysterical rumours of organised child sacrifice, inspired a film cycle fuelled by pervasive anxiety that children could be snatched up and borne away to horrible fates in hidden lairs. When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars it was our neighbours or the corner grocer – not the government – preying on our fears.
Demme’s film deftly refashioned the myth of Theseus and the minotaur into a race-against-time manhunt. Cadet FBI agent Clarice Starling pursues a serial murderer who has abducted a Senator’s daughter. To track the beast, Clarice must descend into the den of captured cannibal monster Hannibal Lecter for clues to slay the monster at large, Buffalo Bill. For this underworld quest, Lecter is the pedagogue, not the monster. His role isn’t to eat Clarice (he passes up that opportunity when she ventures within striking distance) but to prepare her for her journey. Lecter provides the ball of string enabling Clarice to venture into the minotaur’s labyrinth and return.
Silence of the Lambs is an example of a paranoid thriller. This genre was especially popular in the 1970s, due to living in the aftermath of Watergate. In America there was general disillusion with the government. The stories which emerged were about conspiracies taking place in the shadows. One of the most famous paranoid thrillers is The Conversation (1974).
The paranoid thriller has the same basic structure as a conspiracy thriller.
In a conspiracy thriller, the main character will be a lone person, sometimes part of a very small group, who notices something dodgy, putting them on the trail. Our hero might be a reporter/small time cop/private investigator. They have no clue at first what they’re getting themselves into but they get more and more intrigued. When they do realise the extent of the conspiracy they toughen their resolve, double down and risk life and limb to expose the secrets of the government/corporation. There will be a ticking clock element, as this person races to expose the truth before getting found. These heroes aren’t always successful.
Silence Of The Lambs is the daughter of this movement, written in the 1980s. Clarice Starling is not exactly amateur but she is naive because of her freshness and youth and because she is still a graduate student. These stories are conservative in their message (like all thrillers): Bad people cause bad events. Good people identify and defeat them.
Broken down into steps, the story structure of a conspiracy thriller goes like this:
Starts with an injustice which is externally motivated rather than internally — Clarice receives a call to action. She is being sent on a mission by a man she must obey, though she doesn’t know exactly what the mission is at first. The mission is to stop serial killers, and one in particular. The injustice is clear: women are being tortured then murdered.
Overconfident investigation — Clarice has shades of overconfidence. She is a proud graduate of UVa, so she tells Hannibal’s slimy doctor, but this is tempered by the fact she is being objectified because she is a young woman and the man deserves what he gets. I put it to you that female characters can’t be written to be as cocky as male characters without losing likability.
Midpoint disaster — Hannibal murders two guards, the ambulance staff, a tourist and makes a clean escape.
Overconfident Investigative Crusade — The FBI are confident they have cracked Hannibal’s code and blunder overconfidently towards the killer. Clarice’s boss even calls her to tell her everything has been solved, counting his chickens before they’ve quite hatched.
Disaster — The FBI goes to the wrong house which almost leads to Clarice Starling’s death.
(External) Betrayals, in which the hero learns who their real friends and foes are — Hannibal reveals convincingly that he won’t come after Clarice. Clarice knows that he respects her too much. This foe is just as much friend as he is foe, which is an interesting and novel take on the basic friend/foe dichotomy.
Revelation — Hannibal Lecter has left the country and is not only starting a new life for himself but is back to his evil, cannibalistic ways.
Other Storytelling Techniques
Clarice Starling has a clear ‘ghost‘. The death of her father and the subsequent experience of being unable to save the lambs.
The desire lines of both Clarice and Hannibal are equally strong. These goals are articulated clearly. Hannibal tells us Clarice wants ‘advancement’. He is correct, though as Clarice doubles down she also wants to do good. Hannibal wants to escape Dr Chilton who makes his life a misery. He also wants a window, but his unstated desire is to play psychological games with people. What Hannibal says he wants is only his most surface level desire. Clarice’s supervisor points out what he really wants by explaining Hannibal’s psychological profile.
As soon as the audience knows exactly what each wants, it’s only then that the film switches point of view and we’re taken to the scene of Buffalo Bill’s latest crime, where he lures the woman into the van.
There is a strong character web around Clarice, who faces multiple opponents of different kinds. There’s the slimy Dr Chilton, Hannibal himself, who is in some ways more like a fake opponent ally. Then there’s the untamed monster out there in the wild, Buffalo Bill.
The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test — Clarice is shown to have a close female friend (whose name I can’t easily find), though they’re only ever shown talking about a man — Hannibal. Which is fine. The main function of the female best friend is to fulfil the part of the story where a mentor/friend character asks the main character if what they’re doing is really such a good idea. This is the part where an ally becomes the conscience of the hero. The BFF asks Clarice, “How do you know he won’t come after you?” She’s actually lampshading the conscience of the audience. This is what we are wondering. Clarice then has the opportunity to reassure us that he won’t.
The big audience revelation comes pretty early, which is what marks out a whydunnit from a whodunnit. We see Buffalo Bill. So what keeps us watching for the second two thirds of the film? What revelation are we rewarded with? We learn before Clarice the true power of Hannibal Lecter when he escapes from that high security facility. We also know a few moments before Clarice does that she has made it into the monster’s lair and is in great danger.
Sure enough, the writers take Clarice right to the edge of death. She literally has a gun pointed and cocked at her back. She saves herself only by her quick reactions. (“If you’re gonna shoot, shoot!” This is a well-worn trope in film, where someone can easily shoot someone but hesitates for unclear reasons and then ends up being shot themselves.)
When Clarice receives kind words from her supervisor we know she has made it as an FBI agent now. She has what it takes. She knows it, too.
THE CHARACTER OF CLARICE STARLING
Clarice Starling has had an undeniable influence on female heroes in pop culture in general. She is said to be a feminist character. But Clarice is not a ‘feminine’ character. She is the same male hero we’ve seen many times before, only in a female body. Clarice in fact follows the mythological hero’s journey in fairly traditional ways, though it is a woman here descending into hell – Bill’s basement – to rescue the damsel in distress. This story is the classic Hero’s Journey. It is not an example of a Female Myth. We are only just getting those kinds of stories now.
Main Character Description: “This is CLARICE STARLING – mid-20’s, trim, very pretty.”
This video by Now You See It talks about the opening scene of The Silence Of The Lambs. We see Clarice Starling emerge up the middle of the screen from the bottom. This is Clarice pulling herself out of a rut. We see from the outset that this character is trying to overcome a personal hurdle on her own. Notice the rope beside her. Not everybody has made it as far as she has. Once at the top of the incline she pauses to hear birds fly and to watch them. Birds flying symbolise freedom our hero has achieved by making it to the top.
Clarice has a symbol attached to her character: Lambs. Lambs are a symbol of innocence. Starling’s inability to save them and her subsequent nightmares are manifestations of her guilt. The film’s title is a reference to the end of Starling’s nightmares, when the screaming lambs become silent, ideally through her solving the Buffalo Bill case and saving his living victim, Catherine Martin.
The problem for writers when creating a paranoid/conspiracy thriller is that the main character is often too passive. Everything happens to them. It’s a very tricky genre to write for this reason. These heroesare the most alien to human nature of all the story types. e.g. Someone wants to kill me; I’m going to kill him instead. In real life that doesn’t happen. You’re going to call the cops. So you have to spend a lot of time coming up with reasons why they can’t call the cops. However! This hero does not suffer from that problem. Monster movies do not suffer from this problem either, and Hannibal Lecter is a monster by any definition. Everything Clarice Starling does feels like a natural consequence of the position she finds herself in. Clarice is intrinsically motivated to solve the mystery of Buffalo Bill’s identity. Her backstory of the screaming lambs is improbable as a motivation that lasts a lifetime, but works well enough for story purposes. (I’ve heard a flock of chickens being murdered by a fox, but this hasn’t provoked me to want to join the police force and hunt down serial killers.)
In his book The Secrets of Story, Matt Bird advises writers to give main characters a false statement of philosophy at the beginning of a story (if any is given at all). This is so we can see how much they change between the beginning and end.
Silence of the Lambs is an example of a character who doesn’t have a false statement of philosophy but accepts a false piece of advice. Clarice’s boss, Crawford, gives her one cardinal rule for dealing with Hannibal Lecter: “Don’t let him get into your head.” In the end, she will realize this is precisely what she needs to do.
THE CHARACTER OF HANNIBAL LECTER
Hannibal is Clarice Starling’s ‘reflection character‘. This is David Hauge’s term for ‘the character who is most closely aligned with your hero –- the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.’ The reflection character, by this definition, is an ally.
A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve her goal. Hannibal is very clearly a mentor to Clarice, even more than her designated supervisor at the academy.
Reflection characters who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point: the 10% opportunity. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time. The writers followed this guideline when introducing Clarice first, then Hannibal later. We meet him when Clarice meets him.
The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation. But does Hannibal really want Buffalo Bill to get caught? I believe he does. If Hannibal himself has to spend years in prison, why shouldn’t Buffalo Bill? Also, I’m sure Hannibal wants to see this hunt to its conclusion as much as we and Clarice do — if only for his own amusement. In this respect, the audience is more like Hannibal than like Clarice. We are here for amusement purposes. We are actively enjoying Hannibal Lecter’s immorality, just as he enjoys the crimes of Buffalo Bill.
Hannibal is an excellent reflection character because here is another hard and fast rule for reflection characters: There must be lots of conflict between the hero and this character. The reflection character pushes the hero beyond their limits. At some point in the story, the hero must reject the reflection character completely. Despite rejection, the reflection character must remain loyal to the hero. Clarice Starling (a character herself) understands and relies upon this rule of characterisation in storytelling. When she says Hannibal respects her too much to come after her we know that she is right, because we’re subconsciously primed to expect this from a reflection character in stories. As you can see, Hannibal fits this character pattern perfectly.
When the mentor is a male and the mentee is female, this is often a take on the Pygmalion story. A man creates a woman into the perfect image and falls in love with her, not because she’s a person in her own right but because he is proud of his creation. We rarely see the gender flipped in a Pygmalion story.
HANNIBAL AS TRICKSTER
Audiences love tricksters. Hannibal is a classic trickster, laying down little puzzles and offering anagrams. He is also a deadly trickster, somehow doing magic with the key to his handcuffs in a Houdini-like act. Despite his immorality, it is satisfying to see Hannibal get out of that prison. It is equally satisfying to see Clarice solve his puzzles, and we see how clever she is. She therefore deserves to succeed.
We know right from the start that Hannibal eats people in Silence of the Lambs. It’s why he’s been locked up for eight years. Clarice Starling is more than prepared to deal with a monstrous cannibal killer, because this aspect of Hannibal isn’t a secret. He eats people. That’s not the scary part. That’s not what instills a sense of dread in us.
A lot of modern horror relies on the jump scare, the unknown, the mystery. Hannibal, in all his iterations, has never been this way. We know exactly what Hannibal is capable of, and that heightens the horror in a different way for us. There’s fear of the unknown, and then there’s fear of knowing exactly what to expect, and when it’s something as gruesome as having your face eaten off, the distinction is minimal.
Beyond the fear of the known and the dread of a cannibal killer mastermind, the strongest aspect of horror Hannibal’s character holds for us is how much he is needed throughout The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice goes to him to learn more about Buffalo Bill, enlisting his help. The idea of us needing the monster is nothing new, but when that monster is a man who would cook and eat your delicious organs if given the chance, having to trust him to deliver valuable information does give one pause. What are we doing if we are relying on the kindness of monsters? Trusting the information of supposed pure evil? What does that make us?
The symbolism in The Silence Of The Lambs is all extremely obvious. From the way Clarice squeezes into that storage facility, lifting the door herself with no help from the men standing nearby, going in ‘from the bottom (ranks)’, giving herself a minor wound in the process, to the heavily symbolic names (Starling = bird = flight = freedom).
Obviousness in itself is not a bad thing. Opaqueness is in fact overrated in storytelling.
However, in this particular story, symbolism is used not only to convey character motivation but also as a bandaid to cover what is otherwise a problematic trope. Moths. Men acting as women. The symbolism has its limits. The moth is not trying to become ‘something it’s not’ when it matures. It is becoming what it was always destined to be. The message about this man dressing as a woman, however, is very much the inverse — Buffalo Bill was never meant to be a woman, so we are told.
The book especially, but also several parts of the movie, expose that Jame Gumb hates him/herself and desires change, which inspires his obsession with moths. S/he breeds Death’s-head Hawkmoths in the basement, frequently observing them. S/he then inserts a moth chrysalis into the throat of each of the victims.
Dr. Lecter explains to the audience what this obsession is meant to represent: “The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis or pupa. From thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change too.” Lecter spends the majority of the movie subtly expressing Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill’s intense self-loathing and desire for complete metamorphosis.”
As you can see, there’s nothing deep and obscure about this symbolism. It’s right there on the page and screen. The audience does not need to remember anything from high school English before understanding the connection between the moth and the man transforming into the body of a woman. Here’s what director Jonathan Demme said about criticism of his film from the LGBTQ community, many years later:
So, Gumb is not gay, but there is a reference to a homosexual experience he had which is attributed to this quest. We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death’s-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit. We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.
I disagree with Demme on this point. It’s not that he didn’t clarify the metaphor enough. All this ‘change symbolism’ could not have been more obvious. The problem is with the entire trope of Buffalo Bill, as outlined above.
By the way, it wasn’t just the moth which symbolised transformation. Buffalo Bill’s tattoo is another attempt at reinforcing the symbolism of dichotomy: the tattoo is Jesus’s side pierced by the Spear of Destiny, where blood and water supposedly flowed out of him separately.
Symbolism, even in its most obvious form, won’t get you out of a hole if your story serves to reinforce problematic tropes which marginalise entire groups of people.
MONOLOGUE AS COMPLETE STORY
The trick to writing a good monologue? The monologue itself has to be a complete story in its own right.
Take Hannibal’s monologue in which he delivers his first string of insults to Clarice.
Afraid of being disrespected. “You think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?”
To play a game with Clarice for his own amusement, unsettling her like this to see if she’s up to the challenge of finding Buffalo Bill.
Clarice is a fake-opponent.
He plans to really upset her to see if she’ll stick around for the long haul.
He’s dishing out nothing but insults the entire speech.
It’s Clarice who has the anagnorisis — she realises who she’s dealing with.
7. New situation
Clarice can now start to interact with Hannibal knowing more about the way he operates.
PACING AND SUSPENSE IN SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
This film is held up as an excellent example of suspense. But is that what really makes this film so enjoyable, or is it something else altogether?
There’s an argument to be made that The Silence of the Lambs is not all that suspenseful:
The Silence of the Lambs is that it is almost totally lacking in suspense.
Suspense was deliberately sacrificed on the altar of momentum. “Again and again,” according to the film’s writer Ted Tally, “both during our script work and later, during editing, [Demme] emphasized the supreme value of narrative momentum. ‘Better,’ he said, ‘to risk confusing the audience for three minutes than to let them get ahead of us for one second.’”
The Silence of the Lambstells its story at two speeds, fast and faster, and when it gets faster, it’s usually trying to paper over a hole in the plot by misdirecting the audience. Such tactics, while diverting on the first bounce, just seem protracted and uninspired in a repeat viewing, and they drastically harsh the film’s overall tempo.
The scenes cross-cutting the FBI raid into an empty house with Clarice’s entry into the lair of Buffalo Bill is held up as an excellent example of cross-cutting. But is it really all that masterful? Would Hitchcock have done it better?
The swift becomes sluggish: Once you know you’re watching people on a wild goose chase as they climb down an elevator shaft or surround the wrong house, those cutaways seem tedious. But you can’t ask an audience to believe that one lone FBI agent can find the killer’s house in Ohio, walk up to it, and knock on the door by herself, after everyone’s been knocking their brains out searching for him. It would come off as the last-reel cheat that it is, without the distraction of intercutting the FBI’s erroneous raid on a house in Illinois.
Even worse is the way Hannibal Lecter escapes from incarceration – the film’s shakiest example of velocity over intelligence. Lecter has (off-camera) killed his guard, switched clothes with the dead man, peeled off his face, and deposited the corpse atop an elevator. He is found lying on the floor, assumed to be the wounded guard, and removed in an ambulance while the police hunt the elevator shaft for the corpse in Lecter’s prison uniform. The audience doesn’t know what has actually been going on until Lecter, inside the ambulance, removes his face mask and leans in to eliminate the EMS attendant.
Refrigerator moments are not actually a problem. They don’t stop an audience from enjoying a thriller in the moment. This is a Hitchcockian term which refers to when someone from the audience grabs a drink from the fridge after the film has ended and realises that one of the plot points doesn’t add up.
How long would it take an EMS attendant to realize that the patient isn’t hurt? Eight seconds? 12? So the film dodges the issue by accelerating the tempo and intercutting the red-herring search.
But again, would Hitchcock have done the ambulance sequence better?
Alfred Hitchcock always insisted, “You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.” The first thing Hitchcock would have done would have been to let the audience know that it’s Lecter, not a wounded guard, lying on the floor. Then Lecter’s journey from the floor to the ambulance could be mined for two levels of suspense: the killer’s jeopardy at being discovered, and the cops’ and the EMS attendant’s jeopardy at being so close to this homicidal maniac. […] If intercut with this new scene of Lecter on the floor, all that [police raid] footage could contribute its own suspense: How soon before these cops realize the corpse is the guard and Lecter is still in the building?
I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.
It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.
THE LACK OF RATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
[A] recent meta-analysis of studies on species conservation in Australia found that, although conservation-based studies and efforts have expanded in recent years, taxonomic bias against “ugly” species exists in scientific reporting. Fleming and Bateman found that mammals considered as “ugly” and/or not “charismatic,” such as rodents and bats, were the subject of far fewer studies despite greater species diversity and a higher rate of extinction.
On The Politics of Ugliness (Introduction)
Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.
There are a number of reasons for this:
First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.
This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.
Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”
Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.
Rats are associated with different emotions, depending on the culture. Ancient Japan had a good relationship with rats, though I have no idea why — didn’t rats get into everyone’s food stocks… a life or death matter back then? It may be precisely the power of rats that affords them respect, and respect can be associated with good fortune, I guess.
RATS AS COCKNEY RAG AND BONE TYPES
The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney English, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.
If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.
Charlotte’s Web was probably a heavy influence on the rat as rag and bone man today, via the character of Templeton.
Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine
The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.
That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.
THE RAT TROPE SUBVERTED
Because the rat as baddie is so well established, an author can subvert audience expectations by creating a nice, kind, loving rat.
Andrew McDonald does this in Real Pigeons Splash Back, illustrated by Ben Wood. The pigeon crime fighters are scared of rats. This is established early as they prepare to head into the sewers. Eventually they come face to face with the dreaded rats… first a female rat who pulls them out of the water and dries them off nicely with towels.
Mo Willems also subverts the stereotype of a rat by creating a lovable Naked Mole Rat — check out photos and the animal is about the least cute mammal I can think of.