The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.
This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)
Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.
“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.
Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.
The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.
How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?
The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
Korean War (1949)
Malayan Emergency (1960)
Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
September 11 Attacks (2001)
Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)
Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?
Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?
TIME LINE FOR TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
(CUT THE PIECES UP THEN STICK THEM ONTO A PIECE OF PAPER IN THE CORRECT ORDER.)
The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.
Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.
The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.
They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.
The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s houses
They decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.
They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.
Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.
A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.
They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.
They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.
The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.
Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.
The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.
Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events
AN EXTREMELY SCAFFOLDED ESSAY WRITING EXERCISE
Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.
Explain why this idea is important.
An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity. All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult. Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.
Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white. They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances. Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.
Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine. And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that. This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable. Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.
Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others. By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.
The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began. Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues. He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.
ANALYSIS OF AN ‘EXCELLENCE’ ESSAY (NCEA level one)
(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)
TASK: Describe an important character in the text. Explain why he/she is important.
Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden
An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.
Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.” She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”
We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.” She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees her able to make adult decisions. “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”
Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.
What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
What example from the novel backs it up?
What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
What evidence is given for this change?
How is the essay concluded?
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN QUIZ
(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)
What is the narrator’s name?
Who lived in Hell before the group did?
What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
How did the group get to hell?
Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
What is the name of the town they live in?
What public holiday was the country celebrating?
Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
Who does Homer develop a liking for?
What was in the sleeping bag?
What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
What is Homer’s surname?
Whose parents write a note to the kids?
Where was everyone being held?
What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
Where did they get trapped?
How did they get away?
Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
What is Homer’s ethnicity?
After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
Where do they keep a lookout?
Where did Homer and Fi hide?
What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
What happens to the family photos?
What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
What happened to Corrie’s house?
Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
What had happened to Lee?
Where was Lee hidden?
How do they get Lee out?
Where do they get it from?
What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
What do they eventually do to it?
What happens immediately after this?
How did Lee get back to Hell?
What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.
This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.
Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)
Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?
C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST
Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.
Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:
Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)
That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.
The Weight of Glory, p 168
If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.
Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.
However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.
C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)
Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.
Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?
Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?
The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.
Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)
The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.
C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.
In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.
(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)
The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)
The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).
I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)
In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.
During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.
For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.
But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.
This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?
Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.
When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.
The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.
For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.
“The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1922.
CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in February 1922 as she was finding her tuberculosis treatment debilitating. She died in January of 1923, soon after its publication. Thirty-four seems young to be contemplating old age, and to write about an elderly character with any sort of gravitas, but it’s likely Mansfield always had empathy for the elderly. She had probably sensed she would die young. For one thing, she’d faced plague. The Beauchamp family escaped central Wellington to live in Karori, probably to evade the bacterial infections which were highly dangerous to Wellingtonians at the turn of the 20th century. Aside from that, Mansfield grew up with weak lungs. The family doctor told her family (if not Mansfield herself?) that she was a case of tuberculosis waiting to happen.
By the time Mansfield actually did succumb to tuberculosis, I wonder how she had processed the concept of ‘inevitability’. The modern-day analogue is a person who knows they carry genes which put them in the firing line for future health problems and a likely early death (e.g. for breast cancer, Huntingdons, early onset Alzheimers). The more we learn about genetics, the more all of us will be expected to either confront death (by paying for gene sequencing, say), or to ignore it completely (like The Boss in this story). How much should we mull over our own deaths? What is the perfect amount of death-mulling in order to live a good life? This is the ultimate moral dilemma for privileged people of the modern age.
We can only read her stories and speculate about how Mansfield lived with ill-health, but putting her writing to one side, she did live life to the fullest, perhaps because she was always under the spectre of death.
When facing death, it’s common for people to readjust our sense of scale. Big things seem smaller (we realise we are not invincible). Important events are cast as freshly irrelevant. The flip side is that small lives become more meaningful: A fly can lose its life just like that. And we’re no different. Everything feels more connected. (Users of psilocybin will tell you of similar experiences, without necessarily facing their own mortality.)
This is partly why imagery surrounding ‘miniatures‘ is so commonly utilised by storytellers. You can make the argument that all stories are about life, and therefore all stories are about death.
What Happens In “The Fly”?
Old Woodifield is an elderly man who goes to visit his former boss at the boss’s office. He’s impressed that the boss is still doing well in the workplace, even though he’s a full five years older than himself.
Old Woodifield forgets what he came to say, but after a tipple of whiskey (which his health properly forbids), he remembers: His daughters visited France recently, including the graves at Flanders Fields, where both old men lost sons.
Old Woodifield tells his boss that they also found the boss’s son’s grave, and would like to reassure him the grave is very well kept. Then Woodifield leaves, unaware of how he has plunged his former boss into the depths of despair.
The reader stays in the room and we watch on as The Boss slowly kills a fly entrapped in his ink pot.
Setting of “The Fly”
The story is set in the post-WW1 era, near London. “The City” is capitalised, so refers to “The City” district of central London. France is revealed to be a foreign country with very foreign customs when Old Woodifield offers the anecdote about paying for the entire jar of jam. (There is an historic cultural juxtaposition between England and France.)
Some of the language indicates its era:
“Toss off” now means something else entirely, but back then meant to ‘down’ a drink.
‘Wiped his moustaches’ — this word has evolved in the opposite direction of trousers (which were once considered plural, now considered singular, often called ‘trouser’).
‘Chaps’ now refers almost exclusively to the butt-less leather trousers. Back then the word referred to the same leggings and belt, but not in place of butt-covering attire. The word was pronounced ‘shaps’, fyi.
Narration In “The Fly”
This story is told with omniscient narration, neither entering too far into the mind of the boss nor Mr Woodifield.
“The Fly” is typical of Mansfield’s storytelling technique: The reader is moved through a series of incidents, carried along with the action. Eventually the reader discovers causal relationships. Honeymoon, The Voyage and Preludemake use of the same narrative technique.
Character Web of “The Fly”
As first presented, the Boss appears to be the archetypal godlike figure, giving life and taking it away. The Boss is given no name—he is known simply as ‘Boss’—authority, father figure to both Woodifield and to Macey. He gives a little drop of whiskey to Woodifield, insisting it wouldn’t hurt a child, even though alcohol is forbidden to the old man. This interaction is very reminiscent of a scene in Annie Proulx’s much later short story “On The Antler“, though in Proulx’s story the alcohol is literally poisoned. (To someone who can’t drink for health reasons, alcohol on its own can be poison.)
The Boss is also set up as materialistic. Mansfield both shows and tells us this fact.
[SHOWING] ‘New carpet,’ and he pointed to the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings. ‘New furniture,’ and he nodded towards the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle. ‘Electric heating!’ He waved almost exultantly towards the five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.
[TELLING] But he did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years.
Some critics have said this indicates an earlier, less polished time in Mansfield’s writing development because succinctness is highly prized. However, I’m not on board with that view. I think succinctness can be too highly prized. Like any other kind of emphasis, emphasis achieved by both showing and telling is acceptable to me as a reader.
More interesting: Why did Mansfield want to underscore this facet of The Boss’s personality?
Materialistic characters are non-empathetic characters. That’s a rule.
He’s also a braggart. A rich, powerful man who is also a braggart is the worst kind of rich, powerful man.
But he is also pitiable in his own strange way. Braggarts are showing their shortcoming: They’re not as confident as they hope to appear. A man who brags about his possessions is making up for something very weak about himself. The reader draws this conclusion early (subconsciously, if nothing else) and so when we see his actions at the end, the ending is both surprising and expected. (The rule for endings.)
On second reading (or in hindsight) we understand that by fixating on objects, The Boss can avoid thinking about death. Objects cannot die. Flies can die. Flies are not objects. But he seems to consider the fly a kind of object, as a part of the room itself, until he is hit by its tiny death.
I conclude that Mansfield had good reason to underscore the materialistic views of The Boss.
The Boss’s Son
We don’t know what the son was really like because we’re viewing him from the father’s point of view. Bereft family members have a tendency to remember only the best of the dearly departed. It’s highly likely the son wasn’t anything like the angel he remains in his father’s memory.
This is from a completely different book, published in the late 1800s. I thought of the father and son from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Fly”.
Also possible: The Boss required the son to come and work for him whether son wanted to or not, and The Boss refused to listen to anything else. It’s possible The Boss has sociopathic tendencies. While most neurotypical people think nothing of killing a fly, I think most of us prefer a swift and painless death for any living creature.
Like many parents, The Boss had hoped to achieve immortality via his son. Losing his only son means losing his own immortality.
When the Boss begins to play with the fly, birth imagery appears and readers remembers that Woodifield was described as a baby. As the fly struggles to recover from the persistent blobs of ink The Boss drops on him, readers understand that the fly is a symbol for humanity and the fly’s struggle is the struggle of humankind.
Flies also ‘fly’. Katherine Mansfield is making use of The Symbolism of Flight. Flies can soar through the heavens and perhaps they have lots of fun, escaping any kind of earth-bound reality. But flies die in the end. Alongside us, flies endure an ordinary and inevitable lifecycle: birth, youth, ‘old age’ (for a fly), death. There is struggle, even for free creatures.
But along with the struggle there are moments of flight, desires, hopes, aspirations. If we put ourselves in the fly’s position, it probably thinks it can get away, until the deathly amount of ink is dropped upon it.
Where did Katherine Mansfield come down on the Freudian concept of repression? Old Woodifield has repressed nothing. But look at him. He’s five years younger than The Boss, already retired, his health is at the point where he can’t take whiskey and he seems to be losing his memory, possibly hastened by the stroke which caused his retirement. He is now under the care of his wife and daughters.
We can’t apply a cause and effect analysis to how humans age in real life, but we’re talking about fiction here. Could it be that in “The Fly”, Old Woodfield’s openness towards mortality has actually hastened his own?
Helen Garner wrote a novel called The Spare Room, in which a woman is cast into the reluctant role of caregiver when a friend comes to stay. The friend is undergoing cancer treatment. In interviews, Garner has said that ‘denial of one’s impending death’ is one way of dealing with death. Since death comes anyway, there’s no right or wrong way of dealing with it.
My brother, a hospital nurse, also tells me that it is very, very common to be admitted to hospital in the late stages of a deadly illness and still not ‘accept’ death is happening.
One possible reading of “The Fly”: By repressing thoughts of death, we don’t ever have to deal with it. (By the time we’ve dealt with it, we’ll be fully dead., which is not dealing.) In the meantime, keep working, keep busy.
Western governments, spurred on by a rapidly ageing population, probably take The Boss’s view.
Alternate reading: Old Woodifield has ‘Old’ in his name, but is consistently described as a baby. We could look at this both ways: Old people are helpless like babies and there’s your comparison. When Mansfield calls Old Woodifield a baby, she might simply be underscoring his old age. On the other hand, his acceptance of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death makes him immortal, in a way. Once we learn that death is a thing, and that it will eventually come for us, we’re ‘outside’ death. (‘Forever young’, despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Symbol Web of “The Fly”
In the first episode in “The Fly” Woodifield and the Boss are contrasted in using imagistic patterns.
Old Woodifield, though five years younger, is nearing his grave. He’s ‘boxed up‘ and looks ‘like a baby in his pram’ but still likes to go out as ‘he clings’ to his ‘last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves’. He ‘pipes’, ‘peers’, has ‘shuffling footsteps’ is frail’ and ‘old’ (stated seventeen times) and ‘on his last pins’.
The Boss, on the other hand, though described in less imagistic language, is still ‘at the helm’, ‘going strong’, rolls in his chair, and ‘flips’ the Financial Times, interested as he is in his business and life. The Boss has a strong lust for life and shows a great capacity to survive. The imagery that defines the environment is remarkably positive, and equally rich in suggestions of the boss’s energy, his strength, warmth and generosity.
Indeed the implication, especially through contrasting comparisons with old Woodifield, is that the Boss has an unaging vitality. He seems to be immune to life’s ravages and this suggests an important theme. The very effect of the description of the room and the boss’s subsequent conversation with Woodifield is to establish a dichotomy between the two men as well as to portray them naturally in a realistic social context.
Mortality, already implied by the contrasting images, is directly conveyed by the striking verbal metaphor of the boss’s son in his grave: ‘It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girls staring down at him’. This momento mori together with his son’s photograph make him forget the six years, although his mental grasp has weakened. But the Boss has built up not only his thriving business but also an effective defence mechanism. There are no tears to shed.
By sheer accident the boss finds a fly in the inkwell and unconsciously picks it out, watching the struggling fly brushing off the ink in order to survive, the Boss finds in its fight for life an analogy with his own will to survive. The introductory, contrasting images have generated a sense of the boss’s zest for life, which is also evident in the action.
Killing the fly he paradoxically wishes it to weather adversity, increasingly identifying himself as the courageous little insect in the animal images: ‘like a minute little cat’, ‘the little beggar’ and ‘he’s a plucky little devil.’ Time and his zest for life ‘(‘for the life of him’) have healed the wound in his heart.
The images reveal the true nature of the Boss and inform and extend the meaning of the action in the short story. With Mansfield’s method of narrative restraint, which eschews expository comments, the boss’s final oblivion is expressed in the referential narrator’s discourse, but the full weight of the boss’s fight for survival is expressed by imagistic patterns.
Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
The Boss represses his own hard emotions, pressing reset again and again, which leaves him open to continued small wounds when he leasts expects them.
The Boss is the archetype of the broken man who wants to embed himself in his work in order to forget other kinds of pain. The men of Mad Men are uniformly of that type. If they were to understand their own difficult emotions, those emotions would absolutely break them.
Short stories are well-known for their epiphanic moments, and for characters who change just a smudge. (There’s little time for massive character arcs.) “The Fly” is an excellent example of minimal character change (if any at all).
The Boss seems quite happy to continue on as Top Dog of his own company, and no doubt enjoys the authority that comes with it. But this was an era in which men did tend to retire at a certain, fixed age.
The Boss hasn’t retired, which suggests he wants to live in the past. Today starts off as many other days must have, no different from how days have looked his whole working life.
I’m filling in gaps, but I imagine The Boss pretends he’s a much younger man, and that his son is also younger, safely ensconced in his school work, or at home with his mother, still alive and still full of promise.
Old Woodifield is the opponent because in contrast to The Boss, this is an old man who has come to terms with his impending death. (He’s long since retired.) He’s also come to terms with his own son’s death in the war, to the point where he can talk at length about how well the graves are tended. This is a man who has not repressed his grief, or his own fear of death.
When confronted with such a peer, The Boss is asked to confront his own dark emotions. This is the unique trait of a same-aged peer, and why school reunions in particular can be so confronting. We can look at a much older person and separate ourselves from their mortality. We look at much younger people and we consider them almost ageless. But when we look at those the exact same age, we tend to compare ourselves to our peers in every facet—how are we doing in life? How old do we appear to others?
Only our same-aged peers can show us.
In storytelling terms, Old Woodifield is The Boss’s foil.
Foil: A character with behaviour and/or values that contrast those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character.
Foils work best when they’re the same in many ways:
You’ll have heard of Save The Cat as a writing technique. (Kill The Dog is its inverse, though Kill The Dog isn’t dissimilar in function: It is used to show an audience the good in a main character.)
Often in a story, a character will save the life of an insect to show the audience how empathetic they are, deep down. This technique was utilised numerous times throughout the coming-of-age film American Honey, for instance. After the main character does something questionable, she is shown to save an insect, until eventually we see her do something really nice for some hungry kids. It’s also utilised in one of the first scenes of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to get us onside with Frances McDormand’s character. Mildred Hayes is presented as a tough nut who may or may not be in the right, insofar as the audience knows, so in the same confrontational opening scene the writer/director has her walk over to the windowsill and flip a beetle back onto its feet.
But in “The Fly”, a man is presented to the reader as your regular Boss (hence the lack of a name — this guy is an archetype). But then, when he sort of tortures a harmless — if annoying — little fly, Mansfield breaks archetype to add a little extra. That little extra is not good. It’s uncomfortable to read and now we definitely don’t like this guy. (Even if we don’t like flies either.) This story represents the true inverse of Save The Cat.
The Battle between The Boss and Fly is heavily stacked, and obviously ‘won’ by the Boss, but for him it’ll be a pyrrhic victory, since the death of the fly can only remind him of death in general… his son’s, his own. (And possibly his wife’s as well — in the eras before birth control, an only child often indicated death of a parent, outside secondary infertility.)
One reading of this short story is that The Boss realises his own mortality for the first time after Old Woodifield’s visit, but I’m not on board with that reading. The final sentence indicates The Boss has had many chances to come to terms with his own mortality (and with the death of his son), but each occasion leads him to repress any uncomfortable grief and…
On the other hand, the words ‘for the life of him’ are chosen carefully. You could argue that because of the word ‘life’, The Boss is left with a newly intimate, though subconscious, knowledge of his own mortality.
Once again, Old Woodifield has been set up as his foil. For Old Woodifield we decode the text as indicative of dementia, but for The Boss, forgetting is an act of will.
I’m not entirely sure Mansfield did a great job of depicting old age. She never made it to old age herself (and I’m not there yet, either). Time will tell, and I may shift my position. But have a read of Kevin Barry’s award winning short story “Beer Trip To Llandudno”, which explores the middle-aged version of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. That is a story about middle aged men, written by a middle aged man. As a middle aged person myself, these men’s attitude towards death rings true. The self-realisations about death in “The Fly” feel like middle-aged realisations rather than old-age revelations. Or perhaps Mansfield’s position on death is different yet again, for precisely the reason that Mansfield never made it, even to middle age, and knew full well she would not.
Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver.The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street is an upper middle grade novel set in WW2 America.
The following biographical information feels relevant to The Woods At The End of Autumn Street:
Born in 1937, that makes Lois Lowry the same era/age as Liz in Autumn Street. The details of the era therefore ring true, from the racial and playground gender segregation to the freedom afforded young children, allowed to enter the woods.
Lois’s sister Helen, three years older than her, died in 1963 at the age of 28 of cancer. A number of Lois Lowry’s books feature death, e.g. A Summer To Die, Number The Stars and this one.
Lowry’s father was a career military officer – an Army dentist – whose work moved the family all over the United States and to many parts of the world. Autumn Street is set during WW2, and the children have been moved to a new place. Moving to a new place is something Lois Lowry herself would be highly familiar with.
The book opens with a self-contained first chapter, meaning it could almost stand alone as a short story or vignette. The characters are ghosts and float above Autumn Street in Pennsylvania, bordering woods as if from a fairytale.
The reader wonders, why are all these people dead? Why is the narrator, and only the narrator, alive? We already know the narrator is an old woman.
It was a long time ago.
The first person narrator opens with a nostalgic warning to young readers, that you never know the ending of things. This is something we really can’t feel first hand while we’re still young. We know this is a feminine voice because she compares her grandfather’s lawn to a skirt.
“No account” is the catch phrase used by our two main characters, who have heard the phrase but don’t know how to use it properly. They use it as an attributive adjective. Readers love a tagline to hold onto. Repetition of a catch phrase is a dialogue trick. In this case it provides humour and it also conveys naivety — a naivety that the children will grow out of by the end of the story.
Our main character/first person narrator is revealed as a girl who notices things, who appreciates beauty and loves to paint. As the story progresses we’ll see that she is equally down-to-Earth — the kind of girl who wipes her hand on her nose then licks her hand, because she ‘wants to know what it tastes like’.
Because chapter one is so ethereal, chapter two functions to ground the reader firmly in setting. What’s going on? Why have the children been sent for a year to live with their grandparents? We quickly learn that Pearl Harbour just happened, the narrator was four years old when WW2 began, and that she is naïve. Though looking back, the narrator has full understanding. Juxtaposed against the war preparations – the cousin injured in hospital, the father getting his uniform ready, is the fact that our narrator is a gifted painter. This gift influences the way she writes, because of the way she sees. (Already observed in chapter one.) Also juxtaposed against the big, world events are the minutiae of a six year old’s life – the fact that the school milk is disgusting to her, and that she has to wear a French beret, which marks her out as different.
We don’t know the name of our narrator until the beginning of chapter three: Elizabeth. The first scene told to us is the last scene she remembers with her mother before leaving their old house. After a scene break the reader is transported to the grandparents’ house on Autumn Street, with no segue about getting there by train, or whatever. This is how memories link together, too, and allows the reader to remember events the way Liz does – vignettes with no strong connector between them.
While the adults around her are no doubt worried about the war, Liz’s fears are to do with the story from the doctor’s daughter, the nine year old with the pet turtle. Liz is terrified to think that the turtle will grow as large as the dining table and eat people.
The huge house with all the rooms and the manicured lawn and staff is the archetypal cold house, where Liz does not feel nurtured or safe. She gets any nurturing she needs from the cook and housekeeper, not from her own mother or grandmother.
Liz confides her fears to her big sister Jess in the dark. In naïve, childlike fashion, Liz thinks that if mother gives birth to a boy then that means father must die in the war, in a causation chain. This is from overhearing adults say that babies born during a war are boys, to serve as replacement for the lost men. Liz also says that she would like to be the boy of the family. She can just wear boy clothes and cut her hair short. By the age of six most children have a strong sense that their gender is immutable, so Liz is an unusually gender fluid six year old girl. In this way, Liz is an unreliable narrator. However, as an older woman narrator she is plenty reliable, because she’s giving the reader enough information to connect the dots for ourselves. The ironic distance between the perception of young Liz and the knowing older Liz provides interest.
There is a scene with ‘Japanese beetles’, first a save the cat moment as Liz helps them onto a leaf. But then she accidentally squashes one in her fist. Frightened by her own failures and grief stricken, she runs into the house.
It is revealed to Liz and the reader that grandmother is cold towards the girls because she is not their mother’s real mother – she is a step-mother, who only came into the house when Liz’s mother was 19. This cold woman contrasts with the maternal and warm Tatie, who runs the household.
A baby boy is born in the middle of the night.
This chapter explores Liz’s simplistic understanding of prayer. She has concluded it doesn’t work because she doesn’t get everything she prays for. She considers God another person in the room who must not be interrupted, and who probably has a short attention span. But she does pray, to assuage her own anxieties.
Tatie’s grandson Charles comes to stay while his mother goes away with a man for a holiday. Charles and Liz are only six. The reader can see what different backgrounds they have – Liz is White, Charles is Black. Liz has the privilege of knowing how to read already, but Charles is more worldly, knowing what ‘drunk’ is and how to get drunk. The reader is never told that Charles is Black and that he is poor. We are given more than enough to deduce.
When Lowry emphasises how quickly these two make friends she emphasises how divisions between adults are socially constructed, and at peak danger, these constructs lead adults into war.
The episodic story structure of the novel is now clear, or perhaps it’s building slowly to something. Liz cadges her grandfather’s autograph book and asks everyone to sign it, for no reason other than fun. But she can’t let go of the fact that Tatie, her favourite person in the house, won’t sign it. Her mother tells her that Tatie has never been to school and therefore cannot write. Liz is banned from annoying Tatie about it. Liz won’t let it go – she clasps Tatie’s hand around the pencil and guides her into writing her own name, which Tatie admits doesn’t look too bad. But for her insolence she is carted up to bed before her normal time.
In a turn for the dark present in all of us, even in innocent children, Charles and Liz plot to (gently) stab one of the seven year old twins next door, justified because Noah killed a cat. This is an interesting flip on the Save The Cat trick. Our heroes want to exact revenge on a budding psychopath, possibly in the hope that he won’t do anything like that again, though equally likely because they feel a sense of injustice if Noah goes unpunished.
Plans are thwarted when it turns out Noah is inside with serious pneumonia. If this were a WW1 story I’d suspect pneumonia resultant from the ‘Spanish’ flu, but this is WW2. It must have been a different virus, or bacterial infection.
While waiting, Charles and Liz cut a worm in half. They don’t mean to kill it – they have heard they’ll end up with two worms. This scene stands in for the big struggle scene we’ve been hoping for (not hoping for?) between Charles, Liz and Noah. Noah’s not-evil twin emerges instead, and the children happily accept him. One evil twin, one good twin is kind of symbolic of the sides during the war. Two people can look the same in every way, but because of minor differences (place of birth), one can seem evil while the other benign. Significantly, the twins’ father is German and has been taken away by the authorities.
By the end of the chapter, Noah has died. “But we must remember, Noah was a dreadful child,” grandmother reminds everyone. This is how we see casualties of war when they are on the other side. A shame, perhaps, that they have died, but somehow justice has been restored.
The ducklings are an interesting addition to this chapter. Noah and Nathaniel each own a duckling, given to them at Easter. As the ducklings grew, they followed the brothers everywhere. Noah was cruel to his duckling but it followed him anyway, having bonded with him. This is symbolic of how we are all subject to our circumstances. If Liz had been born German, she’d be on the other side, and she wouldn’t question it.Like a duckling, she’d just follow her masters.
Liz feels that she was a little responsible for Noah’s death, wishing harm upon him, planning to gently stab him with that knife. Charles and Liz do the only thing they can think of to make amends, and that is to bury the knife the same way Noah was buried. Grandmother’s suggestion is to go to Confession, but Liz has a touch and go relationship with God.
Charles has obviously had a realization – he didn’t know until now that children can die. They’ve both been disabused of this notion, and this is not going to help Liz with her anxieties.
Chapter nine is a single scene, much shorter than the previous chapter, which is an entire sequence of events leading up to Noah’s death as well as the aftermath.
Jess and Liz sit on the porch doing embroidery. Liz wishes she were a boy. She has it in her head that boys are brave, because they are boys. The adult reader knows that this is because the braveness and strength of men was emphasised during the wars, as a tactic to get men to sign up and fight fearlessly, sacrificing their lives.
They talk about the local kook, Ferdie Gossett. Liz makes up a backstory for him. The reason he hangs around kids staring must be because he lost a child, because she knows children can die now, like Noah.
Liz also says she’s too scared to go into the woods at the end of Autumn Street. Because of the title, we know a visit into the woods is imminent.
Liz and Charles visit the two great aunties, though it’s not clear whether they are blood relations. Upon quizzing Charles to see if he can read, the aunties decide to perform a Shakespeare play for him. They let him ride on the mechanical chair that goes up the stairs, though Lowry does not say whether either or both of them is incapacitated. I associate this heavily with the horror genre after seeing horror films with stairlift chairs in them. At the end of Charles’ lovely visit, Liz is clearly jealous and she calls him the n-word.
Grandfather suggests a bonfire, which is over all too quickly as it always is. When the bonfire is over Grandfather doesn’t feel good. He has a stroke. Now the bonfire is imbued with extra meaning – life itself (as we know it) is over all too quickly.
Liz focuses on the double meaning of ‘stroke’. There’s the medical condition, then there’s the ‘stroke’ of midnight. Liz associates death with the passing of time. Death (and life) is starting to take shape for her. She is slowly learning that everything must end. She has already learnt that children can die at any time. Now her beloved grandfather is severely compromised, restricted to a wheelchair.
This has brought out a maternal side in Grandmother, which Liz never knew she had.
This is where the mystery of the story kicks in. When writing a novel length work it’s often necessary to add a mystery to avoid a flagging middle.
Lillian, young girl about town, casually explains that spies are everywhere. Liz and Charles get it into their heads that the twins’ German father wasn’t taken away at all – he’s up in the attic with a direct line to Hitler. This works well because the first half of the book has set Liz up as a fantasist who often puts two and two together to make five.
So Liz and Charles break into the house next door to see for themselves.
Here we have a great example of setting as character:
Even empty rooms are populated with the presence of those recently there. I thought that I could smell the thin flowery scent of the cologne Mrs Hoffman sometimes wore; and I could almost hear the soft laughter of Nathaniel as he played.
They don’t find anything. In superior position, the reader knows that Mr Hoffman is a victim of the war, not part of it.
Summer has ended now and Liz has started at the local school, described as a Gothic building. Charles has to go to his own school, because this is in the days of racial segregation. This means Liz and Charles have to end their friendship, each of them declaring they don’t like girls/boys, but they make an exception for each other. This shows how ridiculous the gendered socialisation of kids is.
Liz makes a new friend, Louise. Liz really likes being at Louise’s house. She invites Louise’s mother to make friends with her own mother. We get a brief possible flashback. Liz’s mother might remember Louise’s mother, but then again she may not. This feels nostalgic to an adult reader in a way that probably doesn’t to a child reader – adults know that distant memory works like that. Things that seem so important at the time are soon such distant memories.
In this quiet chapter Liz realises a few things. She understands that the aunties are her real grandmother’s sisters. She learns what romantic love looks like (a little) and declares to her mother that she loves Charles. This again touches on the racial divide of that era when Liz’s mother says that things don’t always work out.
This chapter is about sickness and infirmity. Ferdie Gossett is mentioned. He’s been vacant and wandering since an earlier war. Until this moment Liz didn’t know that there had been any earlier wars. To her, this one big world event going on right now was the be-all and end-all. She is starting to learn her own place in history.
Her grandfather’s missing teeth disturb her, in contrast with Charles’s missing baby teeth, which do not. Age juxtaposed with youth.
It is here that Liz has a anagnorisis:
It was all a kind of pretending. It explained why Great-aunt Philippa, whatever her private feelings were, could flutter her hand with her years old diamond ring, could say that she thought of Grandmother as a sister, and could smile. [inserts a list of events from the story] it was a kind of pretending composed of pride, of the pain of powerlessness, of need – and fear of need – and it came from caring: from caring so much that you were fearful for your own self, and how alone you were, or might someday be.
This is a variety of anagnorisis which can really only come from a much older, extradiegetic narrator. If this were written by Liz looking back from, say, eleven years of age, there’s no way she would have been able to string all those thoughts together. This is the sort of understanding that comes only after decades of reflection. Therefore, when choosing your point of view, take into consideration the nature of your character’s anagnorisis.
Is it something pretty small and specific, in the scheme of things? Or is it deep and meaningful, like this? If so, you’ll probably need to spell it out in a paragraph of two like the one above. In that case, you’ll need either a viewpoint character who is not the young person, or you’ll need your autodiegetic narrator to be much older at time of writing.
As I expected from the title, the children must enter the woods, those fairytale woods where danger lurks. Liz has caught a cold, so goes home, but Charles never comes back.
He is found dead.
In the woods. In the woods. I heard them say that, and I heard Tatie’s low cry. I had known that the danger was in the woods. Charles had known. We hadn’t understood the form of the danger, had imagined it to be turtles, caves, or even the red-headed boy who licked lustily at the dripping from his own nose. But it was none of those.
Charles has been killed by Ferdie Gossett, ‘himself a victim’. The message here: Even those who kill have been somehow damaged themselves.
Charles has been killed by a knife. Earlier in the story, Liz and Charles buried a knife, meaning to do harm to another boy, but ultimately not doing so. While this foreshadowing seems a bit too neat, it does work in this story, underlining the message that life and death is pretty random, and at certain times in history, life and death has seemed easy-come, easy-go.
It is a handy writer’s trick to combine Liz’s bereavement with her own delirium from her sickness. Months pass in this state and when she comes out the other side, she is older and things have changed. Though it took place in a bed, Liz has been through her own big struggle and faced death.
It’s interesting that in the final chapter the character of Grandmother is redeemed. Grandmother has been to Charles’s funeral, the only White woman there, and cried. Tatie tells Liz not to be so hard on her grandmother.
This is interesting as a reveal because the narrator writes this with the benefit of hindsight, and could easily have written Grandmother more sympathetically from the start.
The story ends in spring, in contrast with the naming of ‘Autumn street’. An entire year has passed, showing that this is a circular, feminine plot shape. It is common for books starring girls to follow the seasons.
Note the style and tone of the final chapter, which mirrors the dreamlike tone of the opening chapter. This tone, which book ends the narrative, helps to give closure. It is a dreamlike, wistful tone with emphasis on scenery and nostalgia.
Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.
Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later.
Both are films based on novels
Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)
Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.
Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:
It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behaviour. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.
Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.
At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:
BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?
RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.
The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:
It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.
On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.
A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.
Setting Of Hud
Hud opens with various pan shots of a small, rural town. This is the fictional Texas town of Thalia, based on the small town where Larry McMurtry grew up, surrounded by uncles like the men in this story. The Last Picture Show was also set in Thalia.
The grandfather is old enough to have lived through The Great Depression as an adult, and knows exactly how it goes down when cattle have to be slaughtered.
For the people living in the mid 20th century, war was a big part of their lives and influenced everything. They were never free from the threat of it, even after the second World War had passed. Here’s another similarity to Deliverance: the images of war in what is technically a non-war movie.
The story opens at the height of summer. It’s six in the morning and bright as midday. When the story ends it is still the end of summer, but dog days. The stench of the dead cattle would have been intense. Summer isn’t all about fun in the sun. For characters in stories, summer is a vulnerable time. In the summer, characters exist in:
While Hud Bannon (34 years old) is the title character of the film adaptation, I suspect the change in title is to do with the superstar crowd-drawing power of Paul Newman. The title of the novel suggests this is mainly the story of the old man. The ‘horseman’ of Horseman, Pass By would refer to Hud’s father, Homer, who is strongly connected to horses as a symbol of his tie to nature and simple needs.
“Horseman, Pass By, ” on which the film “Hud” is based, tells the story of Homer Bannon, an old-time cattleman who epitomises the frontier values of honesty and decency, and Hud, his unscrupulous stepson.
advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By
The old man’s tie to his horses contrasts with Hud’s pink Cadillac. Elvis Presley had a 1955 Pink Cadillac, cementing that car as the vehicle of choice for rock and roll wannabes and men-about-town. Because the film is black and white, we are told several times at the very beginning that this is a ‘pink’ Cadillac. A showy colour for a small town farmer.
Most Interesting Character: While Hud is a fascinating character, he is not the viewpoint/focalising character. We know a lot about Hud before we meet him. His nephew is looking for him, and the camera follows Lonny. Despite having lived in Thalia his whole life, Lonny’s function is similar to that of ‘the new guy in town’, because he is embarking on the new-to-him adult world that Thalia might offer. We follow Lonny as he tracks down Hud’s iconic car and then the woman’s shoe on the path, functioning like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs leading Lonny to his uncle.
Characters We Like The Most: We sympathise with Homer, who is a good man in a horrible situation. We also sympathise with the witty, attractive and world-wise Alma, especially when we learn more of her backstory, and see her sexually assaulted.
Viewpoint Character: Lonnie is the viewpoint character, obvious from the camera work in the film, but even more so in the novel, in which Lonny is the first person narrator. This is unusual for Larry McMurtry, who mostly wrote in third person. McMurtry has been accused of ‘head hopping’ but I disagree with that — instead, McMurtry probably switched to third person because he really wanted to move in and out of different characters’ heads. For me, he does it seamlessly, writing more like a novelist of the mid twentieth century than like a novelist of today, admittedly, where close third person point of view is the rule.
Off-stage Characters: Oftentimes, the characters who are missing from a story are nonetheless significant. Homer’s wife, Lonny’s mother and Hud’s older brother have all died, leaving these three men to form some semblance of family. For Alma, her missing character is her terrible ex-husband. The dead and missing family function as ‘ghosts‘ to the living (also known as the psychic wound).
Characters As Symbols For Ideas
When Larry McMurtry’s classic novel of the post-World War II era was originally published in 1961, it created a sensation in Texas literary circles. Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways.
advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By
Old West in conflict with the New (mid 20th century) West. It’s not hard to fathom which character in this trio of men represents the Old West and which represents The New.
We sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed—which, of course, fully blossomed in the ‘eighties and the ‘nineties. So we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.
Why Writers Can’t Trust Audiences
No matter how obvious you are.
Does this remind anyone else of the popular reaction to King of Assholes, Walter White?
FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the “charming” villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem—even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.
BAER: It actually backfired.
RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man—Hud—who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbours poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, “Which character did you most admire?” and many of them answered, “Hud.” We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.
While Lonnie is our more nuanced guide throughout this story, there’s nothing at all subtle about the goodness of Homer versus the amorality of Hud. The writing lesson from that: Don’t be afraid to overdo it. We are left in no doubt as to the nature of Hud:
He has been in a brawl the night before, breaking a shopkeeper’s window
He drives a big flashy car
He’s spent the night sleeping with another man’s wife
When the woman’s husband turns up he immediately blames his nephew
He doesn’t want the government involved in the business of the sick cow, even though it would be unneighbourly and environmentally tragic to ignore the foot and mouth disease.
“Sometimes I lean to one side of [the law], sometimes I lean to the other.” Hud tells the audience his philosophy of life.
“How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints you end up with Abraham Lincoln.”
That’s just the first ten minutes. In contrast, Homer is a wonderful human being:
He has concern for the health of his livestock as well as concern for the environment
He does what is right and legal despite it ruining him
He doesn’t blame Hud for the death of his other son, even though it was probably Hud’s fault (we see him driving)
He is kind to Alma “It’s no reflection on your cooking Alma, I just don’t seem to have much appetite.”
Black birds sitting in a gothically spindly tree are foreboding. Hud is bothered by he buzzards and shoots them away with his gun. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Hud. They keep the country clean.”
“You’re an unprincipled man, Hud.”/“Don’t let that fuss you, I mean you got enough for both of us.”
Homer has just learnt his entire livelihood hangs in the balance but he goes to the picture theatre with his grandson. The image of Homer singing loudly to the tragicomic song Oh My Darling Clementine is one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching for me, even worse than the slaughter of the cows, which is memorable but we know that’s coming.
The Romantic Subplot
Though this is a love tragedy rather than a romance or a love story, Alma’s existence shows us how Hud would treat a wife if he had one. For Lonnie, Alma is both a motherly and a sexual figure simultaneously — a hard thing to pull off without it being super creepy. This relationship Lonnie has with Alma shows the age Lonnie is at — still young enough to need a mother figure but old enough to be looking at women with sexual interest.
Larry McMurtry write women very well, considering he’s a man. Women do a lot of crying (though not Alma), and he does love women who go without shoes. He tends to write the same character over and over — Alma is a different outworking of Clara Allen in the Lonesome Dove series and of Molly Taylor in Leaving Cheyenne. (By the way, Leaving Cheyenne is the third novel in what’s known as McMurtry’s Southwest Landmark series — Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show are the other books set in the same place at around the same time, linking together by their shared setting.)
Added to McMurtry’s understanding of women, the screenplay was written by a husband and wife team, which explains why the character of Alma is so well-drawn, so rounded and relatable. The screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr met while working at MGM and had also collaborated on The Long Hot Summer (1958). After Hud, they wrote Hombre, Norma Rae, The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs and others. As you can probably tell, they were a good fit for Paul Newman.
My main point is that a woman on the writing team leads to better female characterisation. Every single time. A rounded character is especially important here, given the sexual assault scenes. When women are assaulted by men but are given no stories of their own, the violence feels egregious and exploitative.
What makes Alma ’rounded’?
Alma has her own ghost — a former husband, a gambler, abusive. She’s had trouble with unwanted sexual contact in the past. She’s basically had to run away from her old life and thought she’d found a new family with these three men.
Alma has her own shortcoming — she’s in a vulnerable position as paid employee, but more than that, she finds Hud attractive despite knowing how terrible he is.
She has her own anagnorisis — the only way she can overcome her toxic almost-relationship with Hud is by removing herself entirely.
Story Structure Of Hud
Hud is an excellent example of a story driven by a strong moral dilemma. All the best stories have a moral dilemma at some point, but in this particular story the moral dilemma is central. Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘moral dilemma’. You need a moral dilemma for good narrative:
A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.
In other words, dilemmas are a day-to-day thing but moral dilemmas are super big, important problems faced only by the unlucky few. Most of us never had to kill our entire livestock. Most of us never have to choose between keeping a son or a daughter (as in Sophie’s Choice).
One way of thinking about mystery comes from Karl Iglesias. In his book Writing For Emotional Impact, Iglesias recommends the following breakdown for creating mystery around characters:
Create a mysterious past Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.
Create a mysterious present Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires. This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.
Create a mysterious future What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?— Writing For Emotional Impact
Check, check and check.
Hud’s mysterious past: He was responsible for killing his brother in a car wreck. He emerged without a scratch on himself. Turns out Hud is also a war veteran, though he did his darnedest to evade conscription. We never hear what happened to Hud during the war, but it wouldn’t have been great. So there’s his mysterious past (from Lonny’s point of view.)
The mysterious present is the question sustaining the length of the story: Do the cows have foot and mouth disease (we know that they do, because this is a story)
More interesting is Hud’s mysterious future: What is Hud going to do about this tragedy, given as how he’s such an unscrupulous asshole?
Other writers think in terms of ghost/psychic wound, setting up questions, rewarding with reveals.
It’s clear that the character function of Hud is as The Mysterious Character holding our interest. But is it really Hud who is facing the story-worthy moral dilemma? Ostensibly yes, but I’d describe Hud as I’d describe Donald Trump — this is a man whose morality was set long ago, and he’s on his own path. It’s up to everyone else around him to decide which way they roll. It is Lonnie who faces the moral dilemma of the ‘wrapper story’ — the metadiegetic level of story in which he comes to his anagnorisis at the end of the level zero story of the foot and mouth summer, but finishes his processing of it only after retelling. Lonnie must decide whether he’s going to stick by his uncle, becoming more and more like him, or set out on his own, risking everything he has left. The moral decision had by Lonnie is gradual rather than sudden. He doesn’t start the story knowing what’s right and wrong. At first Lonnie sits between Hud and his grandfather — Hud wants to sell bad stock to their neighbours; Homer wants to do the lawful thing, and Lon’s middle-of-the-road suggestion is that they turn the cattle loose. In case the audience is in any doubt about this: “You’re going to have to make up your own mind one day, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” says the grandfather to Lonny after the big struggle of words on the stairs.
Does Hud have his own anagnorisis? If he does, it’s a surface-level realisation that he’s losing people But this is not enough to make him change. He apologises to Alma only because he’s losing her, not because he’s discovered some truth about himself and life, the universe and everything. The tragedy of Hud is that he does not change. Hud is a precursor to Don Draper, having small, almost imperceptible revelations that don’t add up to much.
In a story lacking a big big struggle (e.g. a war scene, a natural disaster, a big bad baddie descending on the group) you often get an image of a big struggle, connected to the main plot only symbolically. In Hud we have the pig fight in which Hud manages to adeptly catch a squealing pig. This allows Alma to say, “I’ll stay home. I don’t like pigs,” right after she’s turned Hud down for the second time (and presumably more times than that). It also gives us a good feel for the smalltown rural vibe – this is a very hick kind of entertainment. Hud is very good at catching pigs. This is a guy with skills, such as they are. The sport of pig catching also requires the switching off of empathy because I’m sure the pigs don’t like it, though that may be a personal response, borne of suburbia.
During the contamination experiment with the outside cow Lon is kicked in the head and is knocked out. He throws up. We now know that this can be a sign of brain damage. Hud doesn’t think Lon needs the doctor, though Alma does.
The pig fight foreshadows the brawl Hud enjoys getting into with the man in the bar. The men here are reduced to fighting pigs, fighting over nothing of consequence. Indeed, the men are set up to win. The pigs have no chance.
Lonny exchanges glances with a man’s daughter and enjoys the thrill of the subsequent barroom brawl as much as Hud does. At this point the nephew could swing either way, morally. On the cusp of manhood, he could let go of principles like Hud or he could hold onto them, like his grandfather. Even at this late point, we’re not sure what Lonnie’s going to do.
The main big struggle, the third one of the night, is the one that Hud finally loses. This ghost of Hud’s guilt at killing his own brother is used as a big reveal, though it’s basically been telegraphed earlier when Homer tells the boys to be careful and Hud hands Lonnie the keys. Hud learns that the grandfather was sick of him a long time before the car accident. It’s Hud, as a person, because he ‘doesn’t give a damn’, not because of something he did. This is the rule of threes in storytelling at work. The third big big struggle leads to the real wound. Compared to these words, the fisticuffs was just play fighting. The ironic distance between the level of physicality and the quietness of the conversation on the stairs works well as juxtaposition.
The extrapolated ending? We’ve been given enough information to know he’s going to get rich drilling into oil on their land. He will be wealthy but completely alone for the rest of his sorry life, damaged from the car accident, from the war, from toxic smalltown masculinity, from rejection from his father, from the death of his mother (“at least my mother loved me”) and rejection from his nephew protege.
The film uses the symbolism of doors and windows — Hud gazes at his nephew driving away, chuffing a smoke and swigging on a beer. These vices will probably play an increasing role in his life. He waves dismissively and slams the door, slamming not just the door but also punctuating the relationship he had with anyone.
When iconic Australian film critics Margaret and David reviewed the 2010 film True Grit they did enjoy it, but couldn’t see the point of a remake. The 1969 original stood the test of time, so they said. That’s what made me watch the original. Turns out the 1969 film is benign enough to watch with my cowboy-loving primary school aged daughter, who loves it to bits.
The two versions are very similar in plot. Any difference is mainly in tone.
The Coen Brothers also modernised Charles Portis’ novel by turning it into a mumblecore, which I understand better with subtitles, but the 1969 actors were stage trained, and speak with clear enunciation. Again, better for kids.
The novel is a first-person narrative recounted by a one-armed old maid. The Coen Brothers adaptation is more faithful to this dark detail, depicting Mattie at the end with no arm. The 1969 film ends with Mattie’s arm in a sling. For all we know, she’s going to fully recover, limbs intact.
What can storytellers learn from True Grit?
Genre Blend of True Grit
Listed on IMDb as Adventure, Drama, Western.
The Western is itself a blend of genres, using the American West of the 1800s as a setting.
The Coen Brothers remake is not a western at all. It is simply set in the West. At best, True Grit is an anti-western. In 1969, True Grit was widely thought to be a parody of a western. It depends on your definition. Are you talking about the setting, the plot or the themes? Setting-wise, it’s a western. Thematically, it’s not a western but a crime story.
If there are 7 basic plots of all Western stories, True Grit can be considered a Revenge Western. Revenge is a form of wish fulfilment. We see it in stories for all audiences, including in stories for children, in which they tend to be super popular. Matilda by Roald Dahl is the ultimate revenge fantasy.
Like almost all stories from the Revenge Western subgenre, the plot involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual. In other words, this is the Western equivalent of a cat-and-mouse story. Some of these Revenge Westerns also include elements from a classic mystery story, though not True Grit. Mattie is so capable that she solves any technical difficulties off-screen. She knows exactly what she wants and exactly who she must see in order to get it.
Revenge stories grip us because of their mythic excess. Another example of a Revenge Western is The Searchers (A John Wayne film from 1956) in which An American Civil War veteran embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches. Ethan and Martin wander over the Southwestern landscape. As we watch them, the audience becomes aware of the depth of the vengeful main character’s alienation from the ‘sivilisation’ once equated with anything feminine. Consider this a kind of gender inverse of Thelma & Louise, in which two women are similarly alienated, then escape from all things masculine.
Linda Williams has said that when a female character (or female duo) lights out to seek vengeance, the audience expects her motivations to be stronger than it might be if she were a man. There’s something alienating about a woman with a gun and a chip on her shoulder. This may have changed in recent decades (for better or for worse) but male viewers were initially alienated by Thelma & Louise while women found it empowering (as a cohort). When writers create stories about women seeking vengeance, they tend to make them true underdogs, whereas we accept men who set out to avenge a villain like a superhero, asking “Well, who needs saving today?”
This can be easily explained, and is beautifully explained by Kate Manne in The Logic of Misogyny. According to Manne’s definition of misogyny (the ‘police force’ which works below the fabric of society to uphold the patriarchal status quo):
women are obligated to give to him, not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than entitled. This is especially the case with respect to characteristically moral goods: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration and nurturing.
Down Girl by Kate Manne, “Eating Her Words”
Since women are expected to feel indebted rather than entitled, revenge is coded unfeminine, and writers (as well as women themselves) must work harder to win approval for stepping outside the norms.
How did the writers achieve sympathy when it comes to Mattie Ross? They basically have her step in as a proxy man. She’s acting on behalf of her dead father. The fact that she’s so young — a girl, really — is a bit ‘man bites dog‘. “Wow, a girl, and so young, out there on the prairie,” we think. I’m reminded of those films from the 1980s with highly precocious talking toddlers—aiming to be interesting as an exhibition in its own right.
WESTERNS AND WAR STORIES
Westerns have a similar structure to a subcategory of war story. As in a war story, the first half deals not with the chase itself but with the preparation for it. The social unit is central to war films, and the social unit is central to True Grit, too, with this odd combo of characters functioning as found family. It takes time to establish these people as a coherent fighting force, which is why so many time is dedicated to it before we see them on the road. When I watched this film again after a few years I had forgotten how much time was dedicated to the preparation.
The Difference Between War Films and Westerns
Westerns are set in frontiers and war films are set at the front. Both are places where colliding forces clash against one another. At the front in war films, large numbers of people follow rigid rules that come from military organisations. At the frontier of the western, there are usually few people, and because they are far away from any organisation’s power, the rules are weak or nonexistent. The emphasis in war films is thus on courage and tests of strength, while in westerns it is on morality and tests of will.
For writing purposes — if you’re in the business of studying plot — True Grit is a crime drama utilising mythic structure, set in the old west.
A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.
A premise is a combination of CHARACTER and PLOT.
A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager [SOME SENSE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS] track down [SOME SENSE OF AN OUTCOME] her father’s murderer [EVENT THAT STARTS THE ACTION] in Indian territory.
The promise in the logline: There will be a chase. The murderer will be confronted face-to-face (we know this because it’s a ‘western’). We have to find out who wins the struggle by watching the film.
Also in the logline: the shortcomings that are ruining the characters’ lives. Rooster Cogburn is drunken and hard-nosed. Mattie Ross is stubborn. The Texas Ranger is not otherwise described. He is a bit-character after all, and sacrificed as sidekick to the main characters.
We’re also given the setting ‘in Indian territory’.
SETTING OF TRUE GRIT
True Grit is set across Arkansas and Oregon in the Old West, or rather the popular imagining of how Arkansas was back in 1878 (which by the way, is the same decade Lonesome Dove is set). Mattie’s father is killed in Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border. The murderer has fled into ‘the federal territories’ to escape the law. The book is set in the middle of winter, which makes the environment super harsh. However, the 1969 movie was filmed in autumn, with beautifully coloured trees. According to An analysis of True Grit from the True Grit Roundtable Podcast these forests don’t exist in that part of America. There may have been practical reasons why the film crew couldn’t/wouldn’t film in a wintry rockies, perhaps to do with John Wayne’s advanced age. In any case, the autumn vistas in the film make the setting a lot more accommodating than they would have actually been.
Perhaps more apparent in the novel, Mattie the old maid extradiegetic narrator is Calvinist — representative of the people who settled in the Ozark hills in the 19th century.
Unlike other major Protestant churches, Jean Calvin stressed equality before God in the sense that people had the right to choose their own priests and by extension their own rulers. This didn’t go down well with a lot of the kings and princes that embraced protestantism as a means to expand their own power base. There’s no pope. Calvinism was about austerity and predestination.
Contrast with Anglicans (the Church of England), who in the beginning were not that different from Catholics apart from their unwillingness to accept the Pope.
Lutherans are followers of Martin Luther. Lutherans are pretty similar to Calvinists, except Luther didn’t reject the Catholic notion of transubstantiation outright, simply modified it. Also, Luther said salvation is independent of merit and worthiness. Anyone can attain salvation through faith. Calvinsalvation is about predestination (a chosen few).
Baptists and Methodists came along later — these are more mystic forms of Christianity. Mormons are different again — more elaborate, strict and centralized.
Mattie’s Presbyterian upbringing (heavily influenced by her Calvinist environs) means she disapproves of Rooster’s drinking, not to mention his lack of religion. She probably has a pretty strong sense of religious entitlement. If she thinks she’s one of the chosen few who deserves salvation, maybe she’s interpreting this scripture to her advantage as she goes about avenging a murder by murdering in her own right.
Mattie was brought up to hate the Republicans of the Reconstruction. This was a new kind of Republican party which came about during the Civil War. They wanted to free slaves and give them the right to vote.
Old Mattie doesn’t know what to think of Al Smith, who is a Democrat like Mattie, but also a Catholic. In fact, he was the first Catholic nominee for President, and he mobilised a lot of Catholic votes, especially from women, who had only recently achieved emancipation (1920) when he ran in 1928. Prostestants feared a Catholic President. They thought the Pope would have too much say in how American ran its business. Protestants were also fans of prohibition at that time, and Catholics tended to be drinkers. Al Smith was anti-prohibition. He lost the presidential election to Calvin Coolidge because of his Catholicism. Or, that really didn’t help. (Calvin Coolidge was named after Jean Calvin, of course.)
Mattie ends up giving Smith the benefit of the doubt because he’s not a Republican at least. Like Al Smith, she uses weaponry to get her way.
Rooster is a veteran of William Quantill’s crew in the Civil War — at this point in America’s history everyone is still living in the shadow of this war. The Quantrill crew was particularly murderous. Rooster Cogburn is thought to be based on a composite of historical characters, but on one in particular.
None of this political stuff comes out in the film adaptation because there’s no wrapper story told in 1923.
In Wild West days it was far more common to see people walking about with missing eyes and limbs and teeth. In modern stories these losses are also symbolic. Rooster’s missing eye is basically the equivalent of the one-legged Long John Silver Mattie is fascinated by Rooster in the same way that Jim Hawkins is fascinated with Long John. Later, of course, Mattie loses one arm, joining her hero in physical imbalance.
POINT OF VIEW
True Grit was published 50 years ago. It first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post, then Simon and Schuster published a hardback edition.
Because the novel is written in first person from the point of view of Mattie, all of the dialogue is theological and out of date. This is deliberate, of course. Charles Portis did not create Mattie herself to be a novelist. But a lot of the dialogue from the book was brought into the movie, and here it doesn’t sound as natural as it should have. Mattie as storyteller has been lost. So the screenwriters should have modified the dialogue of the villains to suit their character. This is something the Coen Brothers did fix really well. The dialogue is much more distinct from character to character.
In narratological terms, Mattie is a homodiegetic, extradiegetic narrator. She is part of the story she tells, but she is telling it as an old lady, which means she’s distanced from it.
The 1969 is attempts to break free from Mattie’s limited point of view but doesn’t quite go far enough. The 2010 adaptation achieves a more omniscient point of view.
She is severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.
The Coen brothers, who remade the film in 2010, likened the character to Alice in Wonderland. Donna Tartt compares her to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in an afterword she wrote for the 2011 paperback edition of the book. She has gone through the looking glass, having left the relatively civilized environs of Dardanelle for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.
And it’s true she has a relentlessness similar to Dorothy, but she doesn’t want to go until after she’s had her vengeance. Mattie is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal — as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who’s perpetually suspicious of others’ motives. She lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom that it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice. […]
Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the creaky humanity that leaks through her Scotchgarded facade — her affection for her game pony, her pal Little Blackie, her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits which include the seemingly random use of “quotation marks” to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie’s dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent — she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.
A key to that voice might be found in Portis’ personal history. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps* during the Korean War, Portis enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; perhaps he saved it up for Mattie.
Picking out ‘the main character’ is not always easy. True Grit is a prime example of a story with two main characters exhibiting the same character traits but in different outworkings. Mattie’s stubbornness is the same as Rooster’s hard-nosed-ness. But one is an old guy tip-toeing along the wrong side of the law, while the other is a young woman who could easily go the same way, but who has been wronged. For now she is on the right side of the law. It feels inevitable that these two characters find one another. They are two sides of the same coin, in the same way a criminal often has the exact same strengths as the detective in a typical crime drama.
By god, she reminds me of me!
The logline posits Mattie as the main character, ‘helped’ by the two men.
Mattie drives the action.
We see Mattie on screen from the first scene to the last. Mattie is our guide into unfamiliar territory. When Mattie watches the hanging in the town square, the audience sees through Mattie’s eyes. We’re as awed as she is.
But it is Rooster who changes the most, because Mattie is an example of The Female Maturity Formula, starting off as a sensible little mother, ending the same way. Rooster learns to care for another human being.
I’m guessing an audience finds Rooster and Mattie equally interesting.
I identify more with Mattie, myself. But she is almost a superhero archetype. Charles Portis is a writer who lists ‘grit’ as a necessary character attribute, but some of his characters acquire grit; others are born with it. Mattie is born with it. She is preternaturally mature, articulate and self-assured. She achieves the almost impossible, joining two world-wise men in an environment overtly hostile to women on a trek through dangerous territory. Mattie’s humanity only becomes apparent during the last third of the film when she gets into a life/death situation and needs to be rescued by the older men. Mattie is not in fact a superhero.
Mattie’s flaw is that she is single-minded, but this is also her strength. Shortcomings are at their most powerful when those same traits function as strengths.
Rooster is a fairly cliched alcoholic. Unlike other alcoholics crated by Charles Portis, Rooster is unable to do his job properly because of it. Here’s what Matt Bird has to say about alcoholism as character flaw:
Flaws need to have an upside, which is why some just don’t work very well. One of the most overused flaws is alcoholism, but it’s not as compelling as some writers think because ther’es very little upside. It’s hard to overcome, but only because it’s a chemical addiction. There’s never any good reason to be an alcoholic. We’ll never identify with a character’s desire to keep drinking destructively.
The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird
The thing is, Portis isn’t using alcoholism as a flaw — Rooster has many others — but as a plot device. It’s because Rooster is drunk that he fails to load Mattie’s gun properly and that’s why it backfires. Otherwise she’d have killed her father’s murderer before the story was over. The misfiring gun keeps the big struggle going for as long as it needs to go for. Rooster’s reliance on the drink also contrasts nicely with Mattie’s up-and-go attitude.
Mattie wants to hunt down the man who killed her father. She wants to see him killed in front of her, and hanged in her own town, in respect of her father’s memory. As Rooster points out, this is a lot to ask. He tells her this at one point, in what’s known as ‘attack by ally’ that what she’s asking might be impossible. Isn’t it enough to see the man dead? Dead is dead. Mattie replies that she wouldn’t be happy with just dead. She is ruthless in her desire to see him hanged in her father’s town.
The ‘Big Bad Monster’ opponent is the guy who killed Mattie’s father. He is horrible. Unpredictable, unsympathetic… a monster for storytelling purposes, who wreaks havoc in every town he visits.
But for a story to work this big bad monster isn’t enough. There needs to be conflict within the group. Rooster makes an excellent opponent for Mattie, as well as an ally. This is similar to the progression of a love story, except that kind of creepiness is never on the table — that’s why Rooster calls Mattie ‘baby sister’. He considers her family, and the audience doesn’t have to worry about the gender issues. The book is much less clear about Mattie’s age. She herself obfuscates it in the retelling, and it feels to the reader that there may be some erotics of abstinence going on, precisely because she doesn’t mention any such feelings for Rooster.
Contrast Rooster with the Texas Ranger who initially sees Mattie as a love interest. Mattie isn’t having any of it. Le Boeuf (pronounced La Beef). The three remain opponents until they learn to rely on each other.
We’re not let in on Mattie’s plans — we see her carrying them out. In stories, characters rarely tackle problems head on, but Mattie is an exceptional character in this regard. This is because she is young and naively optimistic that she can do anything. Her plan eventually fails when she comes face to face with her main opponent by complete accident. No amount of excellent planning can account for this kind of coincidence. In the end, Mattie is literally in a massive hole and she must rely upon others to rescue her. She can’t plan her way out of that.
A series of big struggles, accidentally with the murderer when Mattie slips down a bank towards a river, and then with the other outlaws, culminates in a highly symbolic fall into a snake pit. This scene is less harrowing and drawn out than the one in the novel.
Okay, so in the film there’s no hypodiegetic narrator — just a level zero narrative. In the level zero story, it is Rooster and La Boeuf who have the revelations — first La Boeuf, who learns to respect Mattie despite her being a young woman. Presumably he will transfer this respect to others in his life, except then he dies. Then Rooster softens and learns to call Mattie family. By being nice to someone else he finds that he in fact really likes her, in what’s known in psychology as The Ben Franklin effect.
When Mattie is the storyteller, she has her own anagnorisis in the telling of the story. This is lost in the film, and that’s why it becomes an example of the Female Maturity Formula.
In the film, Mattie tells Rooster she’d like to bury him in her family plot and Rooster agrees to this and says a proper goodbye. We are left with the feeling that Mattie will lead a pretty normal family life from here on in, getting married, having her own children.
In the novel, Rooster gets Mattie to a doctor who saves her life after she is bitten by the rattler, but when she comes to, Rooster is gone. She learns later that he is part of a Wild West show and she goes to see him perform in Memphis. But he dies several stops before Memphis in 1903. She retrieves his body and buries it in her own family’s plot. Mattie has not managed to get married and have her own family, possibly because of the events and trauma of this very story, and because of her conflicted feelings for Rooster.
So the book is more of a love tragedy whereas the 1969 film has a tidy, satisfying ending.
Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.
MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX
Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favourite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.
publisher’s advertising copy
From the advertising copy we see there are orphan and part-orphan child(like) characters: Pax has no parents and Peter has no mother.The father is soon dispatched with, too.As it happens, Peter has no grandmother, either. Women have been removed from this story altogether, possibly because a feminine presence adds tenderness and care, whereas these characters are extremely vulnerable and must find their own family. However, Peter eventually meets a mother replacement, and Pax eventually meets the fox equivalent of a girlfriend. These female characters add to the character growth of the male characters, and a little vice versa as well.
A mean grandfather is left as Peter’s caretaker, leaving plenty of room for Peter to go off on his own adventure.
The toy soldier is symbolic, and features front and centre in chapter one. Toy soldiers juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the awful destruction of war. At the end of the story Peter literally throws the toy away. That’s what he thinks about war.
The basic setting: pre-war — the author aims for universality and doesn’t name a war, though I default to WW2.
We also learn from the advertising copy that this story is a classic example of mythic structure, about a boy going on a journey with a goal in mind, returning home (or to a new home) a changed person. (Or animal.) He will encounter a series of trials and opponents along his way, finding himself in greater and greater danger until he reaches his ultimate big struggle. Then he will have an anagnorisis.
Advertising copy stops before the middle of the book, not giving too much away. More of the structure is revealed as we read:
In the hero’s journey, at about the midpoint the main character really doubles down on their mission (plan + desire). So when Peter overextends himself with exercises at Vola’s, this is that. “It takes a healthy adult four weeks to do what you’re trying to do in one,” Vola tells him. This is evidence of Peter’s extreme determination, almost superhuman.
The big struggle scene features ‘mythical’ creatures, coyotes, who are not anthropomorphised at all.
Peter’s anagnorisis is that he is actually separate from his pet fox, but because of the bond they shared in the past, they will always be together. The problems with the ending are discussed below.
My description of this story structure sounds a little dismissive, but The Hero’s Journey is a structure that has worked for 3000 years, and continues to be popular in contemporary stories for adults and children alike.
SETTING OF PAX
Peter comes from a town called Hampton.
The grandfather’s village is a fairytale village north of Hampton, but a highway snaking around a long range of foothills. It is surrounded by woods. All fairytale settings need woods (or forest) on the edges of civilisation. There’s also a road, and Peter will be guided by a map. Pax has been abandoned 300 miles away beside the ruins of an old rope mill, which I guess is a factory which makes ropes. An olde worlde type establishment. 300 miles is a decent distance to put between the boy and his dog — an adult reader (at least) knows from the outset that 30 miles per day is an impossible undertaking. Peter’s going to have to be resourceful and hitchhike or something, otherwise he’ll never make it.
When Is This Story Set?
Peter has access to items of the early 20th century era: He carries a jack knife, not just uses but is reliant upon maps, and food is kept in tins rather than plastic containers. He has no access to technology that might help a modern child out. Though this is about no war in particular, it should put us in mind of the Great Wars of the 20th century. The technology lines up (mostly) with this era.
Before I realised this was set in no year in particular, I tried to do a few sums: Perhaps this is a WW2 story, and the old fox was around for the first world war. No, that’s not possible. Grey foxes live longer than red foxes, but WW1 ended 1918 and WW2 started 1939. Grey foxes live a maximum of 8 years.
It becomes clearer as the story progresses that Sara Pennypacker wants to set this this story in a ‘universal’ time and place. Though to me, a non American, it feels very American, it may not feel that way to an American audience. The baseball, the (Californian) talk therapy, the American vernacular, which I occasionally even looked up. If an American audience doesn’t see how American this is, expecting it to sound universal to everyone, that would be troubling. An interview with School Library Journal shows that Pennypacker very much meant this to sound like it was set in America:
Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?
I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.
Which is great. I mean, Americans need to hear this particular message about war. But from this outsider’s point of view, this is definitely America.
Whereas ancient mythical journeys often feature real setting magic, the ‘magic’ Pennypacker describes is a feeling rather than a phenomenon:
Peter craned his head to see what [Vola] was making. A handle. She’d brought i a broken hoe, and she was giving it a new handle. A simple thing, and yet it struck him as almost magic. Like his crutches. Before he’d had them, he’d been helpless. Vola had nailed a couple of boards together, and now he could swing over miles of rough country, quick and sure. Magic.
However, Pennypacker does delve into some new age mind-meld stuff, in which Peter feels he can sense how much trouble Pax is in.
“Two but not two. Inseparable. So… a couple of nights ago, I was sure that Pax had eaten. I felt it. Last night, I saw the moon, and I knew Pax was seeing it right then, too.”
CHARACTERS IN PAX
The name Peter has a literary, old-fashioned quality to it e.g. fromPeter and the Wolfand many other fables and fairytales throughout history. Peter is also fairly common as a name for contemporary(ish) boys, linking the old with the new.
Also, Peter is The Every Boy. He is basically a good child, exhibiting all of the qualities we hope children to have. He obeys his father, even though the father is asking him to do something terrible. Peter has no real distinguishing features, and his main shortcoming is naivety and vulnerability owing to basically being abandoned.
The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.
We are shown Peter’s caring nature from chapter one, when he shows emotion at having to send his beloved pet fox back into the wild. Though he is crying, this is a rare thing for him, showing that although he is emotional, nor is he a ‘crybaby’. He cries softly and silently, which is an acceptable way for children (and especially boys) to cry, especially in the early part of last century. I argue that Peter is a good role model for caring about others and expressing emotion, which makes this male plot structure feel more feminine once you delve into it.
Peter is also an optimist — a naive optimist — thinking that Pax will be waiting right where they left him, and also that he can walk 300 miles in a week. At the other end of the journey, Peter plans to stay in his old home alone, with no one at all to provide food for the duration of the war. This plan is Peter’s psychological shortcoming, which has an adorable flip side.
Poetic Naming Conventions
Because Peter starts with the letter P, it’s fitting that his ‘spirit animal’ also begins with P. This symbolically links the two characters. Katherine Mansfield also does that in her short story The Garden Party, in which a family is divided by personality, and the characters who are similar in name are also similar in temperament. This is one of those literary conventions which doesn’t carry over into real life, but helps us to understand the character web in a story.
Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable?
They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter Had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged.
Like the fox, Peter is also in touch with his full range of senses, including smell. He is impacted by the smell of his horrible grandfather’s kitchen, for instance, which ‘reeks strongly of fried onions’ and which Peter ‘figured the smell would outlive his grandfather’. He also makes good use of his ears, knowing what his grandfather is up to on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He is intuitive, knowing to stay out of the grandfather’s way. In all these ways, Peter is the human version of a fox. He thinks of his anxiety like a snake, linking him further to the animal kingdom.
Peter’s motivation to find Pax is influenced by memory of a baby rabbit killed in his yard after a trap was set up. Rabbits were eating his mother’s tulips. This dead rabbit had a huge effect on him, and though the dead mother seems at first glance like the bigger ‘ghost’/’wound‘, sometimes it’s more minor things that have a greater impact. The death of the baby rabbit to save something like tulips had a huge effect on Peter. The mother’s death, too, is obviously significant in causing Peter to fear death, and especially the death of the fox. But by transferring the death scene from the mother to that baby rabbit, Pennypacker avoids hitting child readers over the head with something completely and utterly maudlin. This is transferred grieving. (For more on this see Death In Children’s Literature.)
(Even the minor characters have their own ghosts — Bristle has a dead sister, for instance, briefly mentioned, but an explanation for why she is so cautious in general.)
In the end it is Peter’s wooden crutch that saves Pax from the coyotes. What’s the symbolism there? Perhaps it’s that loving another creature is a shortcoming, but even if love is a shortcoming, it still conquers all. It was a loving act to let Pax go, taking in a creature with greater needs.
When animals feature in children’s books, the author must decide the extent of anthropomorphism. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a little girl in a pig’s body. There’s nothing pig-like about her. At the other end of the continuum you have animals who are literally just animals — donkeys eating grass in fields. Then there’s everything in between.
The huge advantage to using a canine creature as a character is the author has good reason to make heavy use of the sense of smell, in a way not usually explored by authors writing about humans (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is a notable exception, though the heavy emphasis on smell serves to turn the human character into an animal monster.) In Pax, Sara Pennypacker does an excellent job of describing scent, in a synesthesic kind of way, melding scent with emotions and sights and sounds.
We learn in the first chapter that Pax’s main characteristic is ‘loyal’. This is basically a Boy and His Dog story, even though the dog is actually a fox. Foxes are wild creatures and tend to fear humans, but there are examples of some foxes bonding to humans. If they do bond, they tend to bond to human singular rather than to humans in general, which marks them as different from fully domesticated dogs, who will bond to humans in general so long as they’re properly socialised. Knowing this, it’s clear from the first chapter that Pax has bonded to Peter better than he bonded to the father. This explains why it is easier for the father to let the fox go.
Pax doesn’t talk in words, but he thinks in words. His emotions are every bit as complex as Peter’s emotions. Because Pax is abandoned in the first chapter, the reader immediately feels strong empathy for him. Because Pax doesn’t understand the world, Pennypacker describes objects rather than giving them words. This achieves two things: Pax’s naive voice, and allows the reader to work out a small puzzle What is the blue triangle? A bird. What is the long pole? A rifle (maybe). This puts the reader in reader superior position — a form of dramatic irony. When the reader knows there’s a boy with a rifle we are scared for Pax even though Pax isn’t yet scared for himself.
Pax is (almost literally) an ‘underdog‘. If only he’d been an actual dog, like Peter’s father’s beloved childhood Border Collie, then he’d be allowed to stay with his boy.
It emerges during Peter’s discussion with Vola that Pax as an ironic, symbolic name — Pax means peace (in Latin), yet this is a time of war.
The father is not a nasty character, especially when juxtaposed against his own father, who is more of a fairytale villain who emotionally, if not literally, locks his grandson inside his bedroom and provides zero emotional warmth. The father actually does what any reasonable father would do — with good intentions, he wants to return the fox to the wild, where he belongs. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing to do — modern thinking has it that wild creatures do belong in the wild. But Sara Pennypacker has picked a good moral dilemma — once a wild creature has been tamed, should we then return it to the wild, or are we obliged to keep looking after it?
This is a useful trick for writing parents in children’s literature. Quite often, parents are not ill-intentioned, but they are the opponent nonetheless, because their practical-mindedness abuts the emotional choices of the child character. When the moral dilemma genuinely has two sides to it, like this does, it’s all the more interesting.
Meanwhile, Pax comes across a vixen who eyes him suspiciously. Pennypacker (ostensibly Pax) soon gives her a name — Bristle — descriptive of both her hair and her approach to him. Is this a bicker-bicker-kiss-kiss romantic subplot? I wonder this because Bristle is described as ‘bright-furred’ and ‘exotic’, the animal equivalent of commentary on a woman’s sexual appeal. She lets him stay the night, but only one night. In the morning there is a post-coital scene (MG literary animal equivalent thereof) when Pax squirms ‘in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his’. It is therefore funny when Pax wakes up more fully and realises he’s nestled up with the vixen’s brother. ‘Pax pulled himself up sharply’. He was obviously expecting the female fox.
Then her runty brother appears, contrasting in playfulness with her ice-queen demeanour. The Female Maturity Principle kicks in as Bristle cautions Runt on the correct way of behaving around strangers.
Bristle eventually becomes Pax’s mentor, showing him how to hunt. She mirrors the character of Vola in Peter’s journey. Except this one has a romantic component — cheek to cheek they groom each other. I might interpret this as friendship, except you’d never get two male characters sitting like this in a children’s book.
Locals Suspicious Of This Outsider
The setting is peopled with thumbnail characters who exist to show Peter how much of an outsider he is.
First, Peter meets a shop owner who is suspicious of him for not being in school. A woman stares at him and he realises how unkempt he looks.
Later, Peter gazes through a fence (Jon Klassen’s addition) at a boy playing baseball, which brings back all sorts of memories. Peter has visited a therapist, which surprises me a little because I didn’t know the history of therapy was that long in America. Where I come from (New Zealand) therapy was (unfortunately) unknown during the war era. Pennypacker does what a lot of writers do when depicting therapists — apparently this therapist always has the stock standard response. Is this because writers don’t actually know what therapists would say in any given situation? Or is this how it feels to everyone visiting a therapist? That you’re being nodded at? I can’t answer that, but I’m reminded of the recent Liane Moriarty novel/limited TV series Big Little Lies, in which therapists said, “Finally! A realistic fictional depiction of therapy!”
In any case, Peter has a short interaction with a hostile boy who doesn’t like this outsider.
Pax meets an older male fox whose territory he has inadvertently entered. For all her outward hostility, Bristle has warned Pax about him. Pax calls him Grey. But it turns out this old grey wolf isn’t scary for Pax. (Disturbingly, and off the page, why is Grey scary for Bristle?) Grey turns out to be a false opponent. There’s almost some magical realism — it turns out the crows give messages to this old grey wolf. This is how the author lets us know that war is coming in from the west. This old fox spouts environmentalist messages about the destruction of humankind. It’s mostly an anti-war message.
Peter is confronted by a woman whose barn he is sleeping in. More realistically (not narratively) an adult is far more likely to be kind to a vagrant child they find sleeping in their barn, but this is a mythical journey. This kind of hostile woman plays right into a child’s fears that if they were to go out into the world, every single adult they meet would be the worst examples of human kind. At first meeting, Vola has an inhuman, monstrous quality to her, partly evoked by the wooden leg. However, she does turn into a false opponent-ally, much as the fox has just met. The journeys mirror each other. She helps him with his foot — she happens to have medical knowledge. Like the old grey wolf, this woman has a message about how terrible it is, drafting young people into wars. There are even crows in this scene as there were in Pax’s — their journeys mirror each other’s exactly. Later, Vola turns into a fairy tale witch, offering Peter the tonic with willow bark to act as aspirin. The ‘green paste’ reminds us of witches, too, which is a trope that started with the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. (Before that, they were usually red or orange.)
Eventually, though, Vola is ultimately Peter’s mentor. In a traditional mythic tale, this mentor character is male. Vola is female but apart from plying him with constant food, Vola has masculine traits — her tough attitude, her tool shed. She is a Mr Miyagi character, setting Peter a series of challenges (conditions for staying) to help him grow both spiritually and in skill. Pennypacker isn’t the least subtle about this function for Vola:
“I would have been a good teacher.”
She was right about that. He thought about hwo easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a bit deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.
In the initial scene with Vola, Pennypacker shows us an interesting trick MG writers do to first amp up the danger of a situation, then defuse it completely. Peter has thought that Vola might kill him. But then Vola explains that the bladed tools are for wood carving. Vola even lampshades the biases the reader shares along with Peter (since we’re seeing her through Peter’s close third person point of view). There needs to be a name for this — kind of like Chekhov’s gun but a gun which turns out to be a toy gun. Let’s call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.
In narrative it is dangerous to be a hero’s best friend/sidekick. Grey gets attacked in place of Pax, which would be too hard for readers to bear (tragedy layered upon tragedy) and would also break an unwritten rule of mythic storytelling. The hero doesn’t die at the midpoint of the story. Not normally. When G.R.R. Martin wrote The Red Wedding, he shocked the audience because he was breaking some established norms.
Next Runt dies. These deaths signify just how close to death Pax is himself. At this point I am starting to predict the ending: Clues point to a reuniting at the end, but I’m guessing Pax will be injured. That would symbolise how they’ve both been damaged by this experience and will never be the same again.
I was so lost, I needed to find out all the true things about myself. The little things to the biggest of all: what did I believe in at my core?
Pennypacker uses the wisdom of children to even up this relationship a little. Vola doesn’t just teach Peter about resilience — Peter challenges Vola for failing to reintegrate into society after coming back from a harrowing war in which she killed a man (Vola’s big ghost). This is a scene you’ll see in Hollywood movies too: the part where friends have an argument in front of the audience, to let the audience in on each of their motivations.
Vola eventually explains that she is part Haitian, part Italian (though if you’d looked up her favourite curse word already you’ve already worked that one out). Her name Vola is Italian for ‘fly’. The trope of comparing women to birds has a long history in literature, though the adult Vola is somewhat unbirdlike — strong and grounded and therefore an ironic moniker. She also doesn’t know how to ‘fly’ — stuck in her cabin with PTSD. For more on the symbolism of flight in literature, see here.
When they get to town, Pennypacker is very obvious about what their outing means for Vola’s character development:
[Peter] looked behind him at the four crude pine creates the marionettes were packed in, strapped to the back. Peter hoped they didn’t remind Vola of coffins. Her amazing puppets were going to live now. Really live, out in the real world, not just exist to perform as some kind of penance.
This is Pennypacker talking about Vola, using her puppets as proxy.
The coyotes are the mythical monster, not at all anthropomorphised — the evil that descends upon a village threatening friend and foe alike. The coyotes are used for the big big struggle scene in which Peter reunites with Pax.
Other Obstacles Met Along The Journey
Opponents aren’t always human — in a mythical journey a lot of them will be environmental and plain bad luck.
The fact that Peter forgot to pack a torch and can’t see in the dark
Blisters on his heels
Stepping in cold swamp water because he doesn’t want to risk turning on the torch (an obstacle also used by R.L. Stine in How I Got My Shrunken Head)
A broken bone in his foot
a thunderstorm (this is beautifully written)
lack of drinking water
lack of food
war — the road where he needs to wait has been blocked by war vehicles
IDEOLOGY OF PAX
In Love, Two Characters Become One
The bond between a boy and his canine pet cannot be broken, under any circumstance. A boy’s dog/fox is like the flipside of himself — like a spirit animal — and this bond can be so strong that they are basically the same being. Pennypacker emphasises this time and again, with a near-magical telepathy between Peter and Pax. When Peter confides this telepathy to Vola she doesn’t laugh at him — she congratulates him, telling him how lucky he is. So one message in this story is that if you love someone a real lot, you meld into the same creature. That is true love. This makes Pax a love story, not much different from love stories for adults between two humans.
(Note that love is different from romance.)
War Is Terrible
This runs throughout the book and is not at all novel as an idea in literature. It is the only idea about war running through modern Western literature.
You’re In Charge Of Your Own Destiny
Pennypacker makes use of the symbolism of miniatures with the scenes about the marionette and other puppetry. This is using Peter as god, putting him in charge of his own destiny, which is the reason Vola made him do this task in the first place — he needs to learn to ‘take control of his own life’ rather than letting things happen to him.
Each Person Has A True Self
And it’s just a matter of finding it. This juxtaposes against another psychological theory in which humans are a product of their environment. Rather than there being a ‘one true self’, there are multiple versions of the self. We change according to circumstance, and we change a lot more over the course of our lifetimes than we realise, moulded by our particular circumstances. This latter view is the more popular in modern psychology, but literary, classic-sounding children’s books such as this one are more inclined to stick with the older view.
Take a look at any Goosebumps novel and you’ll see each chapter ends in an obvious cliffhanger. In a literary novel like this one, the cliffhangers are not so obvious but they’re there all the same, making the reader anxious for the characters’ safety. For instance, Chapter 31 ends with the non-climactic sounding ‘He turned back for the clearing’. But the reader knows that Pax is in danger of being shot even though Pax doesn’t realise this himself. The cliffhanger is there but more subtle. And it requires a little work on the part of the reader.
I was slightly wrong about the ending — Pax himself is physically well — it’s his replacement, Bristle, who has the big bleeding gash and the missing leg.
Which leads to another ideological concern, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:
[I WANTED PETER TO GET HIS FREAKING FOX BACK. But no. He decides Pax is better off in the wild and instead Peter takes home Runt to care for him since Runt got his back legs blown off. But I. am. so. mad. It’s like saying that a bond between pet-and-human is replaceable. WHEN IT’S NOT. I would lose a piece of my soul if my precious pup died or got lost or just wasn’t there for me anymore. So all I can think of is losing my dog as Peter lost Pax for the 2nd time at the end of the book. AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It wasn’t one of those “bittersweet” endings. It downright BROKE ME and I’m not okay. Sure Pax didn’t die (small miracles) but he kind of died in my heart and I don’t I don’t I don’t like this. I FEEL LIKE CRYING.
There are many picture books in which a dog dies and the story ends with a kid getting a new one. These are not considered the best of the best of the Dead Dog books. I’m not sure why the same ending is so well accepted in this case. Perhaps because Pennypacker isn’t obvious about what happened. At first I wondered which dog was which. Or perhaps we accept this story because in general it’s very well written.
Here’s Sara Pennypacker talking to School Library Journal about writing the ending. As in many children’s books, mirroring the end with the beginning affords readers a sense of closure. Bear in mind, there are two types of closure.
It does something else, too — it gives some circularity to what is otherwise a very linear story. This boy is going to bond with this other animal and the cycle will continue, over and over, throughout the ages.
The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.