My BA Honours thesis – The hybrid world of J R R Tolkien’s fiction: a study of The Lord of the Rings and other texts in the light of Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay ‘Epic and Novel’. – is published under this Category.

Here is a Link to the Thesis page, which can also be found under THESES in the drop-down Menu.

I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to comment.

Jud House  30/12/2012

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Angela Carter claimed that heroic optimism was an important element in fairy stories, the principle which sustained the idea of a happy ending whatever the odds.  The ability of the hero/heroine (protagonist) to remain hopeful while enduring their respective trials and torments impels the reader to continue to hope that the inevitable resolution will be a happy one.  In most fairy-tales the happy ending is an essential consequence of the journey, actual and physical, of the protagonist through the tale.  Natalie Babbitt defined ‘The Happy Ending’ as:

something which goes much deeper [than a simple ‘happily ever after’], something which turns a story ultimately toward hope rather than resignation…” (Babbitt in Haviland, (1973) p. 158)

As a result of this hope, Babbitt said that

Wilbur can escape an early death, Cinderella can be Queen, Bilbo can outwit the dragon, and the ugly duckling can become a swan.  Not without pain, not without violence, not without grief; but in the end, somehow, everything will always by all right.” (Ibid, p. 159)

Apart from a few exceptional tales, the storyteller’s audience (usually young girls), and the text’s readers, are able to anticipate, while enduring the hardships as the protagonist goes through them, the resolution of these difficulties in a positive and happy way – in other words a consolation, for all participants, for the rigours thus endured.  Tolkien refers to:

[this] consolation of fairy stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe [eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or fugitive’.  In its fairy-tale – or otherworld-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of the dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (Tolkien, (1964) p. 60; (1992) p. 175)

The notion that “this joy is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’ “ leads us back to his idea that the world of ‘faerie’ is ‘otherworld’, or of a secondary world of the author’s devising.  The fact that the reader suspends belief in the real world to enter this secondary world does not mean that he/she is running away from the former.  After all, upon reaching the conclusion (hopeful happy ending) of the ‘otherworld’ story, the real world must be re-entered.  The fact that the reader does so, armed with hope and joy, is a bonus, an advantage for him/her to help deal with the problems encountered there.  As Tolkien was a highly religious man, he saw this joy linked to the joy of holy miracles, of faith and belief in the after-life, and the joy he believed would be the reward when finally united with God in Heaven – thus his use of the word ‘evangelium’.

Tolkien added:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give the child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (Tolkien, (1992) p. 175 – 176)

I have personally experienced this ‘turn’ when reading Tolkien’s own works – a little for THE HOBBIT but many times, very strongly for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  It is a tangible ‘turn’, which no doubt young readers of fairy-tales would experience.  My belief that Tolkien is the ultimate authority on fairy-stories was backed up by my research – most reference material I studied quoted the above statement by Tolkien, in part or in full, to illustrate and support their particular theories.

In my selected fairy tales: DONKEY-SKIN (H/O), THE SIX SWANS (H/O), and PRINCE AMILEC (Zipes, pp 48 – 54), there was a point in each story when a joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred – when the story moved from trials and sorrow to happiness and reward for the protagonists.

In DONKEY SKIN, by Perrault, the princess first had to go through the sorrow of leaving her home to escape the incestuous attentions of her father; the trials of  wearing the donkey-skin and toiling as a scullion in the kitchen of a farmhouse; and the derision and harassment from the servants; before being eligible for the joy and glory of winning her prince.  Of course she required the assistance of her fairy godmother to achieve her escape from home, and the acquisition, not only of the three beautiful gowns (the colour of the sky, the moon, and the sun), but also of the donkey-skin, with which she disguised herself.

Throughout her trials Donkey-Skin did not give up hope of deliverance from her menial situation.  This was evident by her ritual cleansing and dressing in her gowns on Sundays, and when having seen the prince from a distance

[she] admired him with a tender look.  Thanks to her courage, she realized that she still had the heart of a princess beneath her dirt and rags. ( Ibid, p. 71)

This equates with heroic oprimism – appearing to propel the tale towards its happy ending.

I believe that there were several places in the text where the joyous ‘turn’ of events occurred.  The first was when the prince saw Donkey-Skin, dressed in all her finery, through the key-hole.

[T]he prince kept peeking at her, scarcely breathing because he was filled with such pleasure. …. Three times he was on the verge of entering her room because of the ardor that over-whelmed him, but three times he refrained out of respect for the seemingly divine creature he was beholding. (Zipes, (1989) p. 71)

While this was a joyous event for the prince, the reader knows that it was also a turning point in the tale for Donkey-Skin.  The next joyous event occurred when Donkey-Skin put the ring on her finger, dressed in her finest gown, and entered the court.  Once again the tale focussed on her beautiful gown, her physical beauty and her majestic bearing, and on the reactions of the courtisans, King, Queen and prince rather than on the princess’s happiness (which the reader is left to assume).  Finally, at the wedding, the bride’s father,

who had purified the criminal and odious fires that had ignited his spirit in the past, [and] the flame that was left in his soul had been transformed into devoted paternal love, (Ibid, p. 74)

also had a joyous moment when reunited with his daughter.  “Weeping with joy, he embraced her tenderly.” (Ibid, p. 74)  Once again everyone shared his moment, even the fairy godmother, who “told the entire story … [which] culminated in Donkey-Skin’s glory.” (Ibid, p. 74)  However, I believe that Perrault deflated the joy of the happy ending by his over-abundance of moralizing.

In THE SIX SWANS, by the Grimm brothers, the sister of the swan-brothers undertook a difficult task in order to free them from their step-mother’s spell.  Her brothers told her that, to achieve this:

For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of starwort for us.  If one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost. (Grimm, (1975) p. 234)

It was considered a trial indeed for a female (that loquacious creature) not to speak or laugh.  It also meant that Donkey-Skin had no means of either explaining her identity to the King, or defending herself against the false accusations of her mother-in-law.  She suffered sorrow at the separation from her father and her brothers, and grief at the loss of her babies.  Our hope is kept alive by the King’s defence of his wife:

She is too pious and good to do anything of that kind; if she were not dumb, and could defend herself, her innocence would come to light. (Ibid, p. 236)

But it is dashed again when even he had to deliver her to justice, after the disappearance of the third baby.

In this tale we are given concrete evidence of her joy, the ‘turn’ occurring as she stood at the stake with the shirts over her arm.

S]he looked around and six swans came flying through the air towards her.  Then she saw that her deliverance was near, and her heart leapt with joy.” (Ibid, p. 236)

The reader moves with her from this point onwards as she freed her brothers, who embraced her, then finally was able ot speak for herself.  Her children were returned to her, the wicked mother-in-law was punished, and the happy ending was completed with the final sentence:

[T]he King and Queen with her six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.” (Ibid, p. 237)

In  PRINCE AMILEC by Tanith Lee, it was the hero, Amilec, who had to undertake difficult tasks in order to win his chosen princess.  From the outset the character of this princess is exposed to the reader, but not to Amilec, who fell in love with her portrait.  He was blind to her rudeness, to the page’s warning that she was frightful and that he should go home, and was determined to attempt the tasks no matter how impossible they seemed.  However, upon succeeding to fulfill them, with the aid of a pretty witch and her bat, Basil, encountered not the princess’s love and gratitude, but a royal tantrum.

The reader has recognized almost immediately that the witch is far more suitable a bride for Amilec, and must wait in frustration until the ‘turn’ occurs, when he will realize this for himself.  Hope is raised when the princess demanded a wedding dress:

By this time Amilec was getting a bit fed up with her tantrums, but he thought that, of all her demands, this was the most reasonable.  ( Zipes, (1986) p. 53)

When the witch delivered the dress, wearing it to display its beauty, he was stunned – ‘the scales fell from his eyes’.  In front of the court he declared:

“How can I have been so blind!  You are the most beautiful girl I have ever met.  You are also the kindest.  May I humbly ask you to be my wife?  I promise to look after Basil, and I’ll live in the cave, if it will make things easier.”  (Ibid, p. 54)

To say that the hero was optomistic in this tale would be untrue.  However, he was determined, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, to persist till the end.  Having formed an alliance with the witch, who completed his task for him, he was able to face each subsequent task more hopefully, looking after Basil and collecting seaweed while she did so.  Thus, the hope of the happy ending was sustained throughout the tale.

The joy of the happy ending is not as remote from the reader in this tale, due to the involvement of that reader throughout the tale.  Not only did Amilec and the witch live happily ever after, but the princess was happily allowed to travel, leading the story to begin its cycle once again.  The reader knows that she also will suceed, if the tale follows it pattern truly.

In conclusion, I reiterate that the hope held by the protagonist of the tale, prepares the way for the happy ending, and is an essential component of the fairy tale, whether the trials be insignificant or enormous.  Tales that have no joyous ‘turn’, no happy ending, are unsatisfying, providing no consolation for the reader.  As Tolkien said, in his ‘Epilogue’ to ON FAIRY-STORIES:

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy [fairy-stories] can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.  It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but  a satisfaction, an answer to [that truth].” (Tolkien, (1992) p. 178)

(C) Jud House  28/08/2005


Babbitt, N. (1970)  “Happy Endings?  Of Course, and Also Joy.’  in Haviland, V. Editor 1973)  CHILDREN  AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Buchan, J. (1931)  ‘The Novel and the Fairy Tale’.  in Haviland, V. Editor (1973)CHILDREN AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Butler, F. Editor. (1975)  CHILDREN’S LITERATURE VOL 4.  Philadelphia:  Temple  University Press.

Gilbert, R. (1990)  ‘Endings’  in  MEANJIN  Vol. 49 (1990)

Haviland, V.  Editor. (1973)   ‘Folk Literature and Fantasy’  in  CHILDREN AND LITERATURE  Views and Reviews.  London:  The Bodley Head Ltd.

Le Guin, Ursula. (19   )  ‘This Fear of Dragons’  in  THE THORNY PARADISE: Writers on Writing for Children.  Blishen, E. Editor.  Harmondsworth, UK: Kestrel Books

Lewis, C.S.  (1952)  ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’  in  BOURNEMOUTH CONFERENCE PAPERS AND DISCUSSION.  Library Association Proceedings.

Liberman, Anatoly. (1985)  ‘Between Myth and the Wondertale.’  in  MYTH IN LITERA-TURE. Kodjak, A., Pomorska, K., Rudy,S. Editors.  Columbia, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc.

Kegan, Paul  Editor.  (1975)  ‘The Six Swans.’  from  THE COMPLETE GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES.  London:  Routledge. (H/O)

Perrault, Charles. ‘Donkey-Skin.’  from Zipes, J. Editor (1989) BEAUTIES, BEASTS AND ENCHANTMENT.  Meridian:  Penguin.

Philip, Neil. (1989)  THE CINDERELLA STORY; The Origins and Variations of the Story known as Cinderella.   Penguin Books Ltd.

Shavit, Z. (1986)  ‘The Notion of Childhood and Texts for the Child.’  in  POETICS OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.  Athens & London: University of Georgia Press.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  (1964)  ON FAIRY-STORIES.  in  POEMS AND STORIES.  Williamson  F.R. & Tolkien C.R. Editors.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers (1992)

Yolen, Jane. Editor. (1986)  FAVOURITE FOLKTALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.  Pantheon.

Zipes, Jack. Editor. (1993)  DON’T BET ON THE PRINCE; Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England.  U.K.: Scolar Press

Zipes, Jack. (1983)  FAIRY TALES AND THE ART OF SUBVERSION.  London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Zipes, Jack.  (19  )  ‘On the Use and Abuse of Folk and Fairy Tales with Children.’  in BREAKING THE MAGIC SPELL: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.  H/O London: Heinemann.

Zipes, Jack. (1986)  ‘Fairy Tale as Myth  Myth as Fairy Tale.’  in  THE BROTHERS GRIMM:  FROM ENCHANTED FORESTS TO THE MODERN WORLD.  New York  & London: Routledge.

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In literature Psychoanalysis deals with the psycho-sexual, the unconscious instinctual tendencies (id) of both writers and their characters, the recognition of the repressed desires, the dreams, and the uncanny relating to them, and the use of the language of nature to symbolise these emotive traits.  Marxism is concerned with the socio-economic backgrounds and references, and the ideological influences on the writers and their characters within the texts.  Both theories are concerned with the relevant experiences of the readers through which they interpret the texts.

According to Selden Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism began with Sigmund Freud’s view that:

the relationship between author and text [was] analogous to dreamers and their ‘text’ (literature = ‘fantasy’); [was] modified by Post-Freudians . . . in a psychoanalytic reader-response criticism . . . ; contested by Karl Yung’s ‘archetypal’ criticism [where] . . . the literary work is . . . a representation of the relationship between the personal and the collective unconscious, the images, myths, symbols, ‘archetypes’ of past cultures; [and recently] . . . .remodelled in the context of poststructuralism by . . . Jacques Lacan and his followers [with] . . .the coupling of a dynamic notion of ‘desire’ with a model of structural linguistics.  Selden

(1993, pp. 136 & 137)

According to David Forgacs:

Marxism is a theory of economics, history, society and revolution . . . all Marxist theories of literature have a simple premise in common: that literature can only be properly understood within a larger framework of social reality. Forgacs, pp. 134 & 135)

He also believes that literature should not be treated or kept in isolation, divorced from society and history.  He adds:

For Marxists, social reality is not an indistinct background out of which literature emerges or into which it blends.  It has definite shape . . . found in history, . . . as a series of struggles between antagonistic social classes and the types of economic production they engage in.” (Forgacs, p 135)

Both Psychoanalysis and Marxism act as a nature/culture binary – ‘nature’ representing metaphorically the subconscious desires, the socially repressed elements of the characters’ natures – ‘culture’  comprising the social class structure, with its historical time-frame, and the revolutionary changes occurring as a result of the power relationships between the classes.

The concept of subject is not as straightforward as one would expect.  The subject syntactically is that which acts upon the object, while in literature is the topic/matter at the heart of the text.  The idea, ‘I think therefore I am’, “proposes a zero-degree picture of the subject: completely independent, completely unified.” (Saunders (1993) p. 99)  However, the completely unified subject can be seen to be environmentally and politically determined, while the notion of complete unity is undermined by the psychologically internal complexity of the subject.


the subject is understood to be constituted by both conscious and unconscious desires and intentions: if you like, there is more to ‘I am’ than the controlled rationality of ‘I think’.  The result is a self which is not unified, but made up of competing factions[.] . . . . Freud’s own techniques of analysis of [the subject’s] dreams . . . goes beyond intention and unity, and looks instead at the fractured, the repressed, the displaced, and the unconsciously symbolic. (ibid, (1993) p. 100)

When the subject is seen through the eyes of Lacan and Kristeva, it is fractured and dispersed, “displaced by a post-modern economy of floating, disconnected desires and sensations.” (ibid, p. 100).

The concept of ‘subject’ can be seen not only in terms of ‘other (that which it is not), and ‘gaps/silences’ (that which is not explained), but also in terms of the psychoanalytical and the socio-economic/ideological.  The ‘subject’ of JANE EYRE (a Bildungsroman novel of formation) is Jane herself, and, as she is the narrator, we are able to see her life unfolding with the socio-economic influences, conscious thoughts, and unconscious desires contributing to her character development.

In the first chapter the distinction between Jane’s position and John Reed’s position in the household is graphically drawn – John is wealthy, arrogant, cruel, and selfish (the latter three being a result of the first), while Jane is poor, dependent (on the Reed family), ‘habitually obedient’ yet stirred to rebellion by the injustice of her treatment.  The Reed sisters are selfish indulged, and indifferent to Jane’s situation while resentful of her presence.  Mrs Reed is tyrannical, unfeeling, jealous (of Jane’s place in her late husband’s affections), and resentful of the burden of caring for Jane.

The upper class or Bourgeoisie, which the Reeds represent, are paradoxically shown to be uncharitable, unkind and unpleasant, yet because of the power they possess as a result of having affluence, as a desirable class to belong to and/or attain.  Jane’s portrayal of others of the same privileged class is on the whole equally unflattering.  Brocklehurst is depicted as hypocritical (has a puritanical expectation of how POOR young girls should behave and dress, while his own daughters are permitted to dress frivolously and behave ill-manneredly), stern, cold and uncharitable (witness the burnt porridge episode).  The Ingram family are haughty, overbearing, caught up in their own esteem, and once again ill-mannered.  Even Rochester Jane shows to be selfish, overbearing, arrogant and oblivious to those beneath him unless directly affected by them.

Jane, however, has virtually no status – she is ‘less than a servant’ in the eyes of all, including the servants.  By birth she is the Reeds’ social equal, yet her impecunious state dis-empowers her.  Ideologically she must learn to conform, to control her passionate nature (repress the id), in order to attain her economic independence and subsequent rise through the class system, while refusing to allow her own victimisation.  By learning to say no to John Reed she learns the power “of resistance against oppression and . . . of self-confirmation, asserting the right to value her well-being above the demands made by others.” (Nestor, p. 51).

Various levels of class are portrayed by Jane – from the moneyed Bourgeoisie (property owners) like the Reeds, Brocklehurst, Rochester, Mr Oliver “the proprietor of a needle-factory and iron-foundry” (Bronte, (1976) p. 381); to the poor ‘gentry’ who needed to earn a living like Miss Temple, Mrs Fairfax, and Diana Mary and St. John Rivers; to the servant/working class people like Bessie, Abbot, Hannah, Grace Poole; and finally to the peasant class children in the Moreton School, whom Jane describes as “heavy-looking, gaping rustics”, “farmers’ daughters”, “rustic Scholars”, and at the end of her time there of “some half-dozen of my best scholars: as decent, respectable, modest, and well-informed young women as could be found in the ranks of the British peasantry.” (Bronte, (1976) pp. 392 & 416)

As well as these there are coachmen, inn-keepers, shop-keepers, gardeners, maids, doctors, teachers, clergymen and others, all adding to the fabric of the narrative.  There are a few historical references to the Industrial Revolution time-slot – to the potato-famine of Ireland: “burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it.” (ibid p. 63) – and (as mentioned above) to the fact the Mr Oliver owned a needle factory and iron foundry.

There was also mention of another kind of class system – that of the older girls at Lowood dominating over the smaller younger girls: “whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.” (ibid, p. 77)

The psychological references and influences are abundant in JANE EYRE.  In first chapters the red and white pattern is established by “folds of scarlet drapery . . . to the right” (ibid, p 23) and to her left the “drear November day” (ibid, p. 24) through the clear glass panes of the protecting window.  This pattern is repeated in the red-room, with “[i]ts red drapery and carpet and contrasting white bed and easy chair embody[ing] two separate threats to Jane – a prison of passion and a chill, ‘pale throne’ of repression.” (Nestor, p. 51)  Thus red is symbolic of passion which Jane must learn to suppress if she is to mature, while the white is symbolic of a cold, sterile life void of that passion.

This idea of imprisonment is thus hinted at in the opening pages to be followed by the actual imprisonment in the red-room.  On escaping the confines of this room, then her nursery, and finally Gateshead itself, she finds herself in another confining, regimented location – Lowood school.  Having worked herself up to the semi-independent position of teacher, she leaves the institution to venture into  the wider world – only to find that at Thornfield she is surrounded by signs of enclosure.

As Jane enters its gates they ‘clash’ behind her, Mrs Fairfax locks the hall door and takes the key before showing Jane to her room, just as she later securely fastens the trapdoor from the attic, and in the library Jane discovers that most of the books are ‘locked up behind glass doors'(104)” (Nestor, p. 58)

The fact that Jane sought e sense of freedom on the third floor of Thornfield is ironic – it was the site of Bertha’s imprisonment.  Even when Jane runs away and enters the Rivers’ household she is bound by another form of entrapment – that of St John Rivers’ uncompromising expectations of and plans for her.  Her ultimate release is seen to be when she returns to Rochester as an equal, financially independent, and releases him from his confining restraints of blindness.

The dreams that Jane has throughout the book are also psychological windows to her mind, and premonitions of her future.  The carrying of the child, in the dream Jane had prior to her wedding day, is symbolic of the weight of domesticity which hung around the necks of Victorian women, tying them down and preventing them from being independent.  Her ally, nature, had taken over the ‘prison’ of Thornfield which was reduced to rubble – it could no longer contain her – and through its agent the wind, was blowing away the restricting child, leaving her free to fall into freedom.

The use of dreams as premonition devices in the narrative were also an indication of Bronte’s awareness of the uncanny.  Her:

figurative language is profoundly suggestive, privileging the imaginative and intuitive ahead of the rational.  Similarly her use of the supernatural reinforces the sense of know- ledge beyond logic, of truths that are felt as much as thought.  (Nestor, p. 31)

With this language she is able to suggest psychological links – hunger indicating deprivation, confinement signalling oppression and elements of nature offering a nurturing safety:

Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was: and I, who from man could anticipate only mistrust, rejection, insult, clung to her with filial fondness.  Bronte, (1976) p. 349)

Finally the socio-economic position of the writer, “in an age shaken by religious, scientific and social upheaval” (Nestor, p. 30) where women were powerless, relegated to passivity, had an immediate bearing on the text.

Charlotte endorsed a fiercely individualistic self- sufficiency which placed the demands of society second to those of self, establishing a particularly important priority for women given the nature if Victorian’s demands upon them. (ibid, p.29)

Psychologically, Charlotte Bronte wrote in:

a distinctly female literary tradition . . . marked by images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles function as asocial surrogates (as Bertha did for Jane) for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors and obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia (of which Charlotte was suggested to have died from), claustrophobia and myopia.” (Nestor, p. 27) (my parentheses)

There are many more indications of the socio-economic and psychological practices at work on the subject in JANE EYRE.  Those I have shown give an insight into the text that a superficial reading may gloss over.

(C)  Jud House 28/08/2005


Althusser, Louis. (1970) extract from IDEOLOGY AND IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUSES.

Althusser, Louis.  ‘Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects’ from ‘Ideology and the State’ in LENIN AND PHILOSOPHY.

Bronte, Charlotte. (1976 ed.)  JANE EYRE.  London: Pan Books Ltd


King, Jeannette. (1986)  ‘Recent Critical Approaches’ in JANE EYRE. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Kristeva, Julia. (1986) ‘A Question of Subjectivity – an Interview’ in WOMEN’S REVIEW, No 12.

Lane, Margaret. (1980)  THE DRUG-LIKE BRONTE DREAM.  London:  John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.

Marx, Karl.  from the ‘Preface’ to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ in LITERATURE AND SOCIETY: MARXIST APPROACHES.

Nestor, Pauline. (1987)  Women Writers/CHARLOTTE BRONTE.  Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books.

Rhys, Jean. (1968)  WIDE SARGASSO SEA.  London: Penguin Books.

Saunders, Ian. (1993)  OPEN TEXTS, PARTIAL MAPS.  Nedlands: The University of Western Australia.

Selden, R. & Widdowson, P. (1993)  A Reader’s Guide to CONTEMPORARY LITERARY THEORY.  Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, of Simon & Schuster International Group.

Spivak, G. C. (1986)  ‘Marxist Discussion of WIDE SARGASSO SEA’ from ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.’ in RACE, WRITING, AND DIFFERENCE.  Chicago: UCP.

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DECONSTRUCTION – Reconstruction Via Signifiers

According to many texts, deconstruction is more a practice than a theory.  The consensus of opinion appears to be that deconstruction is not the destruction of the text, rather the undoing and redoing or reconstruction via the signifiers.  These are no longer seen as a means of accessing the signifieds or context of the sound pattern or word(signifier), but as being interdependent on each other to offer:

an account of what is going on in a text – not by seeking out its meaning, or its component parts, or its systematic implications – but rather by marking off its relations to other texts, its contexts, its sub-texts. . . . It brings out what the text excludes by showing what it includes.  It highlights what remains indecidable and what operates as an indecid- able in the text itself. (Silverman, 1989, p. 4)

This ambiguity is fostered and manipulated in a deconstructive reading as an exploratory means of finding multiple meanings in the text.  Often these readings are deliberately against the grain of the perhaps obviously intended meaning, resulting in some quite bizarre effects.  This unorthodox approach to the reading of texts is the ultimate aim of the deconstructionist – a freeing up, so that the reader is no longer constrained by the author’s meaning, nor that of those who would say that the text itself must be read in isolation, uninfluenced by the reader’s experiences.

Deconstruction seems to consist of a compilation and manipulation of various and prior theories (of New Criticism, and Structuralism).  As a reader, I had to wade through a morass of confusing literary jargon to try to reach the firm ground of enlightenment, only to find that it consisted of quicksand.  One of the main features of deconstruction is a lack of a transcendental signified – for any signifier there is no fixed meaning.  Rather there is a chain of floating-signifier/sliding-signified links with no clasp of closure.

[S]ays Derrida, all . . . analyses imply that they are based on some secure ground, a ‘centre’ or ‘transcendental signified’, that is outside the system under investigation and guarantees its intelligibility.  There is, however, no such secure ground, according to Derrida. . . . [D]econstructive criticism aims to show that any text inevitably undermines its own claim to have a determinate meaning, and licences the reader to produce his own mean-ings out of it by an activity of semantic ‘freeplay’. (Culler, (1983) from Derrida extract).

In deconstruction there is a concentration on binary oppositions and their privileging, and a no-rules approach to the content and context of the text.  It could also be called an attitude to text-reading rather than a method of criticism.

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In BOY AT THE WINDOW by Richard Wilbur (Norton, (1983), p. 1222) a close reading sees the poem describe a boy looking sadly out of a window at a snowman in a gathering storm, and a snowman in his element looking sadly at the boy inside in the warmth.  An image is constructed of the snowman in the storm, through the use of lexical sets connoting a hostile environment – ‘dusk’, ‘cold’, ‘night’, ‘wind’, ‘moan’.  In the second verse there follows a lexical set connoting the friendly nature of the same environment – ‘content’, ‘element’ and non-threatening ‘frozen water’.  The narrative is a text constructed of sets of signifiers, which all interact in many different ways, according to the experiences of the reader.  For example, while an occupant of the Arctic Circle would have sound knowledge and experience of a snow-storm, an Australian desert Aboriginal would not. As a consequence, the degree of hostility of the stormy night would have less impact on the latter.

Also the multiple layers of words actively participate in the ways the reader generates meanings – even when these various layers are unknown consciously.  An example of this is the less obvious meaning of ‘bitumen’.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives, apart from that of asphalt, and tarred road, a definition of: “a kind of mineral pitch found in Palestine and Babylon” also known as “Jew’s Pitch”.  This additional signified for the signifier ‘bitumen’ immediately draws a link between the term ‘bitumen eyes’ and the lines:

. . . such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to  Paradise.
(Wilbur, ls. 7 & 8)

It adds another dimension to the already idol-like ‘figure’ which stands unmoving and staring as idols do, despite their environment.

Emotions are evoked by the use of emotional signifiers such as ‘weeps’, ‘tearful’, ‘no wish . . . to die’, ‘cry’, ‘trickle of . . . a tear’ and ‘surrounded by . . . such love’.  A careful use of sound patterns were used in this text to promote the hostile effect – examples being:

A night of gnashings and enormous moan (Wilbur, line 4)

An ambiguity is created by the use of the word ‘he’ in the second line – it could mean either the snowman or the boy.  If read without the knowledge of the title, the first two lines read as though it is the snowman who cannot bear the dusk and the cold.

The binary oppositions of warmth/cold immediately take hold, with the former being privileged in our minds.  In the first verse (as mentioned above) the signifiers of ‘dusk’, ‘cold’, ‘wind’, ‘night’, ‘gnashings’, and ‘moan’ jointly connote the negative aspect of being out in a storm in the snow.  So by their absence in the verse, the signifiers of the signified ‘warmth’ become the privileged or more valued term of the binary opposition.  However, the second verse reverses this privileging as the snowman is shown to be in his element, and that ‘inside’, ‘bright’, ‘love’, ‘warmth’, and ‘light’ hold nothing but ‘fear’ and death for him.  Thus cold becomes privileged over warmth.

Immediately there is an ambiguity – increased when the realisation is grasped of the reversability of the order of the two verses themselves.  As the poem stands the reader is left with the impression of uneasiness for the boy, safely in his warm home.  But if the first verse were the last the snowman would be the one to be pitied, the ‘outcast’.  There is no real feeling of a definite closure or opening to this text, so that the reader could easily enter it from either point.  Its title is its only anchor point, and even that is a little ambiguous at first – is the boy inside or outside the window?

While there are a number of binary oppositions at work in this text: nature/culture; light/dark; active/passive; content/sorrow and company/solitude; there is an overriding binary opposition of safety/peril.  We privilege the term safety as being the desirable state in which to exist.  But this poem questions our ideas of what is safe:

. . . the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love,
(Wilbur, lines 15 &

by adding the ambiguous words, “. . . and so much fear” (ibid, line 16).  Fear for whom – the boy or the snowman?  And fear of what – the storm, the cold, or the warmth?  By discerning that to the snowman there is nothing to fear out in the storm, but melting will occur in the warmth of the (safe) house, our notions of what is secure is undermined.  The ‘peril’ of the storm and the cold is diffused, and is seen as desirable – for the snowman at least.  As our sympathies shift from the boy to the snowman, as we move from verse to verse, we are creating a reversal of privilege between the binaries of boy/snowman.  The view that without ‘peril’ there is no notion of or need for ‘safety’, and their reversal, without ‘safety’ would there be any ‘peril’, colours our reading of these oppositions.

The nature/culture binaries feature quite strongly within the text.  The usual privileging of nature over culture, of the natural over the man-made, is at once up-ended as the elements of nature are negatively described:

. . . to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
(Wilbur, ls. 3 &

with the ‘bitumen eyes’ and ‘bright pane’ being the only man-made items shown – yet bitumen is a by-product of petroleum, a by-product of oil – a natural substance.  And ‘pane’ carries with it, not only the meaning of a panel of a window, but indeed a panel, a piece, a potion, a segment, a section, a length or a side of anthing – man-made or natural.  It also signifies a piece of cloth, a lap, a skirt, or any distinct portion of a garment – the man-making of a natural fibre.  Thus it represents both nature and culture.

There is a contradiction in the description of the eyes - ‘bitumen’ and stared’ connoting hardness in the first verse, yet ‘soft eye’ in the second verse.  The latter implies emotional softness, while the former the hardness of rejection, and of that of a craven image or pagan idol.  Here the binaries of solitude and company are introduced – solitude shown in the line “standing all alone” (Wilbur, line 1) and:

. . . such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to Paradise.
(ibid, ls. 7 & 8)

while company is indicated by its absence and inferred by the lines:

. . .  surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, . . .
(ibid, lines
15 & 16).

But the snowman’s ‘content’ with his ‘frozen . . . element” alters the privileging of the terms, so that the solitude of the snowman seems preferable to the boy’s position.

More than solitude is implied in the above indented quote – that of religion, of Godfearing/Godless, of Christian/Pagan binaries.  Standing out in a storm the snowman appears still as an idol, yet appears to stare with sorrow and yearning at the boy, giving the impression of an outcast.  But this is the opposite of the snowman’s reality, who is “. . . nonethless, content,” (ibid, line 9) and who can produce “A trickle of the purest rain, a tear” (ibid. line 14) as only a sin-free being could do.

Another paradox is the use of the words ‘go’,’still’, ‘moved’ and ‘see’ in the second verse; still and moved are contradictions as are still and go.  These terms are binary opposition signifiers for active/passive where the privileged term from the snowman’s point of view is passive.  The reality is that a snowman can neither see nor move, yet we accept both as being truths within the text.

The binaries of light/dark are present, with dark being the most evident, as light only appears in the last two lines of the text.  The privileging of light occurs by the negative use of dark in the first verse, then reverses to privilege dark in the second verse as the reader learns that the snowman is ‘content’ to be in the dark.  The final line, 16, creates a double reversal, flipping from a positive of light, to a negative with the final word, ‘fear’.  This is an example of both binaries operating simultaneously, positively and negatively.  The concept of ‘privatives’ occurs here –

We can describe the world in terms of the ‘absence’ of certain qualities.  Darkness is an absence of light; the iron is cold when it lacks heat; an object [the snowman] is still when it lacks movement. (Selden, (1989) p. 55)

So in lines 15 and 16 the ‘light’ is an absence of dark, the ‘warmth’ is an absence of cold, the ‘love’ is an absence of ‘hate’ and the ‘fear’ is an absence of ‘safety’.  This concept can be applied to virtually all the signifiers in the text, opening it to a floating interpretation.

Also the signifier/signified chain reveals the concept of ‘differance’:

One sign leads to another, different sign, but with each arrival we find not meaning, but its deferral. (Saunders, (1993) p. 22)

An example of this chain is seen when defining the word ‘alone’.  It means ‘not with others, without the help or company of others or other things; only, exclusively’.  This gives several more words to look up – an example is ‘only’ which gives such terms as sole, most worthy, but then, extreme, no longer ago than, as well as the idea of solitude.  If these words in turn were defined an increasing chain of meanings are formed.  Thus:

deconstruction sees openings, a chain of signifiers that offers movement from one signifier to the next, without ever settling on the one term (the ‘transcendental signified’) that would constitute bedrock. (ibid, (1993) p. 22)

While I no longer savour the poignancy of the narrative that my initial reading of the poem supplied, I nonetheless can still read it with enjoyment.  I have gained a more profound understanding of the text, with the subtle nuances, such as the ‘bitumen’ link to ‘Paradise’, creating an interesting interplay within it.  The text now seems to contain more, with the element of ambiguity creating uncertainties constantly.

(C) Jud House  28/08/2005


Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman & English. (1983)  THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY Third Edition.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Barthes, Roland. (1957)  MYTHOLOGIES. (extract)

Buchbinder, David.  ‘Deconstruction in Practice’ from CONTEMPORARY LITERARY THEORY. (extract)

Derrida, Jacques. (1978)  ‘Structure, sign, and play …’ from Derrida J. WRITING AND DIFFERENCE. (extract) with Culler, J commentary.

Jefferson, Anne. (1982)  ‘Structuralism and Post-Structuralism’ from Jefferson & Robey, MODERN LITERARY THEORY: A COMPARATIVE INTRODUCTION.  London: B. T. Badsford.

King, Jeannette. (1986)  ‘Recent Critical Approaches’ in JANE EYRE. Milton Keynes:  Open University Press

Norris, C. (1982)  ‘Roots: Structuralism and New Criticism’ in DECONSTRUCTION: THEORY AND PRACTICE.  London & New York: Routledge.

Saunders, Ian. (1993)  OPEN TEXTS, PARTIAL MAPS.  Nedlands: The University of Western Australia.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916)  COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. (extract)

Selden, R. & Widdowson, P. (1993)  A Reader’s Guide to CONTEMPORARY LITERARY THEORY.  Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, of Simon & Schuster International Group.

Selden, Raman. (1989)  ‘Binary Oppositions’ in PRACTISING THEORY AND READING LITERATURE.  Harvester

Selden, Raman. (1989)  ‘Deconstruction’ in PRACTISING THEORY AND READING LITERATURE.  Harvester.

Silverman, Hugh, J. (1989). ‘Introduction’ DERRIDA AND DECONSTRUCTION.  New York: Routledge. (extract)

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Picture story books give children the opportunity to experience multi-layered narrative, to read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level as well as becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings.  Such books are saying: ”there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

* * *

The experiencing of multi-layered narrative in any book, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, comes under the umbrella of post- modernism.  Geoff Moss writes:

Broadly speaking, postmodernism pictures a subjective, relativistic world which is …. perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change. (Moss, 1992, pp. 54-55)

Texts may be written with several narratorial voices, giving different perspectives, points-of-view – “not one story one voice … but many”.  There may be many different stories told within the one book, or gaps left in the text for the reader to fill in as they think appropriate – “becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings”.

In children’s picture books this can take the form of pictures that do not match the text, pictures without any text at all, or pictures that give more details to the story than the text gives – children “read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level”.  This applies equally to children who cannot read, to whom the story is read, as well as to those who can.  All gather information from the pictures accompanying the text, according to their understanding, to their perceptions.  According to D Lewis:

we attend to and ‘read’ both pictures and words.  They act upon each other so that … we read the pictures through the words and the words through the pictures…. This … interaction between word and image in the picture book is [a] … reason for the form’s extraordinary openness and flexibility. (Lewis, 1990, p.141-142)

Come away from the water, Shirley by J Burningham is a good example of a postmodern children’s picture book.  The book is divided into two different narratives told on opposing pages – the parents’ dull world on one, facing Shirley’s exciting imaginary world on the other.  The illustrations are contrasting in style – box-framed, pale-tinted, line drawings with little background for the parents; and boldly colourful, detailed pictures for Shirley – thus underlining the difference between the two.

The cover and the title page, with map in between, give an indication of the type of story about to be experienced – that of a little girl’s pirate adventure with her dog.  The opening story page shows, in a white-bordered picture, the mother, father and an eager Shirley (shown running happily) crossing the shingles beside a groin wall, with a dog following and presumably with them.  The parents are laden with adult beach paraphernalia, while Shirley is unencumbered.  The text already sets the tone of what is to follow – a negative re swimming for Shirley, usually top on most children’s list for beach fun.  When the page is turned the reader sees that that bordered, first page illustration belongs to the adult narrative.

The next and succeeding pages show the parents sketchily illustrated and always confined by a line-border on the left hand page, while Shirley and the dog, with various props and imaginary people, are on the right hand, framed by a fuzzy-edged white border.  This form of bordering the pictures indicates to the reader that in Shirley’s fantasy world there is more freedom.

The adult world is boxed in with constraints, which the text in the form of a continuing dialogue endorses.  A subversive feature of this dialogue is the lack of periods at the end of each sentence (until the final page), creating the impression of a continual stream of negative directives issued by her mother to Shirley as to how she should play.  Many pages contain the word “don’t”.  Meanwhile, the parents, their faces registering mild contentment, do boring adult things – put their chairs up, fill and smoke a pipe, read a paper, knit, pour coffee from a thermos, sleep, then wake and leave.

There is not much to hold a child’s attention on the parents’ pages – mundane events with little detail to look at equates with little interest.  On the opposite pages, Shirley embarks on a sea voyage with the dog, which during the course of the parents’ text we learn does not belong to her: “Don’t stroke that dog, Shirley, you don’t know where he’s been”. (Burningham, 1977, p.8)  Not only are the pictures bright and eventful, but they lack an obstructing text, thus allowing the readers to invent their own story – that is, write their own text – from the pictorial details provided.

During the ‘real’ time it took her mother to get out the thermos flask, pour coffee, hand it to her husband, and return the flask to the basket, Shirley spent hours in her ‘fantasy’ time: walking the plank, fighting and defeating the pirates, diving from the ship with the pirate flag and treasure map, reading the map while sailing with the dog in her boat rigged with pirate flag sails.  ‘Time’ is shown by the gradual setting of the sun in the consecutive illustrations, and makes perfect sense to a child who would see no disparity with the ‘time’ depicted by her mother’s actions on the parents’ pages.  While it races for adults, time drags for children.

In the parents’ pages, adults are represented as inattentive, overprotective, nagging and boring, while Shirley is created as a child in need of guidance by the mother’s commentary.  In Shirley’s pages adults are represented in pirate guise as violent, bullying, then inept, while she is portrayed as brave, resourceful, empowered (by the crown she finds in the treasure chest), and independent.  Bradford remarks:

the indeterminacy to which David Lewis refers, the gap between the two sequences … articulates and enacts the gap between Shirley’s world and that of her parents. (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

In the penultimate pages the text on the left finally aligns with the picture on the right – the mother wakes the father:

“Good heavens!  Just look at the time.  We are going to be late if we don’t hurry.” (Burningham, 1977, p. 20)

On the right hand page, Shirley and the dog are seen travelling at night with a rising moon back towards the beach.  The blackness of the night sky gives a sense of urgency to the picture – children should not be out alone after dark.

The final full-page unbordered illustration sees Shirley firmly implanted in the adult world again, reluctantly leaving the beach dragging on the end of her mother’s arm.  There is no sign of her companion, the dog.  The story has returned to the one voice, the united story of Shirley and her parents.  In between coming to the beach and leaving it, there existed for Shirley, and for the reader, an escape from the boring ‘real’ world of parents.  If she could do it there at the beach, maybe she could take her fantasy life home with her, as indicated by the lack of confining border – “the child’s imagination [is] a powerful defense against the adult world.” (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

There are a number of complex meanings underlying the text.  A subversive commentary on gender roles expressed via the illustrations, but not the text, is one.  Usually pirate adventures belong in the realm of boys, but here the protagonist is a girl who is just as brave and resourceful as any boy would be.  As blond-haired Shirley approaches the pirate ship, rowing the dinghy expertly, the male pirates spill over the sides waving their cutlasses threateningly.  The figurehead on the prow of their vessel is a stereotypical mermaid – naked to the waist with long blond hair.   Initially overpowered, Shirley walks the plank as a defeated female, but when rescued by the dog, turns the tables on the pirates and, like a boy would, wins the treasure map.

An important submerged meaning, I think, is that children can entertain themselves using their imagination if given the chance to do so.  They don’t necessarily need to be directed in play, monitored every waking minute of their day.  A good example is the picture of Shirley and the dog with the treasure chest (Burningham, 1977, p. 19) – the colours are ‘happy’ ones, pinks, mauves and yellows, and Shirley smiles with pleasure in her achievement – treasure can be found in the form of fun and self-entertainment if children will just use their imaginations.

Another example of a postmodern children’s picture book is My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, aimed at a primary school age audience. Initially a history of a house in a street recorded backwards through the decades, it speaks with many voices of many races, recording not only the geographical changes but also the sociological ones.

A history book with a small ‘h’, the authors challenge ‘what’ is history, and ‘who’ is important in history – ordinary people rather than important political figures, marginalized people such as women, convicts, aborigines, ethnic groups, all given a voice in this book. Often with its sources as oral histories, rather than documentary, it breaks boundaries, and challenges the expectations of a History book. Most Australian history books start in 1788, written by white people about events seen from the white perspective.  This book goes beyond that, with its multiple points-of-view reflecting the  multicultural mix that is Australia.

Metafiction, an aspect of postmodernism, continually reminds the reader that texts represent life, that they are books. My Place may be a metahistory as at all times the reader is aware that the historical narrative is contained in book-form.  Refusing to be categorized, it may even fit into biography/fiction.  It is also a book that the reader can return to frequently to find details they missed previously, a thing children tend to do regularly – reread their favourite books gaining insight with each reading.

Comprising a text, with dates instead of page numbers, its complementary random illustrations frequently overflow their partial borders, giving an openness to the text plus additional information about the location and its occupants.  Geoff Moss writes that

because the picture book is a series of frames, materially marked by borders or page edges, and the portrayal of character or landscape is necessarily fragmented, it follows that each picture relates to a different subject position; each picture gives a new viewpoint. (Moss, 1992, p.63)

This is particularly true of My Place.  The history appears to be straightforward, until the map is scanned in detail.  The complexity and multiplicity of the history then becomes apparent as the reader focusses on the tree, the big house, the Millers/Mullers, the brickpits, the canal/creek, the drink factory, the pub and so on.

“In active pursuit of complex meanings” the reader flips back and forth from decade to decade in an attempt to place each separate place and family in the previous and following time-slot. The Aboriginal flag barred behind the window frame in the first page, 1988, is reflected in the final double-page landscape; the Aboriginal lifestyle in 1788, was vastly different from their lifestyle in 1988 (posing the question: is it better now?) – details obtained by interaction between the reader and book.

Moving in a circle there were aboriginal dwellers at the beginning and at the end of the book – but which is which?  Another boundary-breaking facet of postmodern texts is that they can be picked up and read from the middle outwards, from front to back, and from back to front, still forming an overall whole – subverting the way books are usually read.  This book does just that.  By writing from 1988 to 1788, backwards through time, is the book itself written back to front? Chronologically the decades run from the back of the book to the front, posing the question: is the back the front?

The multi-cultural nature of the occupants, not only of the house, but of the street, also provides a variety of narratorial voices.  Moving backwards, the families in residence were Aboriginal; Greek; Irish; Australian; German, with Chinese gardeners; American; English aristocracy, servants and convicts, and finally Aboriginal.  Many nationalities have many stories to tell, from their cultural viewpoints.

The revelation of the change in life-styles from the progressive 1988’s back through the two centuries to the more simple and less polluted times is quite ironic.  It questions what ‘progressive’ really means.  Are times better now with our technology, scientific knowledge, supposed social tolerance, and pollution problem, or were they better for the land when there were less people, less development and harder times socially and economically for the population?  This irony makes children, the book’s primary audience, aware that there is more than one way of looking at their world, and that “there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

(C)  Jud House   2/09/1997


Bradford, Clare. ‘”Along the road to learn”: Children and adults in the picture books of John Burningham’, Children’s literature in education V25(4) 1994, pp. 203-211.

Burningham, J.(1977) Come away from the water,Shirley  London: Red Fox Books

Lewis, D. ‘The constructedness of texts: Picture books and the metafictive’  Signal Vol 62, May 1990, pp.131-146.

Moss, G. (1992) ‘Metafiction, illustration and the poetics of children’s literature’ in Hunt (ed.) Literature for children: contemporary criticism.  London: Routledge.

Wheatley, N. & Rawlins, D. (1987)  My Place  Melbourne: Collins Dove


Bradford, Clare. ‘The changing picture book’ in Magpies v.5(5) Nov. 1990, pp.5-8.

Bradford, Clare. ‘The picture book: Some postmodern tensions’ in Papers: Explor- ations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.10-14.

Grieve, Ann. ‘Postmodernism in picture books’ in Papers: Explorations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.15-25.

Moseley, A. (1988)  ‘The journey through the “space in the text” to Where the wild things are’ in Children’s literature in education  Vol 19, No 2.

Nodelman, R. (1988) ‘Pictures, picture books and the implied viewer’ in Words about pictures: The narrative art of children’s picture books. Uni. of Georgia Press.

Rasmussen, B. (1987)  ‘Irony in picture books’  Orana  November 1987.

Richard, O. & MacGann, D.  ‘Audacious books and liberal education: The art of John Burningham’   WilsonLibrary Bulletin, May 1994, pp. 26-31.

Segal, Elizabeth (1981) ‘Picture books and princesses: The Feminist contribution’ Proceedings of the eighth annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association  in Ord, P. (ed.) University of Minnesota.

Sendak, M. (1977)  ‘The artist,as author: The strength of the double vision’  in Meek et al (eds.)  The cool web  pp. 241-256  London: Bodley Head.

Sorenson, M. (1993)  ‘The best job in the world’  A.B.R. No 154.

Stahl, J.D. (1990) “The theory and artistry of picture books’ in Children’s literature in Education. Vol 21, No 2.

Trites, R.  ‘Manifold Narratives: Metafiction and ideology in picture books’  Children’s literature in education  Vol 25(4), 1994, pp. 225-242.

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ROMANTICISM – Issues of Gender and/or Sexuality

Romanticism was a literary period of change, a breaking away from the rules that governed thought, and creative endeavour.  There was a freeing up of subject matter, writers using the common man and experience instead of lofty unrealistic plots and characters.  This use of the common subject also released the writers from constraints re sexuality and gender presentation.  They became free to utilise previously taboo topics, such as confinement, adultery, and physical seduction.

For women … the nineties … the comparatively new idea of “free love” as well as …. a new kind of literary era, one whose spirit was, if not dominated by literary women, at least shared and shaped by female imagin- ations.  (Gilbert, Chopin, 1994, p. 277)

Writers focussed on individual psychology, the inner lives of their protagonists as they dealt with the tribulations and complications of their external lives.  They were seen not only as part of their society, affected by its rules and attitudes, but also as having a personal identity separate from the social.  Self-contained individuals at one with the natural landscape in which they operated, Romanticists questioned their own relationship with their world and universe.  They believed that Nature had a spiritual power, a moral agency, which American Romantic writers used symbolically in the lives of their protagonists.

According to Abrams, gender “constitute[s] what is masculine and what is feminine – … largely … cultural constructs that were generated by the omnipresent patriarchal biases of our civilization.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 235)  He goes on to say that  “the masculine in our culture has come to be identified as active, dominating, adventurous, rational, creative; the feminine, by systematic opposition to such traits, has come to be identified as passive, acquiescent, timid, emotional, and conventional.” (ibid, p. 235)

As a result of Romanticism, the question of personal fulfillment, personal identity, the right to expression and individual freedom, and the stress on individuals as individuals, came about. Individual psychological entities of increasing complexity were written about, with needs and sexual desires which drove them into conflict with society. In the upper classes, women who became aware of their sexuality and broke the social rules were punished or destroyed.  A wife’s adultery was an affront to the patriarch of the time, resulting in imprisonment, while male adultery was unofficially sanctioned, resulting only in fines. If women left their relationship then they needed to be able to support themselves, to earn a living.

In her novel The Awakening, Kate Chopin looked at Edna’s struggles against the patriarchal society, her relationship with her husband as an owned possession, not allowed to initiate sexual relations, but expected to comply whenever her husband wished her to, and her role of wife and mother.  Brought up in Presbyterian Kentucky, Edna’s

marriage to Leonce Pontellier was purely an accident …. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept [him].” (Chopin, 1994, p. 18)

With her puritanical upbringing, she found herself among the Creole society whose characteristics as the book demonstrates were openness, sensuality, hedonism, and a kind of mixed gender game.  The role of the mother was central to the family – Creole women were brought up to be “tender, loving mothers, [who] care for the health and beauty of their children [and to whom] …. Women’s rights… are the right to love and be loved, and to name the babies”. (Shaffter, 1892, ibid, pp. 138-9)  She found their openness and lack of prudery difficult to deal with, and failed to live up to her French speaking Creole husband’s expectations.

Edna’s sexual awakening began with Robert Lebrun.  Culturally and linguistically outside the culture in which she grew up, Edna misinterpreted Robert’s intentions and attentions, although the flirtation was accepted by her husband and the other Creoles. In the social role-playing she was inadequate to the situation, not bred or educated to it, and cut adrift from the Protestant constraints.  Psychological motives caused Edna dis-satisfaction with the society she was in, her misreading of it and her mis-recognition of its boundaries prompted her to search for new love.  The learning situation into which she was placed, involved her loosening of the ties that bound her.

Another outlet for breaking the patriarchal social mould was her unchaperoned trips to the races with Arobin. Later when making love with him at home “[i]t was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded.  It was a flaming torch that kindled desire. …. Edna cried a little that night after Arobin left her.” (ibid, p. 80)   Edna was unashamed of her relationship with Arobin felt no guilt for her infidelity to her husband, but regret that it had not been her love, Robert.  This is an example of how social and literary rules were broken by the Romantic writers.  Prior to them love in literature had remained as an idealised rather than a physical reality.

Edna followed her instincts when leaving Leonce – it was not carefully planned, but impulsive.  She let fate dictate her actions. Edna gained power by learning to swim, by her painting, and by her new home, the pigeon house.  At that time these were big steps for a woman to take. In 19th century novels of adultery, women were constructed as individuals with desire for fulfillment that overrode any other facet of their lives.  Edna was the epitome of this – she wanted sexual fulfillment.  Sex was something to be acknowledged and valued, not just as society dictated for procreation and man’s pleasure.

According to Donald Ringe, in his article ‘Romantic Imagery’,

Edna Pontellier feels contradictory impulses impelling her, impulses that … reveal that she is “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” …. – an awakening of [her] self as important …. [that] resembles the transcendent- alist theory of self-discovery”. (Ringe, ibid, pp. 222-3, 224, 223)

Realising her relationship with Robert would eventually be a repetition of that with Leonce, Edna turned impulsively to the sea. Nature and culture were intersected by the sea, Chopin using it symbolically as a signifier of her unconscious, of seduction, of her own sexuality/femininity.  By her acceptance of her sexual awakening, Edna rid herself of the constraining society.  Defeated by society and its demands, by turning her back on them she also triumphed.

          An acceptable ending for a Romantic novel, even one that pushed the boundaries as this one did, Edna’s suicide was ambivalent.  It was realistic – the patriarchal society placed women in impossible often intolerable situations with only one apparent solution; and because women’s success without a man was a threat to male society, male authors could not allow it to occur, without being seen as encouraging immorality, and a break-down of law in society.

The use of Nature in the form of birds to symbolise Edna’s condition and her stages of awakening, was Romantic.  Initially aligned with the caged parrot, she moves to the Pigeon house “which pleased her…. There was with her a feeling of having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual.” (Chopin, 1994, p. 89)  She was free to come and go but was domesticated.  Finally Chopin aligned Edna with the maimed bird as she swam to her death.  This symbolism represents the condition of women at the turn of the century, constrained to fit specific gender roles dictated by the patriarchy.

(C)  Jud House  15/11/1998


Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Sandra M Gilbert – ‘The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company

Donald A Ringe – ‘Romantic Imagery’ in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company

Mary L Shaffter – ‘Creole Women’   in Chopin, Kate (Culley, M: Editor) (1994)  The Awakening  New York:  W W Norton & Company


George Arms – Contrasting Forces in the Novel’

Cyrille Arnavon – ‘An American Madame Bovary’

Jules Chametzky – Edna and the “Woman Question”’

Kenneth Eble – ‘A Forgotten Novel’

Marie Fletcher – ‘The Southern Woman in Fiction’

Lewis Leary – ‘Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman’

John R May – Local Colour in The Awakening’

Elaine Showalter – ‘Chopin and American Women Writers’

George M Spangler – ‘The Ending of the Novel’

Per Seyersted – Kate Chopin and the American Realists’

Helen Taylor – ‘Gender, Race, and Region’

Larzer Ziff – ‘From The American 1890s’

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DOROTHY PORTER – the monkey’s mask

Dorothy Porter opens her narrative verse novel with a poem from Basho:

Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey’s mask. (vii)

and ends with these lines:

Mickey’s ghost walks
in this tropical rain

she swings in the fig trees

her voice
glistens green and wet

she’s growing dark

she’s wearing a monkey’s mask.

In the first quotation, the face of a monkey is its mask – we never learn what lies behind it, what it thinks, feels or experiences because monkeys have no language with which to express and reveal these things.  In the second quotation, Mickey, dead and no longer able to speak for herself, remains an unknown quantity where her thoughts, feelings and experiences are concerned.  She is only known by conjecture, based on the evidence of her poetry, and other people’s descriptions of her.  But even that ‘grows dark’, fades away as time passes and those who knew her, in person, and like Jill, by reputation, begin to forget her.  The memory of her will remain as a mask, unchanging, fixed in the ‘facts’ according to the person remembering her.

In between these references, Porter wrote, via the voice of Tony:

‘Once upon a time –
Mickey the Monkey
all knowing cunning

little hands

she knew where the  nuts

were hidden

and, jesus, she knew

how to squeeze – ….
Mickey the Martyr.’  (p. 194)

This endeavours to attribute monkey traits to Mickey – those of cunning, knowledge and control (really human characteristics that have been granted by humans to monkeys on the strength of the latter’s behaviour) – and see behind the mask of her identity: “’petite, pretty and only nineteen’”. (p. 52)

Throughout history masks have been used to conceal identity, whether for fun (like a masked ball) or for crime (armed robbery).  An additional benefit accompanying the anonymity is the freeing of the wearer’s inhibitions – as unknowns they need feel no behavioural constraints, often leading to quite bizarre actions by normally sober individuals.  The mask gives a facade, and hides the thoughts and feelings of the person behind it.

Metaphorically, society, and in particular the poetry society into which Jill moves during her investigation, is masked. Things are not what they seem, or are seen to be on the surface – in public, large ‘intimate’ gatherings for poetry readings; while behind the scenes the issuing of grants to struggling poets controlled with bigotry, animosity, and spite.

‘It’s a grabby, grotty world
not much to go around.
Blame patronage, Jill,
grants, fellowships,
all that crap . . .(p. 150)

                     …. the deadshits
with the contacts
and gift of post-modernist gab
grab what’s going.’  (p. 151)
[Apologies for misaligned text – computer will not comply.]

By presenting a public face, while hiding a private face, an individual is masked.  An example is Diana’s apparent superficiality – she teaches poetry at University, is sophisticated, “her hair honey-blonde/ streaks … she’s gritty/ she’s bright” (p. 26), and, as indicated by the books of “academic stuff” (p. 70) on her shelves at home, is “[i]ncessantly intellectual.” (p. 70)  That is her public persona.  But privately she is bisexual, promiscuous, devious, arrogant, and disloyal to all except her husband, Nick: “you love the bastard/ you cover his shit.” (p. 227)

Her behaviour with Jill is carefully orchestrated as a disguise to prevent the truth about Mickey’s death from emerging.  To Mickey’s poem called Bullets and knives Diana points the finger at Bill McDonald: “’stupid little fool/  mistaking born-again Bill/ for St Francis.’ (p. 108)  When after reading Your floating hair  Jill comments: “’This couldn’t be Bill McDonald /…he’s going bald’ , Diana replies: “’Infatuation is blind/ … and anyway she nicked the floating hair/ from Coleridge.’ (p. 111)  In reaction to If love was just talking, Diana identifies Bill as the recipient of the verse; and claims that the mysterious goddess is “’… a red herring./ We’re looking for a boy.’” (p. 123)  As Jill gets closer to the truth, Diana steps up her diversionary tactics, until at the end, when it is obvious that Jill knows that Nick accidentally strangled Mickey, her mask has been removed.

‘You can’t make
the mud stick, Jill,
you open your mouth
we’ll sue.’

she’s smiling
her eyes
show the black pit
of the old woman
she’ll become (p. 254)

Jill’s mask is only applied when tact is required of her, for example with Mickey’s parents, or when interviewing the students at the University and the flat, and the poets at the readings.  The rest of the time the reader is allowed behind the mask, seeing the narrative from Jill’s self-deluded point-of-view.  At first she compared her being in love with Diana with being Legless: “the cops should pick me up/  I can’t walk a straight line.” (p. 45)  As disillusionment set in, as she realised that Diana did not love her, she acknowledged that “she [Diana] always/ poisons everything /  enjoying herself/ behind her shades”. (p. 135)  Finally, realising that it was over with Diana, she indulged in a rave:

‘She’s worthless ….
She’s a virus …
she’s an opportunistic infection
she’s a tongue load of thrush
she’s needles and shingles
she’s the kiss of herpes
she’s a wasting flu ….
she’s gone ..’ ( p. 225)

I don’t believe that the use of poetry affects the significance of the title, as such.  But by the reading speed it grants the reader; by the gaps in the text of the narrative permitting and requiring reader participation; by the use of ‘pornographic’ language in frustration, exaggeration and anger, to shock the reader metafictionally back to the narrative; by the economy of language resulting in excellent imagery – “Tianna -/ looks like glandular fever/ and nicotine poisoning/ on legs -“ (p. 18); I believe the verse form facilitates and enhances the search for identities and the unmasking of the characters.

(C) Jud House  16/11/1997


Porter, D (1994) The Monkey’s Mask  South Melbourne:  Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd

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