An Analysis of Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a post resurrected from andrewwinkel.com before it was hacked. It was one of the most popular posts with 1,000-2,000 page views per month. It also generated a number of indignant comments from readers horrified that I could so malign the purity of this love poem as well as comments from readers intrigued by an alternate take on a classic poem. To all of you who commented before, I apologize for losing your contributions.

As of this reposting, the students who were seventh graders when I originally wrote this are now juniors or seniors in college.

Edgar Allan Poe from the Library of Congress collection

I discussed the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe with my seventh grade classes, and we had lively discussions about it. The conventional—and typical—interpretation of this poem is that it is a love poem inspired by Poe’s dead wife. My interpretation is different, however. I’ve tried to find another interpretation like mine, and failing, have decided to explain what I think.

Firstly, I want to point out that I am not going to write this as a research paper. I will have no sources other than the poem itself and my own thoughts. Additionally, I begin with the knowledge that Poe composed the poem after his wife’s death. Any specifics about his or her age, cause of death, etcetera, will not come into this explanation because I do not believe them relevant.

One of the most challenging features of Annabel Lee is something that I’ve intuited but never felt the need to articulate, namely:

A fiction writer is understood to take up the role of a narrator, which may differ from his or her own perspective. A poet, on the other hand, is presumed to simply be revealing his or her own biographical feelings in the poem. In short, a poem like Annabel Lee is doubly challenging because it contains both a fictional narrative and a fictional narrator.

Since Annabel Lee is in the public domain, I can begin with the text of the poem itself. Note that Poe actually indents the even lines of his poem, but WordPress enjoys stripping any spaces from the code, and I’m not willing to try to spend hours trying to figure out how to force it to add three extra spaces to every other line of this poem.

Annabel Lee
By Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

I want to take an alternate viewpoint of this poem and examine it from the premise that Poe was using an unreliable narrator. From this point on, when I refer to the poet, I will be referring to the fictional character who is recounting the events of the poem, not Edgar Allan Poe. I will refer to Poe by name when I mean Poe the craftsman who created this poem.

If the poet is unreliable, deciphering which pieces of the poem are factual, and which pieces are interpretations based on the poet’s flawed perspective is a balancing act. The unreliable narrator has a distorted perception of reality, and through that distortion, the reader must interpret what is real and what the poet believes.

The poem Annabel Lee gradually reveals stanza by stanza that the poet is not sane. Within each stanza the poet explains more of his distorted reality, allowing the reader to decipher that the madness was present all along. At the poem’s conclusion, the reader can look back over the poem to see that all of the unreliable hints left by the mad poet.

Stanza One

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,

The poet begins the poem with “It was many and many a year ago,” which is a close approximation of “Once upon a time,” or even, “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” This prepares the reader for Never Never Land, a comparable fairy tale landscape, or the green, green grass of the past.

That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;

He describes Annabel Lee as a “maiden,” which is, by definition, a young girl, especially unmarried, or a virgin. That he does call her a maiden indicates that their relationship had not progressed to marriage, or he would likely have introduced her as his “wife.”

And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

The poet also explains that the maiden, “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.” Since it is the poet who makes this declaration (and not the maiden; we don’t discover until Stanza Three why the maiden can’t speak for herself), there are two conclusions we can draw from his statement:

  • The maiden really did live “with no other thought that to love and be loved by” the poet;
  • The maiden did not have these thoughts, but the poet believed that she did.

Stanza One is the beginning of the poem, and the reader has not had enough exposure to the poet to evaluate his reliability. Readers who assume that the poet is recounting his own true feelings or experiences in the poem will not doubt that the poet is honestly portraying the state of affairs. In contrast, readers who begin to question the reliability of the poet after reading the remainder of the poem must question the accuracy of his assertions.

Stanza Two

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

The couplets introduce these concepts:

  1. The poet and Annabel Lee were children in this once upon a time place;
  2. the poet and Annabel Lee “‘loved with a love that was more than love'”;
  3. this love was so amazingly great that the angels in heaven were jealous of the lovers.

Most people read that the poet and Annabel Lee “loved with a love that was more than love” and assume simply that this line is hyperbole, or an exaggeration of the love the two shared. They do not even question the poet’s assertion, seemingly taking it for granted that a thing (or concept) can be greater than the thing (or concept) itself. But something by definition cannot be greater than itself. The formula 1 > 1 results in a logical error.

Add to this the very abstract and ultimately unknowable statement uttered in lines 11-12, when the poet declares that the angels of heaven are jealous of the love shared between Annabel Lee and the narrator. Such an assertion can be interpreted as either fact or opinion, as in:

  • The poet has knowledge of the heavens that gives him access to the motivations of divine beings, or
  • The poet’s opinion is that the angels of heaven were jealous of the love shared by the lovers.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and point out that my experience in life has left me slightly ignorant of the sublime. Indeed, most people I know (and even the most religious among them) are equally ignorant of the sublime. Therefore, the first point can be discounted.
This leaves us with the interpretation that the poet was expressing an opinion when he declared that the angels were jealous. Since people vary in the way they deal with grief, it is not unlikely to assume that the poet has decided to pin the blame for his love’s loss on the divine instruments, God’s angels. What has driven the poet to angels is unclear, especially since he may as well go all the way to the big guy. After all, God is the one who directs the angels much like a toddler with his toy cars. Indeed, by focusing his attention on the angels, he’s giving God a pass, and this purposeful omission appears to be the poet’s way to blame God without blaming God.

Stanza Three

Within this stanza the poet adds two pieces of information to his tale. First, he reinforces the angels’ culpability by saying, “This is the reason” though he doesn’t yet acknowledge the angels as divine hitmen:

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;

Second, the “highborn kinsmen” of Annabel Lee take her away and shut her up in a sepulchre by the sea:

So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

Probably the most telling element of this stanza is that the poet reveals through his explanation that he is not in any way responsible for Annabel Lee’s body. Her kinsmen are. This supports his earlier statement of Annabel Lee as a maiden. She is a minor, then, a dependent whose elders take care of her after her death. Keep in mind that his reliability is questionable, so the behavior of others in this case supports the statement that she was a maiden, and we can accept it now more readily.

Stanza Four

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

The poet’s accusation that the angels are divine hitman incapable of accepting such pure love on earth is a restatement of his assertion from Stanza Three; however, in Stanza Four he goes further by attempting to legitimize this accusation when he explains that since everyone knows it, it must be so. I’ve already explained my doubts about the poet’s access to sublime knowledge; I’m equally suspicious about his access to the knowledge of his fellow men, which means his “as all men know” argument is equally faulty. I interpret this as self-deception: he has convinced himself that angels killed Annabel Lee and tells himself that “all men know” this to be the case. We don’t have “all men” to substantiate the poet’s declaration; instead, we have the poet who is increasingly unreliable.

The cause of Annabel Lee’s death, according to the poet, is that “the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” What makes this line interesting is that it could be the most truthful line in the entire poem. Annabel Lee could have died from exposure to cold air; she could have developed pneumonia; there are probably many possible methods of dying from exposure. What is telling about the poet is that he then takes this cold air killer and connects it with the divine, identifying it as the will of angels who seek to end Annabel’s life.

Stanza Five

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

The poet reveals his strong love, far stronger than the love experienced by others, which is why it can’t be split by either angels or demons.

It is a misapprehension of either innocence or madness to assume that what you yourself experience differs from every other person who has ever existed. It’s the perennial teenage argument, “You just don’t understand,” when the reality is that it is the teenager who just doesn’t understand, who speaks from ignorance and assumes everyone else is not equally ignorant, but more ignorant.

One part of aging is to get past the egocentric assumption that the rest of the world cannot connect to your experiences. The poet has never passed to true maturity, since the loss of Annabel Lee has left him emotionally crippled at the same level of emotional maturity as he was when he lost her. After all, the poet introduces the poem with the line, “It was many and many a year ago.” Meanwhile, he remains (all these years later) as certain as ever that no one can appreciate his lost love, that no one can understand, because no one has ever experienced such a loss.

Stanza Six

The final stanza of Annabel Lee is a knock-out punch. But Poe doesn’t just put it in one solid jab; he throws a rapid right-left combo before the main thrust. Observe:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

We accept this as believable. Certainly a lost love will visit her lover’s dreams as he mourns her death.

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

The creep factor should have set in with the words, “I feel the bright eyes.” I recognize only two possible interpretations for this line:

  • The poet is reaching out with his own fingertips to “feel the bright eyes / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee”; or
  • The poet can “feel” the admittedly dead Annabel Lee looking at him. This is the more likely of the two, since it indicates that the poet feels a connection to the dead Annabel Lee as she observes him despite the gulf between the two.

Here’s the final punch:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The poet reveals that he spends his nights within his dead love’s tomb at the side of her body. Poe waits, has the poet hold off on this admission until the conclusion of the poem because he wants his reader to look back over the rest of the poem and see it anew, see it in the light of a narrator willing to lay inside a sepulchre beside a dead body near the ocean. All previous stanzas are skewed after the poet admits he sleeps beside Annabel Lee even after her death.

In Conclusion

I believe Poe was really trying to create a disturbing poem that reveals gradually that the poet was unreliable and obsessed with a woman who may not have returned his love. The basic unreliability of the poet revealed in hints throughout the poem means that even as the poet claims Annabel Lee is his “bride,” a reader may not be able to believe that she was anything more than an obsession. We’ve all heard stories of Hollywood starlets beset by obsessive stalkers who need restraining orders; these maniacal lovers fill notebooks with fantasies, and live with the belief that the two are meant to be together for all time. I think Poe wanted to capture this monomania when he wrote Annabel Lee, portraying a creepy stalker willing to sneak into his dead love’s crypt because of his certainty that she wants to be with him even in death.

Originally posted April 25, 2012

“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh

When Central High presented the play version of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there was a book, and I had vague memories of a movie, but no experience with either.

Although really more of a middle school play that the director adapted for older actors, it was still an entertaining – and funny – production.

Afterward, I checked my kids’ bookshelf to locate a copy, thus proving again that my bibliophilia is really advantageous and not the hoarding my wife claims.

The book itself has a number of things going for it. With aspects both simple and complex, childish yet insightful, honest and deceptive, sympathetic and mean, hilarious and thought-provoking, it is a gaggle of contradictions, and therein lies its resonating strength.

It has aged well. Published in 1964, the lack of modern technology like cellphones or internet or color televisions is not a factor in the telling. Such things are absent but unnecessary to Fitzhugh’s story.

Other elements that are a product of their time – bridge clubs, a martini after work – these are easily accepted as concerns of people other than ourselves. Fantastical, perhaps, but probably popular in far off countries like New York City.

Capturing a Child’s Worldview

Harriet is eleven and is a compulsive journaler, recording her impressions about every situation and interaction. Not only does she chronicle her own inner dialogue with the manic intensity of a Natalie Goldberg devotee, she aspires to be a “spy” and learn other people’s secrets. She thinks of it as her job, and she garbs herself with spy gear and sets off on daily forays to eavesdrop. She watches a man who hordes cats, a family that owns a grocery store, a husband and wife whose existence focuses only on external affirmation, and – most criminally – a woman whose dumb waiter Harriet sneaks into as she pulleys herself up to the bedroom to eavesdrop on conversations.

Unlike the children in Stephen King’s IT, Fitzhugh’s children operate with worldviews that don’t quite make sense to adults. Harriet’s conception of spying is childishly innocent. She writes (in her characteristic all caps), “YOU CAN’T BE TOO OLD TO SPY EXCEPT IF YOU WERE FIFTY YOU MIGHT FALL OFF A FIRE ESCAPE, BUT YOU COULD SPY AROUND ON THE GROUND A LOT” (57). This reminded me of a trip to a grocery store or a feed store I took when I was six or so with my dad and a distant relative of my mom’s named Ronnie. As we drove in Ronnie’s big pickup truck along country roads, my stomach kept rumbling. Uncomfortable in the silence and very conscious of its growling, I told them, “I could never be a spy.”

“Why not?” my dad asked.

“Because my stomach growls too much.”

This is what I mean about a child’s perspective: an adult would never connect a rumbling tummy with being a failure as a spy. Harriet is believable exactly because she doesn’t interpret spying the way an adult would. If she did, if she had an adult’s understanding of espionage, of Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming novels, Harriet the Spy would have rung hollow.

As Harriet experiences difficulties at home and at school, she seeks to avoid her peers:

“Harriet was sick for three days. That is, she lay in bed for three days. Then her mother took her to see the kindly old family doctor. He used to be a kindly old family doctor who made house calls, but now he wouldn’t anymore. One day he had stamped his foot at Harriet’s mother and said, ‘I like my office and I’m going to stay in it. I pay so much for rent on this office that if I leave it for five minutes my child misses a year of school. I’m never coming out again.’ And from that moment on he didn’t. Harriet rather respected him for it, but his stethoscope was cold” (196).

This comparison between a stethoscope and Harriet’s respect for the authenticity and honesty of the doctor is another example of Fitzhugh’s ability to capture Harriet’s child-like worldview because the adult mind wouldn’t find these two concepts linked.

When Harriet’s friend Janie is introduced, the reader learns “Janie Gibbs was Harriet’s best friend besides Sport. She had a chemistry set and planned one day to blow up the world. Both Harriet and Sport had a great respect for Janie’s experiments, but they didn’t understand a word she said about them” (29). Janie’s aspirations don’t really make sense to an adult, who imagines in their fulfillment the destruction of everything and everyone. Her friends, however, are nonplussed, further recognition that the rules of the adult universe are not in effect in the friendships of sixth graders.

Harriet’s Journal Is Us

I try to avoid cover text if at all possible because cover text tends to get the book wrong, and Harriet the Spy is no exception. My copy explains, “Then one morning, Harriet’s life is turned upside down. Her classmates find her spy notebook and read it out loud! Harriet’s in big trouble. The other sixth-graders are stealing her tomato sandwiches, forming a spy-catcher club, and writing notes of their own—all about Harriet!” Exclamation! Shock! Surprise! Why book covers need to be written as though advertising monster truck shows is beyond me.

While it’s true that Harriet’s journal is read by her peers, and it’s true that Harriet’s life is turned upside down, it isn’t the notebook that sets off the cataclysm in Harriet’s life. Her classmates don’t even find the notebook until page 179 of a 298-page book. That means wholly two-thirds of the book goes by without this cover-text problem. Rather, the notebook is an additional link in a chain of events that starts to go out of control at the end of Part One when Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, leaves. Harriet’s world of predictable consistency is shattered; she goes through the kind of challenges that are recognizable to any of us on the outside looking at someone trying to cope with a vacuum in his or her life. She flails mentally, she reacts unpredictably, she hurts people she loves, she does things she knows are wrong or that she knows she shouldn’t do. “She wrote THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH. Even as she did it she knew perfectly well that her parents thought nothing of the kind” (200). Harriet’s behavior is contradictory, even to herself. She makes a statement that she knows is untrue simply because she is feeling disagreeable and acts on her feelings.

For the reader, Harriet’s journal provides an insight into her personality and her struggles, but it also goes further by providing an insight into our own personalities. Harriet’s journal, for the purpose of this book, is really Harriet’s thoughts, which are unflattering, selfish, and mean – just like most of us much of the time. None of us are excoriated for our thoughts, our mental ephemera slipping through our consciousness daily, but if these thoughts were captured and shared, how proud would any of us be of what goes on in our heads?

The saying about how people behave when no one is looking comes to mind, especially after a conversation I had recently about people dumping their garbage in the country. Someone dumped a bunch of refuse on a country road rather than find a place to dispose of it, and this reminds me how often our own decisions are determined by our expectations of who is judging us, or more importantly, who isn’t.

The notebook and the drama of its contents force the reader to confront how his or her own thoughts are often nasty and unpleasant. We recognize that Harriet shouldn’t think some of the things that she does, but it’s only the hypocrites among us who judge her. For the rest, we read her thoughts with a reluctant recognition that the only difference between Harriet and ourselves is that Harriet has written down her thoughts, and those thoughts have been revealed to others.

Pinky Whitehead vs. Miss Whitehead

I’ve read it twice, and I still don’t see any reason to introduce confusion for the reader by having a child named Pinky Whitehead and a school dean named Miss Whitehead unless I’ve missed something subtle connecting the two. In this case, on page 31, we meet Pinky Whitehead on the first day of sixth grade. Harriet mentally recalls, “He lived on Eighty-eighth Street. He had a very beautiful mother, a father who worked on a magazine, and a baby sister three years old.”

After a full page of Pinky Whitehead, we arrive at, “Miss Angela Whitehead, the present dean, stood at the podium” (31-2). Harriet describes Miss Whitehead in her typical, ruthless manner: “MISS WHITEHEAD HAS BUCK TEETH, THIN HAIR, FEET LIKE SKIS, AND A VERY LONG HANGING STOMACH” (32).

To me, either there should be a reason for Pinky Whitehead and Miss Whitehead to share surnames, or there should be a moment’s recognition by Harriet about the improbability of two despicable people both with the same last name, especially encountered as they are in such close proximity to one another.

Quotable Moments

“Writer’s don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them” (49). This passage captures, almost as an aside, a facet of human nature that describes anyone who seeks affirmation from others. Some writers may be self-sustaining creators whose works are built for themselves, but at the heart of every desire to communicate with others is a desire to be understood. And most writers, by opening themselves through communication with others, are not interested in argument, in dispute; they are looking to open a dialogue or to persuade their readers. Either way, their goal is to find that affirmation or confirmation that their views have been understood or accepted. Fitzhugh may also be making a wry self-admission that the writing itself isn’t enough; it’s the reader and their responses which make the writing have value to the writer.

“She hated math. She hated math with every bone in her body. She spent so much time hating it that she never had time to do it. She didn’t understand it at all, not a word. She didn’t even understand anyone who did understand it. She always looked at them suspiciously. Did they have some part of the brain that she didn’t have? Was there a big hole missing in her head where all the math should be?” (139). I connected with Harriet in this passage. It reminded me of every math class after fifth grade. I hated math homework. I remember completing three or so problems on the nightly homework because the teacher gave us points for including our name and the date on the paper, then she would randomly grade three problems for a total of five points. I was generally guaranteed she would pick one of the first three problems, so if I did that much, I had a good chance of earning 60%. That’s not a passing grade, but if she was grading those problems for accuracy, anyway, I wasn’t likely to earn much higher as my computation skills were (are) terrible. Fortunately, the computer has given me a tool to make up for my math deficiencies by outsourcing the computation to a machine that only makes the mistakes I give it.

“She lay in the dark and stared at nothing. She didn’t blame her father for being angry. It was all so boring” (247). Again, Fitzhugh captures the inexplicable contradictions of the childish brain. I can’t tell you how many definitions for the word “boring” I’ve tried to interpret from middle schoolers who use it to describe anything they don’t want to do or anything they don’t agree with. This is exactly the way a sixth-grader would think. The situation, the conflict with her parents, isn’t “boring,” instead she’s inconvenienced, she’s annoyed, she wants avoidance, distraction, diversion, and somehow, these feelings get wrapped up into “boring,” which has become a giant negative-connotation soup for anything and everyone who doesn’t entertain her or do what she wants.

Fitzhugh’s Use of Adverbial Prepositional Phrases

Fitzhugh frequently employs the preposition “in” as part of an adverbial prepositional phrase to describe the manner of a character’s speech. This stylistic feature is something I find problematic in my young writers. Examples include, “She said in an angry way” or, “He said in a nervous way” or even more jarring to the ear (and brain), “She said in a laughing way.”

Because this practice is a matter of style, I’ve tried to explore the source of my aversion to this specific construction.

Adverbs themselves, fashioned as they often are from adjectives mingling with the polyamorous ly, are the bane of writers everywhere – at least, that is what we are led to believe by writers writing about writing. An honest writer won’t prohibit adverbs outright, but will certainly offer warnings against their use. Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style (my copy is the Fourth Edition, but there are many others published to the great satisfaction of the estates of both Strunk and White) offer the advice “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs” (71). (Aside: for an alternate perspective and an excoriation of Strunk and White’s rule, see The Blowing of Strunk and White’s Rules Off at Language Log; my interpretation here is that Pullum takes the advice to its most absurd extreme rather than recognizing what Strunk and White point out in the same paragraph, that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color” [72].)

Stephen King, in On Writing, discusses his aversion to adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend” (117), he explains. This doesn’t mean we should always avoid the company of adverbs everywhere; rather, King recommends that we should invite them sparingly to our parties, and then with purpose. King then points out that writers should be on the lookout for adverbs used for dialogue attribution. He gives examples to help clarify what he means on page 119:

“Put it down,” she shouted.

“Put it down,” she shouted menacingly.

The former, he tells us, is always stronger than the latter.

One of several sources that discuss Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing can be found at Language Log, Avoiding Rape and Adverbs. Leonard similarly offers rule #4: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…”

I offer all of these points knowing that the specific stylistic construction I am referring to is not an adverb, but instead an adverbial prepositional phrase, and while none of these sources directly address the use of adverbial prepositional phrases, only adverbs, they do offer consistent repudiation of adverbs used in dialogue tags.

Which brings us to Fitzhugh’s writing. As I read, I kept stumbling over the preposition “in” used in adverbial prepositional phrases to modify dialogue tags. It happened so frequently that I decided to go back and identify each instance of these distracting prepositional phrases to better understand why they struck me as dissonant or inefficient.

There is a distinct formula and cadence to this style of adverbial prepositional phrase:

“Quotation” verbed the subject in a modifier(s) way/voice/manner/tone.

In the majority of instances, Fitzhugh begins the sentence with a quotation, follows the quote with the verb, comes next to the subject and finally, at the close of the sentence, indicates the manner of the speaking. Less frequently, she begins the sentence with a subject + action verb and then modifies the verb with the adverbial prepositional phrase.

Without using any software, I counted 24 instances of adverbial prepositional phrases in Harriet the Spy:

  • 18 used the pattern “in a modifier way.”
  • 3 used the pattern “in a modifier voice.”
  • 2 used the pattern “in a modifier manner.”
  • 1 used the pattern “in a modifier tone.”

So what is it about this construction?

In the first place, it requires more space to do the same job, so:

“I don’t know,” said Ole Golly in a musing way (22) could also be written by revising the participle musing into a verb: “I don’t know,” Ole Golly mused. In this example, the seven words are reduced to only three.

Or,

Janie looked at her in the strangest way (176) could be rewritten, Janie looked at her strangely, reducing the initial eight words to only five; however, the transformation appears to have changed the meaning for me, and I’m not convinced I prefer the revised version to the original.

Fitzhugh uses this pattern with frequency. There are pockets within the book where multiple adverbial prepositional phrases are located close to one another, so, for example, between 101 and 103 there are four; between pages 170 and 176 there are also four. One by itself in a novel may not be obvious or recognizable, but four within three or four pages becomes visible to the eye and ear.

The following are all the adverbial prepositional phrases I found during a second read of Harriet the Spy:

  1. ‘“I don’t know,’ said Ole Golly in a musing way” (22).
  2. “The maid was humming ‘Miss Am-er-i-ker, look at hewr, Miss Am-er-i-ker’ in a tuneless sort of way” (43).
  3. “‘Well,’ said Ole Golly in a friendly manner” (91).
  4. “…‘You’re stuck with me,’ said the cook in a grumpy way” (92).
  5. “‘NO,’ said Harriet in an exasperated way” (101).
  6. “‘I just wondered,’ said Mrs. Welsch in a bemused voice” (101).
  7. “‘Good Lord, you’re not half ready,’ he said in a very irritated way” (102).
  8. “Then in a rather stiff, formal way he said, ‘Good night, Harriet…” (103).
  9. “‘Who’s that?’ she said in a very unconcerned way” (112).
  10. “Harriet heard Ole Golly say, ‘Oh, no,’ in an astonished voice, then she slipped off the cart” (120).
  11. “‘Miss Golly . . .’ Mr. Welsch said this in a terrible voice as he headed for the door with Harriet in his arms” (122).
  12. “‘Mrs. Welsch—’ Mr. Waldenstein was smiling in a terribly ingratiating manner” (127).
  13. “He said this a warm, soft way, and then they all stood looking at Mrs. Welsch” (128).
  14. “‘Bridge,’ said Harriet in a disgusted way” (137).
  15. “She looked around in a delighted way” (153).
  16. “Harriet remembered it from last year as a long wait with your feet hurting while a terribly flustered Miss Dodge measured you in a sweaty way and, likely as not, stuck you full of pins” (155).
  17. “Her parents kissed her good night in a rather melancholy way and went out” (170).
  18. “Then, when she breathed in a very labored way and said, ‘Don’t mind me’ they really stared” (171).
  19. “Janie looked at her in the strangest way” (176).
  20. “She saw Janie looking at her in a terribly irritated way a few minutes later, but that might have been because Harriet had almost rolled into the lab table” (176).
  21. “And she got up and marched off in as dignified a way as possible under the circumstances” (183).
  22. “At any rate, suddenly she laughed in a rather spooky way, and as she did she backed away” (205).
  23. “He was telling everyone what to do in a very irritated way” (212).
  24. “Actually, what she said was, ‘You don’t have a father, do you, Rachel?’ in a fairly conversational tone” (242).

I am unable to conclude for certain whether Fitzhugh’s use of the adverbial prepositional phrase was purposeful or unintentional. Given the other qualities of her writing that I appreciate, I lean toward purposeful, as she not only captured of childhood’s nuances in her characters, but she could have intended to further reinforce those qualities by constructing adverbial prepositional phrases that mirror the kind of writing created by young writers. Or, it could simply be the case that this construction does not strike others with the same dissonance that it strikes me.

Sources:

  • Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. Delacorte Press, 2002.
  • King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Pocket Books, 2002.
  • Liberman, Mark, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log. William, James & Co., 2006. (Note, I just linked to the actual Language Log entries rather than the pages of the book, but I read and noted these comments in the book first.)
  • Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Some Thoughts on “IT” by Stephen King

The following notes were recorded in my journal over the month of March, 2018. While there are no spoilers per se, there are details from King’s novel that are better encountered as King narrates them, rather than through my descriptions.

I’m on page 891 of IT, by Stephen King. Some thoughts:

Given its heft, it’s unsurprising to note some weaknesses in IT. First, King’s specificity and attention to detail — which sets him apart as a writer — is incongruous with his accounts of memories. For example, as Mike Hanlon recounts the Silver Dollar massacre in “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” (pgs. 879-894), he does so while drunk late at night in the library. This isn’t problematic, but his accounting of the remembrances of a 93-year-old former “campaigner” (I presume lumberjack) go to such detail that Mike explains the conversations at the bar while Claude Heroux murdered men at a poker table: “At the bar, conversation had turned to what sort of winter lay ahead. Vernon Stanchfield, a farmer from Palmyra, claimed it would be a mild one — fall rain uses up winter snow was his scripture…” (pg. 889). Mike includes the opinion of Alfie Naugler, another farmer, plus two more opinions expressed at a bar over “beer and bowls of hard-cooked eggs” (pg. 890).

In this part of the novel, Mike Hanlon relates the account of Egbert Thoroughgood from an interview about an event that took place seventy-five years before. Mike’s story to his friends reads like a Stephen King novel, and of course, that’s exactly what it is. But what it isn’t is believable in its specificity and detail. So does this matter? This isn’t a structural problem, per se, because a story event connecting violent and disturbing past events with Pennywise makes structural sense. Instead, I think it’s a conscious decision of King’s to commit to telling the story: he is so immersed and we the readers are so immersed that the unrealistic details of this memory-episode fail to register for many readers (except for pedants like me).

I know from personal experience that were I to relate an episode that took place in my past, only the broadest of brush strokes would be present in my memory: possibly the location, who was involved (but not secondary characters), the gist of the conversations. Very few exact conversations have etched themselves in my memory; most of these are short nuggets or pearls that lend themselves to memory as pithy or “truths.”

King does justify the level of detail his main characters are able to remember as being a symptom of the act of remembering. He explains that all of the kids forgot about It until Mike Hanlon’s call came in, and then the memories began to come back, slowly at first, then in greater details, and this process was much more thorough than real memories would have been. So King knows and is able to justify some of his memory episodes with this narrative explanation.

Another aspect of IT that is problematic to me is the characters as children. They are fully-formed by the youthful age of 11, with a density and worldliness that seems unbelievable for their years. They interact with one another in ways that belong to adults trying to imagine how fifth graders interact with one another. Just last night, at a scholastic bowl match, a former Bradley Central student who is now an 11th grader looked at the middle schoolers bouncing chaotically and said, “If I ever acted like that, I’m sorry.” Her mom and I both said, “This is every middle schooler.”

I think King wanted to get it right, but too many years had passed since his own fifth grade days. When he wrote these characters as fifth graders, he couldn’t help but be unaware of the differences in maturity that take place during those teenage years. It’s like presentism: judging past events through the lens of now. As an adult writing about children, he crafts adult characters inhabiting children’s bodies.

It could be argued that the convergence of these specific characters as exceptions to the norm is precisely the point of IT, that these kids were assembled like the Justice League to take on the primordial monster beneath Derry, so TAKE THAT, ANDY! It was ON PURPOSE! Maybe, but to me, anyway, this is one note that came across flat.

Neither of these issues detract from the strengths of King’s book, most especially the way it is woven together from past to future, an exquisite quilt of then and now. He creates a juxtaposition of the same characters from two timelines that march step by step toward paired climaxes.

As I write this, I’m in “Part 5: The Ritual of Chud,” and the action increases in intensity as the paired storylines approach the final breaking point. King has consistently moved between events with transitions that connect the children’s storyline with the adult’s storyline, but now that we are at the climax, he moves between scenes by crossing over with words, phrases, and dialogue.

“‘…Hello” ends Chapter 3 on page 925–without even an end quotation mark (Yes, it’s hard to quote that and capture the full effect when enclosing the quotation inside quotation marks…), and chapter four begins: “…there,’ Henry Bowers said.” King provided italicized notes for context like the headings on a letter (“Kansas Street/12:20 P.M.”), but leaves the flow uninterrupted by breaks.

Another thing King does well is to drop hints about the future. Not often, but with an awareness that he has the scope of the narrative in mind and knows those future events. So, for example, on page 929, he writes, “…things might have taken a different course: the five of them might not have been fugitives from the Derry police when that day’s light finally broke.” At that point in the narrative, King reveals an alternate timeline that didn’t happen, a safe path that the characters don’t get to experience. This builds the tension. He doesn’t do this often… just frequently enough to keep his readers on the hook.

Source:

King, Stephen. IT. Viking, 1986.

Limitations of Fiction: Connections

This journal entry was originally written March 27, 2018.

I was thinking this morning about the limitations of fiction. These aren’t limitations imposed on fiction, but limitations present in the human brain that is the creator of fiction, and thus implicit in the very bones of fiction.

Characters aren’t connected enough in fiction to reflect my experiences in life. This is true of both short fiction as well as longer works (and, as you will see in a moment, it is true in other mediums, especially movies). Very few people in life exist in a vacuum like the one that surrounds characters in fiction. A map of the relationships in my life would be a densely interconnected mesh of people, from friends to family to friends of family and family of friends. Adding complexity to the mesh is the evolution over time as it builds and decays, making new connections and eroding old connections into memories.

Fiction can’t represent this labyrinth of connections except symbolically through representative samples. In Avatar, the movie by James Cameron, Jake Sully travels to another planet because his single connection, a twin brother, is killed, opening an opportunity for Jake’s DNA match to be used to control his brother’s specially grown avatar. Sully has zero connections in his life beyond his murdered brother.

In IT, by Stephen King, Eddie has an coddling, oppressive wife. I can’t remember now what other connections King included — father, aunts, but even when King does better than most at populating the connections of his world, it remains infinitesimally small in comparison to the connections present in the lives of most people.

But fiction can’t, you argue, populate every connection because no one would want to wade through such detritus of information. I accept that this is true as a reader, but I further argue that it isn’t just true from the reading side of the equation; it is true on the writing side of the equation. It doesn’t matter that the reader wouldn’t read it because the constructor can’t build it, the author can’t imagine it — such connections are simply beyond the scope of human imagination.

Now you’re thinking, “Who cares? If the human mind can’t imagine it, and the human mind isn’t interested in reading about it anyway, who really cares?” And you would be correct — if a reader doesn’t notice. But when a reader (or viewer, in the case of a movie) is able to perceive the artificiality of the connections presented in the story, then the writer should care. King is able to cover up his shortcomings with the density of his distracting connections. He gives Eddie an entire pharmacy as an example of his hypochondria, and through this sleight of hand, the reader doesn’t notice that Eddie’s life is absent of contemporary friends, those people who will miss him when he fails to show up at Thanksgiving. Not all of us have King’s ability to find the idiosyncratic as decoys. So it is up to us, as writers, to recognize that we are not able to adequately imagine the connections a character should have in the world — if that character was in fact alive — and write in such a way to minimize the distraction of this truth from affecting our reader’s ability to enjoy the narrative.

With short fiction, there is the advantage of brevity, like a photo that capture s a moment while the viewer postulates a world that must exist beyond the borders of the print and which doesn’t matter for conveying the content of the print. But even short fiction runs the risk of being too streamlined, too elegant, too perfect. Life is never perfect, and while a brilliantly elegant story may be perfect, it is also only a caricature of life, a false representation, hardly more than a fable. Fables have their place: they are didactic and essential (I think I am mostly only capable of writing fables), but they aren’t capturing life, unless it is the job of the writer to share these moments from life that are contained lessons or instructions.

DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (Revisited)

Since I deleted the original andrewwinkel.com site after my self-hosted website was hacked, I’ve had good intentions to resurrect some of the most popular posts that were lost. Yesterday, I received an email out of the blue from Lucie, who stumbled upon a breadcrumb of one of those posts, a reference to my “Do-it-yourself Sump Hole Cover.” So, Lucie, I’m actually achieving this because of you. Thanks!

There were actually two posts about the sump hole cover. In the first, I explained the background and steps that I followed to create the cover. In the second, I made modifications after the cover had been in use for a couple years. I’ve made some editorial revisions because, well, I write (or at least, in my imagination, I write) and that’s what writers do.

Finally, a special thanks goes to archive.org, where my original text remains preserved. This was much easier because of you!

DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (originally published May 8, 2011)

Background

The sump hole is original to the house which was constructed in 1958. The drainage tiles originally diverted downspout run-off into the sump hole, where it was pumped out. When we moved into the house, a 1/3 horsepower pedestal style pump failed twice, once during a power outage, and once when the float bent and caught, keeping the unit from kicking on. After dealing with inches of water in the basement a second time, I purchased a Basement Watchdog unit from Lowe’s. I discovered, when I installed the new unit, that the old sump pump had kept the water level high enough that the tiles were filled with water.  This meant that the tiles were always full of water: hundreds of gallons of water was always hanging out, and the difference between a flooded basement and an unflooded basement was only a few gallons. The new pump kept the water down to just inches. from the bottom of the hole. So this was the first advantage to the new pump.

Sump hole without cover

Now the downside, literally. With the water level so low, air was flowing through the tiles from outside the house (remember, the downspouts used to run into the tiles; although they don’t any more, they are only covered with grates to keep things, but not air, out). Over the last couple years after heavy rains the basement begins to smell. You can tell me: have your septic inspected; something is leaking. And you would be right. But here’s the problem: the town is installing a sewer system and every septic tank must be destroyed before the end of the summer. It would be a waste of money to dig up and fix a septic tank whose time has come. After reviewing a number of sites that discuss the advantages of their air-tight sump hole covers, I decided to make my own.

I chose to make a drain with a trap to allow the water to go down while preventing the air from coming up. Some covers I looked at on the internet used a ball and funnel type design, where water would lift the ball  as it drained, then the ball would create the seal. That seemed ingenious, except for one thing: all plumbing in houses uses traps to stop odors, so why not use the same concept here?

Here are some additional advantages to an air-tight sump hole cover: It’s supposed to stop Radon infiltration, it keeps moisture contained within the sump hole instead of spread throughout the basement, and it keeps the air that was blasting through the tiles from the outside from penetrating into the house.

Material List

  • 10 foot long 1″ x 4″ PVC trim board (cost around $17)
  • 1 PVC Trap (1 ½”)
  • 1 PVC Reducer (from 3″ to 1 ½”)
  • PVC Glue
  • Silicon Caulk
  • Assorted scrap 1 ½” PVC

Total Project Cost: Less than $50

Process

First, let’s take a look at the original cover. It was constructed from assorted pieces of 2x treated lumber. It was not sealed and was constantly wet since water drained onto it. BUT, it kept my children from falling into it.

Original sump cover made from treated wood
  • I decided that like the original wood cover, the PVC cover should run from the north to the south (left to right in the picture). Any cut-outs needed to be set into a side of the trim board rather than cutting the board in two. Using the existing cover as a template I cut the PVC trim board to width and used a jigsaw to make rough openings for the sump pump.
  • I traced the PVC reducer and used a jigsaw to cut an opening for it. I actually meant to have it on the other side, but due to a mix-up in what is up and what is down, cut it on the opposite side I meant. Since the location of the drain was nothing more than a preference, I didn’t worry about it. If I had cut the hole for the sump pump itself, however, that would have been another story…
  • I edge-glued the trim boards and put the trap together with glue. I glued two pieces with the idea that I would seal the remaining edges with caulk so I could remove it as needed.
Underside of sump cover, including PVD drain with trap
  • I used caulk to line the perimeter of the sump hole as well as the edges where the two pieces would meet, then set both pieces in the sump hole.
  • I ran another bead of caulk around the perimeter, smoothing the edges to seal.
  • I cut additional pieces to stair-step and glue to form tight fit around the PVC from the sump pump.
  • I caulked the remaining gaps.
  • I then bought assorted PVC to re-route any drains (in this case, the furnace and the reverse-osmosis units) to run directly into the drain. The remaining PVC line that doesn’t make it to the drain in the photos is from the softener, which isn’t running at the moment. When I have it running it will also extend to the drain.
Finished sump cover
Finished sump cover detail

Final Thoughts

Since the cover was installed there has been no smell in the basement. The cover may also help the humidity, and if so, that will mean running the dehumidifier less, which will be a cost savings also.

Disclaimer: This page is not intended to replace the advice of a professional. It simply relates what I did. And what I did may be wrong. That’s one of the ways I learn, by trying things and discovering that I did something wrong. I’m a lot smarter now than I was five years ago, and I hope I’ll be even smarter five years from now.

DIY Sump Hole Cover Redux (Originally published on July 22, 2015)

Previously I explained how to build your own do-it-yourself air-tight sump hole cover using PVC, glue, and caulk. Since then, my sump cover met its match when it tried to swallow a ping-pong ball. The more I tried to remove the ping-pong ball from the inside of the 1 1/2″ PVC trap, the more the trap became blocked; the end result was I had to remove the entire sump hole cover to get the ping-pong ball out of the drain. This proved particularly troublesome since there was no convenient way to pull the cover off. In the end I was forced to drill a hole in the cover and use an L-shaped piece of metal inserted into the hole to give me pulling power to remove the cover; otherwise I couldn’t find any way to get the cover off.

Before re-attaching the cover I decided to make some minor improvements that were not incorporated in the initial design. Obviously the first modification needed to be a handle so the cover can be removed when necessary.

Three additional ping-pong balls had found their way into the sump hole while the cover was off (plus two Nerf balls). The drain needed some kind of cover or screen to prevent anything from blocking it.

One thing that had always bugged me about the original cover was that I could not see anything going on inside. How much water was sitting in the hole? It was always a mystery, and the only way to know what was going on in the covered hole was to listen to the water trickling in or the pumps running. A window to see into the sump hole would be an ideal addition to the design.

First Modification: Handle

I attached a handle to part of the cover. Rather than use the screws that came with the handle, I bolted it all the way through the cover. I caulked the bottom and top before tightening the screws and bolts.

Attach handle using bolts.

 Second Modification: Drain Cover

This choice was really a matter of convenience. I needed something to fill the drain, but I didn’t want a screen that could get blocked with lint or dust or dirt. I tried looking around the house for a ball, something larger than a ping-pong ball that would float and create a barrier to keep out ping-pong balls or other smaller objects, but nothing that I came across worked. As I was standing at my workbench, I noticed an empty seltzer bottle in the garbage can. I thought, why not? And I cut the bottom from it.

Remove bottom from plastic bottle.

Next, I used tin snips to cut triangles between the ridges of the base:

Use scissors or snips or a razor blade to remove triangles from the base of the bottle.

Finally, I set the bottle cut-side down in the drain. It fits; water will flow down over it and through the cut triangles without any risk of ping-pong balls getting in.

Set plastic bottle base cut-side down into drain.

Is it elegant? No. Is it going to win design awards? Does it look like HAL2000? Not really. But does it work? Yes.

Third Modification: Window

Inserting the window from the beginning would have been preferable to adding it after the pieces had all been glued in place. Ideally I would have cut the opening for the window, then routed a lip to recess the plastic. This was after-the-fact, however, so ideal wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to resort to a plain, old jigsaw hole.

For the window I found a $4 piece of Lexan plastic at Menards.

Lexan plastic for sump window

I used a square to scribe a rectangle on the plastic:

Mark the rectangle to be removed.

Then I used a drill to give my jigsaw a place to start and cut out the rectangle:

Drill starter hole.
Use jigsaw to cut rectangle from plastic.
Finished hole

While there may be recommended tools to cut Lexan, I simply used an X-acto knife and a straight edge. After scoring the plastic a number of times, I bent it until it snapped. This is the step that could probably result in a painful injury, so for heaven’s sake, be careful! After cutting the plastic, I found that my hole was 1/8″ too short, and it was easier to use the jigsaw to remove an additional 1/8″ than try to re-cut the plastic.

Cut plastic ready to be inserted

I spread plastic wrap on the work area. After placing the cover face down, I set the cut Lexan into the opening, then applied the silicone caulk to the perimeter. Again, I’ll mention that ideally there would be a lip around the perimeter that would hold the plastic level to the surface of the sump cover; this method only holds the plastic in place with caulk, so it cannot support weight. Hopefully you aren’t standing on your sump cover anyway.

Set plastic into opening.
Caulk perimeter and let dry.

Once the caulk dried, I put a second layer of caulk around the plastic on the other side of the cover.

Set Cover

I cleaned the area around the sump hole and ran a fan on it for a couple hours to dry it out before setting the cover in place.

Prepare sump hole for the cover by cleaning and allowing drying time.

I ran a bead of caulk around the perimeter, but with the variations in the lip from age and deterioration, some sections did not allow for a good seal.

Apply a bead of caulk to perimeter of sump hole.

Something I failed to mention previously was that I realized after I installed the cover the first time that the sump hole was not level; water that ran onto the cover didn’t run straight to the drain; instead, it pooled on one side. I used this opportunity to make sure the cover sat in such a way that the water would be directed toward the drain. Running a second bead of caulk around the perimeter and on every seam insured a snug fit and a good seal.

Finish the cover by adding caulk between the pieces, to the perimeter, and along every seam.
Detail of the drain in use: no ping-pong balls are going in here!
Finished DIY air-tight sump hole cover

Conclusion

If you are fortunate enough to have a prefabricated sump hole unit, there may be covers available for cheap that will save you the stress and time of building your own. Most everything I found online was for round sump holes; many did not include drains, or were not air-tight. If you have a house like mine that was built in another era (mine is from the 1950s), building your own may be the best option. I suppose it’s possible this sump cover is not 100% air-tight, but it has to be pretty darn close. Plus, this is the only cover I see that incorporates a window to see into the sump hole.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories or feedback. Leave me a comment below!

Compulsory Disclaimer: This post does not take the place of professional advice; it simply describes what I did. I am in no way responsible for you, your choices, your experiences, and your problems. In other words: use at your own risk!

What is a miracle?

Simon Blackburn, in his book, Think, explains, “The prior probability that the miracle occurred is very, very small. The ‘basic rate’ is near zero. That is because miracles are the kind of thing that either never happen, or almost never happen” (183). He goes on to refer to “flying elephants, being taken into sexual slavery by Martians, or conversations with the living Elvis” (183). The issue with this reasoning isn’t the improbability of his examples; it’s the expectation that miracles rarely or never occur. His examples aren’t miracles, they’re fantasies. The universe is filled with what is, but what isn’t is infinitely more than what is (at least, within the finite scope of our finite existence). So instead of choosing the improbable and expecting such improbabilities to be examples of miracles, I say miracles are everywhere all the time. My existence itself is a miracle of circumstance, a chain of events any one of which would, by not having happened, remove me from the equation. The greater miracle isn’t what isn’t, it’s what is.

Lucille Clifton, in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me,” writes,

…come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me
(For a better understanding of the power of this poem, watch the poet read her work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM7q_DUk5wU

I found the above in a journal dated 8-16-17. I tacked the excerpt from Lucille Clifton to the end because it is, to me, the most succinct, powerful, and memorable passage that reinforces my point: we are all miracles.

Reflections on “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier

The eighth-grade reading teacher at Bradley Central, Kelly Carroll, lent me a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It was, she said, her favorite book when she read it in high school and remains one of her favorites. Initially I wanted to make a few comments on the telling of the book to share with her after I finished, but as I began reflecting on the book, I began to find more and more to write about. I decided, as these reflections are interesting to me, that they may be of interest to others. I have specifically chosen not to look up anything online about the book, so the source materials for these reflections are my own thoughts and the novel itself.

Be warned: It’s impossible to write about Rebecca without writing about the book as a whole. This means revealing secrets and events that are essential to the story, but that are best experienced by reading Rebecca for yourself. This commentary contains spoilers.

The copy Mrs. Carroll lent me is from her classroom library. It’s actually has a terrifically tiny font with hardly any margins. I purchased reading glasses so I could read it and found myself cursing the margins on every page. If you are selecting a version of the text to read, I don’t recommend it, but as I used this copy for page references, it is

Du Marier, Daphne. Rebecca. 1938. Avon Books, 1971.

 

Paradise Lost

From the very first line of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” – the narrator makes it clear that Manderley is not just a setting in the novel, it is something greater. In most novels, the settings serve as backdrops for the action; In Rebecca, Manderley is described with exquisite detail and as an ever-present edifice representing the de Winter family’s pride and social status. For Maxim de Winter, Manderley is symbolically Eden: a place of supreme happiness that is lost forever. But neither is Rebecca Eve nor even the forbidden fruit. Rather, she is sin, the sin of selfishness and self-love collected in a single soul so that Maxim de Winter, upon entering his marriage with her, his contract with her, is swindled out of his principles into her sins. While she does not convert him, she does stain him until he becomes that most heinous of sinners, a murderer.

Rebecca does not chronicle Maxim de Winter’s fall; instead the fall is unraveled, told years after the fact, through the memories of an innocent newcomer, the unnamed protagonist and narrator who chronicles her own experiences with Maxim de Winter and who, through these experiences, finally shows the reader how de Winter became a murderer and lost his Eden.

The Telling

Although a first-person telling invites the reader into the teller’s thoughts, the voice of the protagonist of Rebecca is very cerebral: the teller frequently supposes or imagines – even predicts what she expects to happen – and then the narrative goes on to relate what really happened, thus adding to her characterization through the contrast between the mental scenes and the scenes that actually play out. A significant percentage of the novel takes places within these mental excursions which, while atmospheric, can be tedious if a reader considers that he is spending time reading the speculations of a teller who already knows the truth of the past and could just as easily have recounted that truth instead of the imagined events.

Here is an example: “We should grow old here together, we should sit like this to our tea as old people, Maxim and I, with our dogs, the successors of these, and the library would wear the same ancient musty smell that it did now. It would know a period of glorious shabbiness and wear when the boys were young—our boys—for I saw them sprawling on the sofa with muddy boots, bringing with them always a litter of rods, and cricket bats, great clasp-knives, bows-and-arrows” (69). This mental excursion lasts for around three paragraphs before it is interrupted by another character, “My vision was disturbed by the opening of the door…” (69).

As a technique, this practice of shifting into “I wondered ” or “would” or “should” creates an immediacy to the telling, especially as it is only when a person goes through events that he or she tends to speculate about the what-ifs, and during a re-telling or recounting (which is what a first-person telling is[1]) tends to omit those speculations in favor of capturing the teller’s version of events.

Finishing Rebecca, a reader may start over at the beginning and notice that the first and most of the second chapter are really the denouement, not the beginning at all. It is only in the final paragraphs of the second chapter, after the teller attempts to describe Mrs. Van Hopper’s usual manner of ingratiating herself into the company of the wealthy or famous that the first moment of action takes place: Mrs. Van Hopper looks at and makes a comment about Max de Winter. Her comment, “They say he can’t get over his wife’s death…” placed as it is at the conclusion of chapter two, is not foreshadowing. It’s misdirection.

 

The “New Mrs. de Winter”

Why doesn’t the new Mrs. de Winter, the narrator of the novel Rebecca, ever share her name?

As far as the protagonist knows, Rebecca drowned tragically in a boating accident less than one year before the narrator met Maxim de Winter. Rebecca appears to have been beloved, and as the new Mrs. de Winter interprets it, existed as a paragon of style and society, almost a force of nature. The narrator, in contrast, is everything Rebecca was not. Where Rebecca was forceful, the narrator is timid; where Rebecca always spoke with exactly the right words or acted in exactly the right way, the narrator is uncertain, embarrassed; where Rebecca always dressed at the height of fashion, or decorated with the eye of a connoisseur, the narrator is frequently made aware of her homemade simplicity, of her plainness; and as the narrator explained, “She called him Max” (43), but “I had to call him Maxim” (43).

These contrasts are ever-present in the mind of the narrator and thusly in the minds of the readers. As she cannot forget it, we cannot forget it. Everyone remembers Rebecca, and if they do not remember Rebecca, they are imagined to be doing so within the mental excursions of the narrator.

A name is power, it is identity, and in Rebecca, it is the absent and yet perpetually present personality of Rebecca who dominates the narrative. By the conclusion of the book, an interesting thing happens: the reader discovers that the new Mrs. de Winter is not a foil to Rebecca; rather, it is Rebecca who is the foil to the narrator. All of the qualities that the narrator imagines in Rebecca are only the surface of what Rebecca truly is. Rebecca’s appearance is nothing more than a patina, a shine that covers rot. This realization answers an important question that has been present for the reader since the beginning: Why did Maxim de Winter choose as his new wife the narrator, especially contrasting her with Rebecca? It’s only at the close of the novel that the reader understands: where Rebecca demanded, the narrator accepted; where Rebecca plotted and schemed for herself, the narrator kept secrets with only the wish to impress or surprise Maxim; where Rebecca despised Maxim, the narrator loves and adores Maxim.

The narrator is never named because the story, her story, is a journey out obscurity, out of uncertainty, from under the shadow of Rebecca’s dominating personality until her own personality has been transformed through the process in a chemical purification that leaves her as a new substance. She becomes Mrs. de Winter, the wife of Maxim de Winter. And if that identity is not satisfying to us, it is satisfying to her, and that is all that matters to her telling.

 

Rotten to the Core

If Manderley is a symbol for Maxim de Winter and its destruction the result of his marriage with Rebecca and his guilt, then the cancer that eats Rebecca is itself symbolic of Rebecca. Perfect on the outside: beautiful, graceful, poised, immaculate, composed, refined. Inside she writhes with malice and greed, a selfish hedonist with no affection for anyone, except maybe Mrs. Danvers (and this is even questionable given what the reader comes to realize about Rebecca).

Maxim de Winter was taken in by her “Beauty, brains, and breeding” (272), but soon discovered that Rebecca came with a price. “She made a bargain with me,” he tells the narrator (273). “She knew I would sacrifice pride, honour, personal feeling, every damned quality on earth, rather than stand before our little world after a week of marriage and have them know the things about her that she had told me then” (273). It is the ultimate shake-down. Rebecca takes control of Maxim. She ensures their fiction of a marriage maintains an appearance of perfection at the price of keeping her life of liasons. The extent of her extra-marital affairs is described by Mrs. Danvers:

A man had only to look at her once and be mad about her. I’ve seen them here, staying in the house, men she’d meet up in London and bring for week-ends. She would take them bathing from the boat, she would have a picnic supper at her cottage in the cove. They made lover to her of course, who would not? She laughed, she would come back and tell me what they had said, and what they’d done. She did not mind, it was like a game to her. Like a game (245).

Rebecca used others for her amusement, as Mrs. Danvers explains when Jack Favell asks that she confirm Rebecca loved him. “She was not in love with you, or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that” (340). Had the reader only de Winter’s explanation of Rebecca to trust, it could be doubted. He could be biased, a scorned lover, a resentful husband. But when Mrs. Danvers reveals such information in a fit of anger, it seals the reader’s impression of the real Rebecca, the person beneath the façade, the rot at the core of the person. At another point, Mrs. Danvers attempts to convince the new Mrs. de Winter of her inferiority, pushing her to suicide. During that conversation, she reveals Rebecca’s true nature: “She was never one to stand mute and still and be wronged. ‘I’ll see them in hell, Danny,’ she’d say, ‘I’ll see them in hell first.’ ‘That’s right, my dear,’ I’d tell her, ‘No one will put upon you. You were born into this world to take what you could out of it,’ and she did. She didn’t care, she wasn’t afraid” (242-243), and “She did what she liked, she lived as she liked” (243).

Rebecca’s cancer is the final twist in the story. The reader expects that Doctor Baker will confirm that Rebecca was pregnant with Favell’s child, but instead he reveals, “the growth was deep-rooted…and in three or four months’ time she would have been under morphia. An operation would have been no earthy use at all” (367). The reader discovers, instead of the expected life, of generation, of birth, that Rebecca is filled with death. Further, Rebecca’s generative powers are deformed and useless. Doctor Baker tells Colonel Julyan, Favell, and the de Winters, “The X-rays showed a malformation of the uterus, I remember, which meant she could never have had a child, but that was quite apart, it had nothing to do with the disease” (367). She is revealed, at the conclusion of the novel, as ultimately fallow and ultimately rotten both physically and symbolically.

 

Forgiving a Murderer

Maxim de Winter is a murderer. There is no doubt that he murdered Rebecca. He shot her, stuck her body in a boat, and deliberately sunk the evidence. He cleaned up the mess and months after the boat disappeared, identified another body as that of Rebecca. This was not a mercy killing; he did not know Rebecca was terminally ill. Instead, he thought she was pregnant with a child that did not belong to him, and he killed her out of rage and frustration.

De Winter’s account of Rebecca’s death takes on new meaning once Doctor Baker reveals that she was terminally ill. When de Winter relates his final conversation with Rebecca, he acknowledges, “She looked ill, queer” and “She looked very pale, very thin” (278), but neither of these observations overshadow Rebecca’s implication that she is pregnant with Favell’s child.

Re-reading this section, it’s clear that Rebecca wants Maxim to kill her. She knows that she has months to live, months before she wastes away. “It’s time,” she tells Maxim, “I turned over a new leaf” (278). And with that, she starts tearing apart all of de Winter’s fears and weaknesses. Every sentence she speaks is a knife stabbed into de Winter’s heart, into his pride. She points out that he has no evidence to divorce her: “All your friends, even our servants, believe our marriage to be a success” (278); she points out that Mrs. Danvers will “swear anything I ask her” (279); she notes that a case would only serve to “make [de Winter] look very foolish” (279). Her final remarks are calculated to incense de Winter to murder. Rebecca paints a picture of her son (she uses the possessive pronoun “my,” purposely excluding de Winter from paternity) growing up and enjoying all of the best features of de Winter’s “beloved Manderley” (279). She uses irony when she asks, “It would give you the biggest thrill of your life … to watch my son grow bigger day by day, and to know that when you died, all this would be his?” (279). She returns to her earlier statement about renewal when she asks, “Well, you heard me say I was going to turn over a new leaf didn’t you? Now you know the reason” (279).

Every man has a breaking point, and Maxim de Winter broke. Rebecca knew he would break, pushed him to break, and died as he “fired at her heart” (300).

We don’t know why Rebecca chose to push de Winter to murder. We don’t know whether she wished to avoid the disease that would waste her into a shadow of her vibrant, buoyant self; whether she chose his rage as a means to end her life and destroy de Winter at the same time; whether she really had, for a moment, turned over a new leaf and given de Winter the final satisfaction of punishing her with finality.

As readers, we find de Winter’s behavior presents a difficult conundrum. On one hand, we recognize that Rebecca’s behavior is vile and despicable, but we also recognize that de Winter murdered her and her (as he believed it) unborn child. Although we learn later that she was not, in fact, pregnant, it’s impossible to ignore that de Winter murdered Rebecca when he thought she was pregnant; it’s impossible to call him innocent.

De Winter’s guilt may be why Du Maurier leaves the novel unsatisfying at its conclusion. Manderley’s desolation could be rebuilt. The new Mrs. de Winter, though older and more resolute than she was during the events of the novel, could still become the lady to her wealthy gentleman, the Cinderella to her prince. De Winter and his second wife could move on, push beyond the deeds of the past to build a life together that offers redemption and rebirth in a newly-built estate. But the novel never gives de Winter, his wife, or the reader any sense of redemption, unless the quiet life where “day after day dawns very much the same, yet we would not have it otherwise” (6) is satisfying. This hollow resolution, this half-life, may be all that de Winter gets for his part in Rebecca’s death.

It is possible, though never recounted in Rebecca, that hope remains for the de Winters to move past the events of the novel. As it stands at the conclusion, Rebecca has won: she has destroyed de Winter in her death, even as she destroyed him in their marriage; she has destroyed Manderley (through Mrs. Danvers, her agent); she has destroyed her successor’s chance for an idyllic fairy-tale ending. As the reader has followed the new Mrs. de Winter’s story, our sympathies lie with her and the hope that Manderley will be rebuilt and flourish, that she will live the happily-ever-after that we expect. But it does not happen within the pages of Rebecca, only in our own mental excursions, our own wonderings of would or should.

[1] The only way to create a greater immediacy in a first person telling would be to use the present tense, but the problem with such a telling is that the believability of the narrative comes into question when the reader asks, “How is the narrator recording this?” A person cannot both act and write, “I swing my arm, plant my knuckles into his face. The crunch of knuckle on cheek stings, and the echo of collision sounds as his face rebounds, his equilibrium is thrown off and he falls back, roaring in pain or anger or both.”