The Tale of the Hare
If I were playing the part of a movie pulp fiction detective (think Bogart’s “Sam Spade”), and a leggy blond perched on the end of my desk asked me to take the “Too Happy for Words” case, a mystery in the form of an essay, the first question I would have is: Why in the world did someone (me, in real life) doodle a guy chasing a hare (or is it a rabbit?) on the last page of an otherwise straightforward essay about marriage, motherhood and fiction writing? I’m sure of one thing, the real me didn’t unconsciously doodle the image as an audition to illustrate the text. If by some chance I were to get such a gig, a rabbit would be the last thing to occur to me. I just re-read the McDermott essay (excellent, by the way), and there are no rabbits or hares in it; and discounting human babies, no small animals of any description. So far, then, my investigation has dead-ended.
The “Too Happy for Words” essay by novelist Alice McDermott (“A Bigamist’s Daughter, “That Night,” “Charming Billy”), is collected in the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, a paperback published in 2003. From the rereading I’ve concluded that the essay is concerned mainly with the different attitudes to marriage and motherhood held by some wary young feminists and their older “sisters,” many of whom have married and are, on the surface at least, happily raising kids. It seems the question the younger women are asking (and some of the older women are asking themselves), is to what extent, if at all, does familial devotion stunt their ambition and creativity. Here’s how Ms. McDermott puts it: “I wonder if it’s superstition: if we feel that to admit to such contentment in life would compromise our status as artists—perhaps recalling the poor actress in The Portrait of Dorion Gray who fell in love and lost her talent.” And Ms. McDermott goes on, “As a writer I recognize that much of this can be accounted for by the demands of plot—no doubt all happy mothers are like happy families: alike. And as Tolstoy warned us, sustained joy doesn’t make much of a story.”
This final McDermott quote I marked provides the clue I need to solve the case. On the last page, just above my doodle, she writes: “Fiction requires the attendant threat, the dramatic reversal, not only because these are the things that make for plot and tension and a sense of story, but because without them any depiction of our joy might appear overstated. We hesitate to include in our fiction what so often strikes us in life as something too good to be true.”
Put another way, Ms. McDermott is talking about conflict, the device that drives all story telling. And with that I think I’ve found my little insight, the knowledge which logically leads to a solution of the original query. Rabbits are famous for having lots of babies, right? In fact, they are the very symbol of fecundity—motherhood squared, so to speak? And is there anything cuter than little bunnies hop, hop, hopping in a field of flowers or down the road? But what happens when you add a man pursuing the bunny with something else in mind, perhaps something sinister like dinner? With those questions in mind I think I can say that the mystery of the connection between and among marriage, motherhood, fiction writing, and my doodle, is solved. My unconscious illustrator seems to have come up with an idea my conscious mind would have surly missed, or rejected: The “attendant threat” of a man on the hunt, and the joy he finds in that, contrasted by the sheer terror felt by his prey. Case closed.
“The Tale of the Hare” is the second in a series of occasional posts under the title Marginalia. In these posts I will display and comment upon a full-page scan from one of my personal library books on which I’ve doodled and/or underlined—or, as some would claim, otherwise defaced a scared text (to the true bibliophile all text is scared). These folks, shocked by the desecration, predict (and seem to wish), that I will suffer some vile punishment for my transgressions. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.