Sunday 24 November 2019

Stories: why it's important to ask questions that don't have right/wrong answers

In the book, 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak, there's a moment where the main character, Max, wants to be 'where someone loved him best of all'. This comes after he has tamed the Wild Things. The word 'someone' is one of those words we have which are 'indeterminate'. They tell us something but nothing in particular. 'Someone ate the last chocolate'; 'Someone sent me some flowers'. In other words we think that a human being is involved (though possibly a pet dog in the case of the 'chocolate'!) but we don't know who.

When we read a book and come across a word like this, it is an example of 'Reveal-conceal'. Something is revealed but we don't know exactly what. Authors hope that by using words like this it will 'hook' the reader into wanting to know more, to be curious and to keep reading. Such words express the kinds of doubts that we all have as events roll out in our own lives. Eventually, with certain kinds of fiction, we hope that certainty will be restored, we will find out who that 'someone' is. There is another kind of fiction e.g. modernist fiction along the lines of Kafka novels, where the indeterminacies are not resolved. People started writing novels like this in part to demolish what they saw as the naive and false notion at the heart of conventional fiction that everything does work out in the end. The modernists' were saying, in effect, no they don't. 

In 'Where the Wild Things Are' some people take the 'someone' to be Max's mother. This is possible. 

I'm going to pose some other ways of viewing this.

We only hear of Max's mother at the beginning of the book. She is the recipient of Max's threat that he'll eat her up. She is the person who sends Max to his room. Being sent to your room is a classic case of what the psychologist Bowlby called 'detachment'. When we are growing up, we are engaged in a set of attachment-detachment mini-dramas. Parents and children go through a kind of dance where we do things like demanding affection (attachment) or pushing people away (detachment) or a mixture of both. We have 1000s of ways of doing this verbally and physically. 

Max is aggressive at the beginning of the book, so it's a kind of extreme verbal detachment. He is going to be so detaching he is going to make his mother disappear (by eating her). By sending Max to his room, the mother detaches physically. 

I'm going to suggest here that within the drama of the book, (psycho-drama, if you prefer), Max has 'tested' his mother and at the point of being in his room, he  does not 'know' that his mother loves him unconditionally. Are there limits to her love? And he's found the limit? Let's leave that hanging. 

Now come back to that phrase 'he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all'. One way to think of this, as I said, is to just assume that this is his mother. Another way is to think of it as meaning he wanted to be where anyone loved him best of all. In other words, it's a yearning for the kind of unconditional love that he didn't get when he said that he was going to eat up his mother. The word 'someone' is to indicate that he just has the yearning feeling. 

Another way - even more extreme - is to think that perhaps Max had someone else in mind. The word 'someone' doesn't help us resolve this. Nor should it, necessarily. The book was written in the 1960s after 50 years or more of modernist writing in which these kinds of indeterminacies can often be found. 

When Max gets back home from the land where the Wild Things are, there is a bowl of something hot waiting for him. People often take that to be a kind of symbolic offering of love from...his mother. To think this or say this involves several assumptions: that his mother is the maker and bringer of hot food; that to make and bring hot food is an act of love; that to make and bring hot food is an act of forgiveness and/or unconditional love.

All fine. These are possibilities. Again , I'm going to suggest another one. What if, yes, we are right to assume that it's the mother who has brought the food, but rather than it being an act of forgiveness and/or unconditional love, it's an act of 'staying detached'. It is after all, just an object. Of course, we can express emotions through giving and withholding objects. But is it, we can ask, significant that the mother is not visible at the beginning and the end of the book? So when Max is described as wanting to be where 'someone' loved him best of all, that matches the indeterminacy of us not being able to 'see' the mother, perhaps in a kind of imitation of how Max feels: that he cannot 'see' his mother. 

In the end, then, we know the mother through her sending Max to his room, as possibly the person who left him some hot food, and possibly being the 'someone' who loved him 'best of all'. 

On the other hand, perhaps the book is a reverie, an exploration on attachment-detachment and that Max is discovering the limits of this in relation to his mother. The word 'someone' then is a pivot to the whole book: he and us quite genuinely don't know if the person who loves him best of all is his mother. All he knows is that that's what he wants. Whether he's entitled to it - or do any of us indeed ? - is another matter. 

Now, let's imagine some kind of test on 'Where the Wild Things Are'. The tests I'm familiar with (English schools SATs for 7 and 11 year olds) have questions which can only be right or wrong. These are tests in 'retrieval', 'inference', 'chronology' and 'presentation'. You could make up some questions in these fields for 'Where the Wild Things Are': how many Wild Things are there? Why did Max get into a boat? What did Max do after he had tamed the Wild Things? What goes on, on the pages where there are no words? 

But what if you asked 'who is the someone' in the phrase 'where someone loved him best of all'? There is no definite answer. We might say that it's likely that it's his mother, but I think that would miss this general point I am making that perhaps the significance of the phrase is that he wants to be where 'anyone' would love him best of all. More than that, I'm going to argue that a discussion  about this word 'someone' leads us into much more significant places than retrieval, inference, chronology and presentation. We need to give space and time to children to have these kinds of discussion about the 'indeterminate' moments in books. 

If this interests you,  you might find it interesting to take any forms of fiction or poetry or drama and ask questions of moments in any of them were a determinate answer is not possible. We could summarise these as 'Hamlet questions'. They are the 'why didn't Hamlet kill his uncle?' questions. 

One way to access these kinds of moments in stories is to ask questions like:  'is there anything about this moment that makes you think of a moment like this that has happened to you?' Or, 'is there anything about this moment that makes you think of another moment like this in another story, film, book, song, TV programme, comic?'