Loretta Kathryn De Vault Dolby was born on October 10, 1911, in Oakley, Illinois. She moved to Michigan while still a young girl and taught in a one-room school in Altoft after finishing high school and county normal. In 1935 she enrolled at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. She was graduated from Manchester in 1938 and worked for a year in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1940 she married Charles Dolby of Huntington, Indiana, who at that time worked as a barber and carpenter. He later served as a city fireman in Huntington, and she resumed her teaching career at Clear Creek School in Huntington County. They had five children: Carol, Richard, Steven, Sandra, and Thomas. I am the fourth of these children. The story that is presented as an instructional text below is one I have heard many times. Like Larry’s story, it relates an incident that occurred during that transitional period just before the primary responsibilities and perspectives of adulthood are fully accepted. In this case, Mom was a college student enrolled in summer school for her very last class before graduation.
The instructional text will be segmented as was the text in chapter 4. In this text, however, a summary list of anlaytical codes will close each segment. These codes were discussed briefly in chapter 3. The three primary codes are discourse, type, and style. A second and third version of the story are included in the Appendix.
TC-1: [Setting] The Canary, or The Yellow Dress
The setting here refers to the actual situation in which the story was told. It was a Saturday morning, October 13, 1973. The locale was my parents’ home on Vine Street in Huntington, Indiana. The kitchen is large. My father expanded both stories of the wood frame house toward the west in 1948. The kitchen is twelve feet by eighteen feet, with cupboards all along the west wall except for the two single-sash, counterbalanced windows above the counter. Yellow texture-painted walls make this the cheeriest room in the house. A chrome-and-formica table sits in the center of the kitchen with six tubular-frame yellow chairs spaced around it. Today one extra table leaf has been inserted, since my brother Steve’s family and my husband and I will be here for the noon meal. The two fluorescent lights are burning though it is nearly midday. From the circular light fixture hang Mom’s yellow ceramic lovebirds on their tarnished copper swing. There they have swung since 1960, when one of Mom’s fourth-graders gave them to her as a Christmas present. Above the alcove leading to the basement and back door are two ceramic fruit arrangements that have flanked the kitchen clock for as long as I can remember. My brother Steve, Dad, and my husband (Mark) are in the garage (connected north of the house by an enclosed back porch). Dad included a small workshop when he built the double garage. It serves as a social locale for the men in the family. Steve’s children—Michelle and Kyle—are in and out of the kitchen while the story is told. My mother, Steve’s wife (Bobbie), and I are sitting around the table. I had asked Mom to tell Bobbie about the time she and her roommate ate twelve hot dogs between them. The verbal context suggests that Mom cues the story of “The Canary, or The Yellow Dress” herself by picking up on the topic of inflationary prices initially voiced at the close of the “Hot Dog” story.
Mom: ... and right around the corner was this Coney Island hot dog place, and we could get three hot dogs for a quarter. And my roommate usually was waiting up for me. So this particular night I went down and got twelve hot dogs for a dollar and took them home. And the two of us sat there in bed—a little after midnight—eating twelve Coney Island hot dogs. [Laughs]—But, now you can’t get one for a quarter, let alone three!
Analytical codes (Segment TC-1):
Discourse/Situation: Verbal context
TC-2: Mom: When I was at Manchester that last summer....
The verbal context is atypical in this instance. Mom knows that I am trying to get some of her stories on tape, so she obligingly provides and accepts her own cue. And, of course, neither Bobbie nor I am inclined to take the floor, as might otherwise be natural even in a family interaction where grown children are expected to show respect by not breaking in when their parents are speaking. This particular interaction rule is fairly well established in our family. Because the behavior pattern is tacitly shared, newer members of the family (in-laws) must gradually learn it. That is, one learns to listen when Dad reads a newspaper article aloud or to not interrupt or compete when Mom tells one of her stories. The text in this instance is not verbally interrupted, an example of family convention influencing the strategy of discourse.
The date implied in this segment can be approximated from a general notion of when Mom attended college. She was graduated from Manchester in 1938 with a B.S. in Elementary Education. Her last year closed with one more course yet to be taken. She taught a course in tests and measurements during the summer of 1938 in order to pay tuition for her own last requirement. So, the date of the story is “that last summer”— 1938. In a version of the story recorded a year later (October 3, 1974), she responds directly to my question “What summer was that?” with the answer, “The summer of thirty-eight.” (See “The Yellow Dress”—version #2, in the Appendix.) Furthermore, it is apparent in the second version that I am incorporating an unspoken allusion to the waning years of the Great Depression—the 1930s in the United States—when I ask, “How could they afford to be giving away a hundred dollars?” The theme of surviving economic hard times is sounded early in the story and is emphasized throughout the text. It is also a common theme in a number of other stories in my mother’s repertoire of personal narratives.
Another important allusion in this segment is in the offhand reference to Manchester. Manchester is both a town in the state of Indiana and a college; the North in North Manchester (the name of the town in which Manchester College is located) is usually dropped in daily conversation. Actually, there is no other Manchester around except for the small settlement in Dearborn County, Indiana, which is, to be sure, south of North Manchester. The town of North Manchester was formerly called simply Manchester, presumably after the city in England (though I would suspect its counterpart in York County, Pennsylvania, given the Brethren and Mennonite background of many people in and around Manchester); its name was changed to North Manchester when the postal service reported the earlier existence of the Dearborn County village.1
The town of North Manchester is in Wabash County, just twenty miles northwest of Huntington. It is a small town with a typical store-fronted Main Street (State Road 114). The campus of Manchester College is located on the north edge of town along the Eel River. Immediately prominent in the town are the large oak and sycamore trees that line the wide common ground between residential lots and the major north-south streets. A few of the streets still proudly exhibit their original red-orange Indiana brickwork, and there are a few remaining ceramic herringbone sidewalks that were so common when Mom went to school there. Large oak trees and red brick buildings dominate the campus of Manchester College as well. Oldest of the college buildings are the three-story Administration Building with its central chime tower, a smaller brick building that used to house the library and now serves as a classroom building, and two dormitories—Oakwood Hall for women and Ikenberry Hall for men. These and a few other buildings that have since been razed or remodeled were the physical confines of the college when my mother was in school. The trees, the river, and the Pacific Central tracks that run behind the campus are as they were then, except for rust on the sad old tracks that feel the wheels no more.
Manchester alludes to much more than the physical environment of the town and campus—idyllic as that environment is. Manchester is also a catch word for a kind of experience—the “Manchester experience,” as it is usually touted in the public-relations bulletins. In this segment of Mom’s story, it is understood that Mom and I share this experience by virtue of our both having attended Manchester College—granted that our sojourns there were some thirty years apart. In mentioning Manchester, she can assume a resonance that I will hear but that Bobbie—who is also listening—will miss. Like most northern Indiana residents, Bobbie knows that Manchester is a small, church-related college, and she knows that Mom went there to earn her teaching license. And though Bobbie attended college herself and therefore knows some of the general stock of student lore (see Toelken 1978), she is not able to participate as fully in this more specific allusion to college life at Manchester.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-2):
Discourse/Situation: Verbal context (Speaker cues her own story)
Style/Culture: Noninterruption as sign of respect
Style/Personalore: Dates Mom attended college
Style/Culture: The Great Depression
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Style/Culture: Dropping North from North Manchester
Style/Culture: North Manchester, a town in northern Indiana
Style/Culture: Knowledge of Manchester College
Style/Personalore: Mom’s degree from Manchester
Style/Culture: Student lore
TC-3: ... Mary Lyons and I roomed together.
With the completion of the sentence, one aspect of the “Manchester experience” comes into focus—the time-honored practice of rooming together in college dormitories. As we shall see shortly, part of the thematic emphasis of the story depends upon a deviation from this normal rooming situation. However, at this point, the listener is free to envision the typical dormitory setting and, more important, the special roommate relationship that is part of the “Manchester Experience” for both my mother and me. One might pursue the more universal track of psychological and sociological implications with which researchers have surrounded the tradition of rooming together, but my own response to this feature of life at Manchester is much more specific and is tied to the nature of the college itself. Manchester is sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, a conservative Protestant denomination. Until quite recently, the school was very restrictive in regard to student (and faculty) behavior. Smoking and drinking were not allowed, and it was not until 1965 that dancing was allowed on campus. Interaction between the sexes was usually supervised whenever possible. Especially when my mother was there, the greater part of every twenty-four hours was spent interacting with roommates or other dorm friends. The women at Oakwood Hall ate together family-style and were subject to the demands of a curfew and a weekend check list. Dorm life generally does bring with it this phenomenon of “much time together”; this alone is not enough to account for the special quality of roommate relationships so often visible at Manchester. Rather, much of it stems from the Brethren background of the college and the majority of its students. The Church of the Brethren, like many other Protestant denominations with historical ties to the Old Order Brethren, Mennonite, and Amish (Anabaptist) traditions, has encouraged an attitude of simplicity and unpretentiousness among its members. Girls, in particular, are expected to be modest and “innocent.” Innocent, in this case, involves much more than simply being a virgin. Rather, Brethren girls are expected to enjoy, even prefer, the company of other girls. “Sisterhood” extends into adolescence and continues as the primary source of fellowship even after a woman is married. Very likely this is a result of the strictly observed separation of the sexes so obvious in earlier traditions of all Brethren cleavages (though it may well simply reflect America’s greater tolerance for overt female friendships).2 Though within the Brethren tradition men and women no longer sit on separate sides of the church and family eating patterns no longer demand that men and boys be served apart, still a basic notion remains that traditions of brotherhood and sisterhood dominate in an individual’s experience of fellowship. A young woman is first of all a woman—not a sexual object, but a “sister” among sisters. And though it grows out of the general tradition of male dominance, the identification as sister is a positive one.
At Manchester, then, this proclivity toward extending sisterhood beyond adolescence is encouraged by the typical dormitory situation and the number of students with similar Church of the Brethren backgrounds. Growing out of this sense of sisterhood is a phenomenon that A. R. Radcliffe-Brown calls the “symmetrical joking relationship” (1965:90-91). In my mother’s case, this joking relationship is easily seen in the affectionate teasing among friends and roommates. For example, she often tells the story of a typical dormitory prank involving her roommate and some friends. In a recorded version, she introduces the story with a succinct statement of the sisterhood phenomenon at Manchester: “It was my first year at Manchester, and we had a gang of girls.” In the “Canary” story, Mary Lyons is understood to be a part of that sisterly tradition at Manchester. It is why she and Mom “got the giggles, of course” when the mosquitoes kept them awake all night. (See version #3 in the Appendix.)
Mary Lyons herself is treated referentially in the story. Mom knows that I know Mary Lyons. For several years she taught elementary school in Allen County; she lives in Andrews, a small community just six miles west of Huntington. Mary and Mom often see each other in town or at retired-teachers’ meetings.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-3):
Style/Culture: College rooming practices
Style/Personalore: Roommate relationships at Manchester College
Type/Theme: Roommate relationships
Style/Culture: Traditions of the Brethren
Style/Culture: Brethren sisterhood
Style/Personalore: Mary Lyons
TC-4:And we would live a whole week on about three dollars and something worth of groceries between us. And we would live—or we slept in one house, and then we’d arranged with a lady a couple of houses down to cook on a little old beaten-up oil stove in her basement. And we would have—we’d buy a quart of milk for about a dime, and we’d buy a box of cereal, and we could get four bananas for a dime, and that did us for two breakfasts on just a little. And we could buy a pound of hamburger for twenty-five cents, or no, a pound of hamburger for ten cents, three pounds for a quarter. And we would—out of a pound of hamburger—we’d make our lunch and our supper. And her mother would give us leaf lettuce out of her garden and green onions out of her garden. And she’d pick raspberries along her fence row and bring ‘em to us. Sometimes we’d have a peach or two—and I don’t know what else. We hardly ever had anything else to eat that whole summer.
This lengthy segment constitutes what Labov and Waletzky call the orientation section typical in true stories (1967:32). The gist of this segment is repeated in version #2 but is missing from version #3. Actually, the relevant theme of enduring hard times is sounded in the conversation that precedes version #3. Since version #3 was recorded only a week after version #2, there was little need to elaborate on this thematic feature (at least for my benefit). Mom merely says, before version #3: “I don’t know how I’d a gotten along, though, that summer if it hadn’t been for Mary Lyons and her mother.” In version #1, however, the effectiveness of cumulative descriptive detail is played to the hilt. Here is an example of narrative technique much more common in written stories than oral (though the false starts and repetition—e.g., “out of her garden”—definitely point to orality). The weight of the segment comes with the consistent use of the modal auxiliary would. Indeed, the description of the daily routine and menu oppresses and trivializes the audience’s view until they too long for some event, some relief from the monotony. This seems to be the only structural strategy at work in this part of the story.
The major thrust of this segment is thematic and rhetorical. It is the discourse itself that demands a plethora of descriptive detail building to a thematic summation: “We hardly ever had anything else to eat that whole summer.” However, the particulars of this description represent for the most part cultural details reminiscent of the era of the Great Depression. Food prices were low, but money was scarce. It strikes me as impressive that Mom remembers these details of food selection and pricing so many years afterwards. Whether or not the items and prices are really accurate (and I have no reason to believe they are not), they are rhetorically convincing and effective. Furthermore, their numeration suggests how very attentive Mom must have been to the management of living expenses. She says she kept a record of accounts with all their food purchases itemized.
Home gardens were necessary to supplement the monotonous daily fare. However, people were generous whenever they could be, making special arrangements for people in need (the cook stove in the basement) or giving them food out of their gardens (Mary’s mother). The lack of variety was as typical of the times as was the scarcity of money for food—as Mom says in version #2: “We didn’t have peanut butter.” She adds, in version #2: “I think that’s when I got real sick of com flakes.” Hearing the story now, the audience senses the amazing absence of fast-food chains or restaurants of any kind. Whatever Mom and Mary ate, they prepared themselves on their cook stove, and they bought perishables on a day-to-day basis rather than stocking them in a freezer or refrigerator. The only meals “out” (or prepared by someone else) were enjoyed when Mary went home to Andrews or when Mom was invited to dinner at the Dolby family farm in Huntington County. She and Dad were dating off and on that summer.
This also represents a counterpoint to or deviation from the typical college dormitory situation. Mary is a typical roommate, but they do not have a typical rooming arrangement. Perhaps this disclosure early in the story foreshadows some upcoming event that also in some way represents a deviation from the norm. In fact, at this point, the discourse presents us with an enigma: Does the strange housekeeping arrangement in any way determine the plot of the story? As we shall see, it does not. Instead, it is an early step in the development of a humorous motif and part of a developing symbol.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-4):
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Discourse/Rhetoric: Descriptive detail
Discourse/Rhetoric: Subjunctive mood, Customary action
Type/Structure: Initial situation (Monotony to relieve)
Style/Culture: Life during the Great Depression
Discourse/Rhetoric: Detail as evidence of truthfulness
Type/Theme: Lack of variety
Style/Personalore: Mom or Mary’s visits home or to the farm
Discourse/Rhetoric : Foreshadowing
TC-5:That was the same summer that on the Fourth of July I was wearing a wool skirt and a pink satin blouse because that was about the only clothes I had.
With this segment of the story, my participation as listener becomes more intense. By the end of the sentence, I notice that the theme of making it through a hard summer is sounded again. And I can easily pick up on some cultural references. The Fourth of July, for example, is mentioned not for the sake of accurate dating, or even for the sake of its symbolic overtones (celebration, winning, prosperity, etc.), though these are certainly present. Rather, the date is used here as it is traditionally used in American folklore and popular culture—to suggest midsummer. Unlike European tradition with its midsummer’s eve on St. John’s Day or the vernal equinox, American tradition expects corn to be “knee high by the Fourth of July,” and children who sing of elephants jumping fences expect them not to come down “till the Fourth of July.”3 For most Americans, the hot and lazy days of summer begin with the Fourth of July; it is a time to wear the skimpiest or coolest clothing current taste and mores allow. The pink satin blouse is barely acceptable, but the wool skirt is definitely too hot for summer, especially if it is being worn on a day-to-day basis. The frequency with which the skirt is worn can be inferred to some extent from the generally refential use of “Fourth of July” along with the implied imperfect tense. In other words, we can assume that she means “by the Fourth of July I was still wearing a wool skirt.” In version #3, Mom says, “I bet we had three dresses between us maybe,” so the wool skirt and pink blouse really were “about the only clothes” she had. She describes the skirt in version #3: “This wool skirt with about five different colors of braid around the bottom of it—a really pretty skirt, but for July it was kinda hot!” Later Mom told me that the background color of the skirt was gray.
Here there is certainly a “lack to be liquidated” (see Dundes 1963; 1964a: 61-64). The storyteller needs some new clothing, something to break the monotony of the same tired outfit and something more suitable given the warm weather. Using the two stylistic reference points—the hot season and the winter clothes—the discourse presents a dilemma and demands a solution, or at least keys the listener’s interest toward a solution. And the larger strategy of the type asserts itself as the plot poses its essential conflict, what Labov and Waletzky call the “complicating action” (1967:32-33). More accurately, as in some of Propp’s Russian tales, the conflict is one not of action but of situation (1928 :35—36). Structurally, the conflict reverts to a functional potentiality that serves as a step in the procedure necessary to “relieve the monotony,” the initial situational function. That is, “Wool skirt to replace” becomes the first function of the structure. It is important—though not yet apparent—that the structuring of the story is aimed at the thematic effort to relieve monotony rather than the specific desire to find clothing suitable for the hot weather. As we shall see, two otherwise unrelated events are structurally tied to the general procedure of that initial situational function though they have nothing to do with replacing the wool skirt.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-5):
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Style/Culture: July 4th as midsummer
Style/Culture: Fabrics suitable for summer clothes
Type/Plot: Complicating action
Type/Structure: First function of procedure (Wool skirt to replace)
TC-6: And my dad had sent me a five-dollar bill in his letter.
Structurally, this segment answers the question of procedure in the previous segment with a thematic potentiality from another person’s point of view. That is, the function “Wool skirt to replace” is met by or equated to the function “Help to give” from the point of view of “the helper,” her father. The two functions would be equivalent:
|Wool skirt to replace||vs. Help to give (father)|
|Procedure||vs. Procedure of helping|
|Wool skirt replaced||vs. Help given|
Her father’s procedure for helping is giving her money, in this case, five dollars. As an element of plot, this action is a first step in the resolution. Altogether, we have here a dominance of strategies of the type; this segment of the story is essential to the core that makes this story identifiable as an autonomous entity.
In addition to these structural strategies, there is in this segment a hint of the continuing theme of surviving hard times. As we shall see, in 1938 five dollars bought considerably more than it does now. And, of course, we must assume that it was then all the harder for Mom’s father to spare the extra five dollars from his own household expenses. A very important stylistic strategy is at work in this short segment as well, one that is far less obvious than these dominant strategies of type. Mom’s father (my grandfather) was often “guilty” of slipping his daughters or granddaughters money “on the sly.” In fact, in both versions #2 and #3, Mom comments directly on his secrecy about the money: “And of course I wasn’t to tell anybody that I had gotten it.” Specifically, the “anybody” who was not to find out was Grandpa’s wife, Mom’s stepmother, Ruby.
Mom’s own mother had died in 1927, a year after Mom’s sister Luella (Susie) was born. Mom was sixteen when her mother died. In 1929, Grandpa (Charles William DeVault) married Ruby Chambers Emrick, a widow with a ten-year-old son named Chuck. Ruby was used to scrimping through the hard times; in short, she was penurious to a fault and seemed especially so when the times no longer demanded merciless economic watchdogging (at least such was my mother’s opinion). Grandpa, on the other hand, delighted in slipping little gifts of money to his daughter, just as a surprise now and then—as a sign of his independence, perhaps as a sign of his southern upbringing with its emphasis on a gentleman’s right to spoil the ladies in his patriarchal purview, but most certainly as a sign of his affection. This little custom continued to be a favorite indulgence of Grandpa’s even after Ruby died (then the gifts were given to his granddaughters rather than his daughters). And the same secrecy prevailed even though his third wife was herself generous and appreciative of such signs of affection. Grandpa’s secret gifts were given and received as intimate gestures, little love notes from a warm-hearted father and grandfather. He secretly slipped me a five-dollar bill just before I was married. I wish I had never spent it. He died the next spring.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-6):
Type/Structure: First function of action (vs. Help to give)
Type/Structure: Procedure of first function (Money to give)
Type/Plot: Procedure of resolution
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Style/Personalore: Grandpa’s gifts of money
Type/Theme: The stepmother motif in folklore
TC-7: And so I hurried downtown and—what’s the name of that store over there at Manchester now?—advertises so much—German name?—Oppenheim’s.
The rhetorical technique apparent in this segment is similar to that characteristic of the oral legend. Details are presented hesitantly; the audience is invited to supply information. In version #2, recorded a year later, Mom again appears to have temporarily forgotten the name of the department store in Manchester. In that version I respond with the name Oppenheim’s; my participation along with her open request for that participation subtly disarms me, obliges me to accept her story as completely accurate. Furthermore, the direct request for this information underscores her own awareness of the stylistic device she has been employing throughout the narrative. That is, perhaps as a kind of metastylistics, she focuses on the very device of personal allusion in the styling of her story. She recognizes and seems, at this point, to delight in the intimacy that allows us to thus draw upon a common well of knowledge and experience. Again, in this segment anyway, I am the primary audience. The message is fuller for me than it is for Bobbie, who at this point can participate only as a witness to the dialogue (actual or implied).
The two hints or clues Mom gives—“German name,” “advertises so much”—are presented as though she were simply ruminating aloud, trying to remember. In fact, she has momentarily forgotten, but the hints are voiced for rhetorical effect, though in this case she is using the hints herself as well as giving them to her listeners. Through dint of such memory-jolting, she remembers the name she has heard so often in advertisements on Huntington’s radio station, the name of the long-established department store with the German name— Oppenheim’s. Both of these hints, by the way, extend the stylistic allusion out from the realm of the personal—“that store”—to the realm of a larger cultural network involving the local radio broadcasting area and the general knowledge of German-sounding names.
Oppenheim’s does advertise quite regularly in the local area, and of the major businesses in Manchester, Oppenheim’s is one of the most strikingly “German-sounding” names. The store itself is an independently owned establishment that has carried a respectable line of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing for many years. Somehow they have managed to compete successfully with the discount chains. Their reputation is such that people travel from neighboring counties to shop at Oppenheim’s, even with the lure of the large shopping malls of Fort Wayne only a half hour away. Mom’s allusion to “that store” in her narrative builds upon this continuing popularity of the store rather than its more locally restricted reputation of forty years earlier.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-7):
Discourse/Rhetoric: Request for audience response
Style/Culture: German names
TC-8: Well, they were having a sale, and in the window was a bright-yellow dress for three dollars or two-ninety-nine or something like that. So I went in and bought it. Boy, was it yellow! And then I had two dollars left, so I bought a pair of shoes.
It is imperative for this segment of the story that the listener conscientiously, energetically enter into the performance; otherwise the point of the story is lost, or perhaps only obliquely voiced later by the teller. John A. Robinson (1981), writing on the genre personal narrative, puzzled over precisely this phenomenon of listener participation in reviewing another of my mother’s stories published earlier in a journal article (Stahl 1977b). Robinson appraised the performance accurately, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with stories of this sort: “In this case the narrator disregarded both of the constraints implied by Labov and Waletzky: not only is the point not explicit, but the responsibility for making the point has been delegated to the listeners” (Robinson 1981:68). Similarly, in the “Yellow Dress” story, the responsibility for realizing the point is handed to the listener, especially in this version of the story. In versions #2 and #3 the listener is given some help in correctly assessing before the punchline Mom’s own attitude toward the yellow dress. In version #2 she says: “Anyhow, I had about two-ninety-eight—. They had a yellow dress; oh, it was as yellow as a dandelion. Real yellow, but it wasn’t wool, so I bought it.” And in version #3 she says: “In the window was this dress for two-ninety-eight or something like that—and yellow—as a pumpkin or canary or something. Boy, it was—it was nothing but yellow, didn’t have a white collar on it or anything, just yellow! But I bought it, and they had a pair of sandal-type shoes for a dollar-ninety-eight, so I bought those, and there went my five dollars.”
In both of these later versions—but especially in version #3—it is clear that the yellowness is objectionable, that Mom is buying the dress only because it is not wool and is inexpensive. In both cases, the use of the conjunctions but and so suggests a concession has been made; she implies that she bought the dress even though it was bright yellow, despite the fact that it was yellow. In version #1, however, this objection to the yellowness of the dress is underplayed, or rather the listener is forced to rely upon more subtle clues and is expected to participate by actively inserting elements of personalore into the story as it is heard. Strategies of discourse and strategies of style are employed here very skillfully and effectively—though the teller risks losing the point if the audience does not participate. The simple strategies of emphasis (“bright—yellow”) and mild expletive (“Boy, was it yellow!”) might easily be missed by themselves. However, as listener, I am thus alerted to a fact I already know about the teller: that she would not normally wear a bright-yellow dress.
The “jazz age” had ushered in a new and varied set of women’s fashions. By the 1930s, Mom’s wardrobe was no longer dominated by the shapeless middy blouses and cotton print dresses she wore as a teen-ager in Michigan. Instead, she was wearing fashionable knits and blouses and dresses made of silk or new synthetic weaves. Even lounging pajamas were permissible at informal gatherings. Nonetheless, even as fashion allowed brighter colors and richer fabrics, a conservative Brethren background encouraged moderation—feminine pastels, standard gray and navy, occasionally colorful prints, but never bold, bright, brassy solids in the more intense shades of red, green, orange, or yellow. Such colors even now are considered flattering only on someone with a dark complexion. Not only does a pale-skinned person look “washed out” in such colors, but dominant American convention surrounds such bright colors—especially red, but also any “gawdy” clothing—with connotations of passion, emotional fire, exhibitionism, or adultery. Yellow itself has any number of traditional meanings. The Thompson index lists a motif of color symbolism that identifies yellow as a lucky color. But, in Mom’s story the specific color of the dress is structurally less important than the overwhelming intensity and starkness of the color—as Mom says, “it was nothing but yellow!”
Ishmael was appalled by the whiteness of the whale, and Melville expounded the terror of that whiteness through many pages. Perhaps there is some similar deep symbolism in the yellowness of the yellow dress, but for Mom the dress seems not so much an anathema as an embarrassment. In fact, I would argue that herein lies the basic traditional motif that ties this particular story—and by extension, its genre—to the great store of American humor. Easily, the string of circumstances that makes necessary the purchase and wearing of the yellow dress is seen as typical of situations antecedent to any motif of discomfiture. Unlike Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Mom’s yellow dress is worn through her own choice, and unlike the scarlet A, the dress is perceived as a reflection of the wearer’s taste, not as a sign of her sin. Precisely this is the source of discomfiture for the wearer: people seeing her in the yellow dress will assume that it accurately reflects her taste, and perhaps her character as well. Or she may worry that people will figure out the truth: that the obviously inexpensive yellow dress is the only one she could afford. In either case, she stands to be embarrassed, though perhaps more thoroughly by the former assumption than the latter.
The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (vol. 5) lists a general category for the humor of discomfiture. Perhaps following the motif identifying embarrassing nakedness (X52, Ridiculous nakedness or exposure), one could suggest a similar motif identifying embarrassing clothing, such as X62*, Ridiculous clothing, or a subcategory such as X62.1*, Woman embarrassed by necessity of wearing bright-yellow dress. Whether there is any point in compounding such motifs for nontraditional personal narratives is perhaps a question only Stith Thompson could have answered. For our purposes, it is enough to note that the perception that sees humor in the experience of buying and wearing the yellow dress and infuses that sense of a humorous motif into the telling of the story is the same perception that has always worked to give us our stock of traditional tales and anecdotes. A motif is perceived and used by the teller whether our indexes recognize it or not.
Still, it is the purpose of the index to catalogue such motifs, and only to catalogue them. A motif is not a generative unit; it is a descriptive tag, an analytic construct. The ongoing plot, however, is built upon a compelling structure, a procedural braid emanating from that initial structural situation represented by the infinitive phrase “Monotony to relieve.” Two actions represent potentialities in the narrative structure at this point: buying a dress and buying a pair of shoes at the combined cost of five dollars. With the realization of those two potential actions, the plot continues as a somewhat unsatisfactory resolution.
The discourse provides rhetorical signposts that lead the listener gloomily toward the inevitability of the purchase. Nowhere does the discourse allow the intrusion of other possibilities: “They were having a sale,” and “in the window” was the yellow dress; the dress cost “three dollars or two-ninety-nine or something like that”; those are the only facts. The discourse assumes a causal relationship and snares the listener with the favored ergo of every American child—so. She says, “So I went in and bought it.” Why? Because it was on sale, and in the window and cost only two-ninety-nine. Were there other, more acceptable dresses in the window, or dresses not on sale but under five dollars, or some on sale but not in the window? Did she need to buy the shoes, or were they simply an afterthought? The discourse is ambiguous, and this very ambiguity is skillfully mustered through the common implication that one thing is a consequence of another if the two are joined by that bane of composition teachers— so. Once caught, the listener readily accepts the sequence that follows: “And then I had two dollars left, so I bought a pair of shoes.”
Analytical codes (Segment TC-8):
Discourse/Rhetoric: Use of conjunctions to indicate concessions
Discourse/Rhetoric: Emphasis; expletives
Style/Personalore: Mom’s taste in clothes
Type/Symbol: Bright colors and emotion
Type/Motif: Z148, Yellow as a lucky color
Type/Structure: Second function (Dress to buy and Shoes to buy)
Discourse/Rhetoric: Ambiguity of so in English
TC-9: And so I went home, back to the room....
If this were a fairy tale, this segment would represent the important function Propp identifies as “the hero returns,” designated by a downward arrow [↓]. In the more generally applicable structural model I have been using, this segment is something of an anomaly since it seems to represent neither a procedure for buying the dress nor a result of buying the dress. “Returning” itself is not a requirement of the genre in this case, or even of the specific plot. Rather, the structural strategy at work thus far would demand some thematically relevant result from the purchase of the yellow dress.
In this version of the story, this next structural step seems to be hidden or implied. However, in both version #2 and version #3, the necessary sequential step is stated directly: “So I came home and put on my yellow dress.” It is important for the structure of the story and for the resultant humor that the teller actually wear the yellow dress. In version #1 we must simply assume that Mom does put on the dress, and perhaps, judging from the later versions, we might guess that she would not typically leave this important structural step to be filled in by the listeners.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-9):
Type/Structure: The hero returns (Propp)
Type/Structure: Internal function (Yellow dress to wear)
TC-10: ... and Mary said, “Oh, where did you get such a pretty yellow dress?!”
At long last some dialogue breaks up the long epic narration. Mom’s stories tend to be told almost entirely in epic prose. Small segments of dialogue are thus foregrounded both in relation to the story in which they are embedded and in relation to the listener’s general sense of the teller’s personal style. This segment and the one that follows represent “essential idiosyncratic formulas” of the story.4 In other words, the formulaic exchange is found in all three versions and would, we assume, be found in any version of the story. However, the fact that the exchange is presented as dialogue rather than as indirect quotation reflects a time-honored rhetorical strategy. Tales, ballads, toasts, hero tales, epics, legends, modem novels and short stories, biographies—all forms of narrative depend upon the immediacy of dialogue to enliven lengthy descriptions or epic segments that have retarded themselves to a standstill. The brief switch to dialogue serves this superficial function, then, and as we shall see allows a more subtle manipulation of the listener’s response through the discourse as well.
Before looking further into this rhetorical strategy, I should admit—with due apologies to my informants—that in my own thinking I treat reported dialogues as though they were fictions. To be sure, as listener I regard the stories—the personal narratives—as true. But our literary and dramatic traditions have taught us to expect the subtle editing of dialogue for rhetorical effect. Someone telling a personal narrative must select segments of dialogue, modify them slightly as rhetorical sensitivity dictates, and present them in the context of an as yet unfinished story. Such modifications are slight; otherwise, the dialogue would not have been perceived by the teller as an integral part of the story. But the modifications are allowed and perhaps unconsciously recognized by the listener, for dialogue—much more than epic prose—is the means by which the teller gives an independent existence to the characters in the story.
Like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Mom’s “Mary” is now suddenly a separate entity, a “character”—not simply Mom’s roommate of the epic sections, not Mary Lyons who now lives in Andrews, but “Mary,” a complicating new element in the discourse. The teller must present her conversation realistically, yet the teller’s interpretation and use of the character’s words must dominate. Thus Mary asks, “Where did you get such a pretty yellow dress?!” The question jolts the listener. What does she mean? Surely, Mary does not want to know if Mom bought the dress at Oppenheim’s. No, the listener knows immediately that the question must be translated.
Perhaps Mary (like the listener) is drawing upon her personal information about the teller and is actually asking, “How can you afford a new dress? Where did you get the money for a new dress?” She may even be a bit hurt that she did not know about the money, that she did not get to share the fun of spending it. Or perhaps instead she is simply using a fairly common linguistic switch, masking a direct comment as a question. She would have no real need to do this if her comment were simply a positive reflection; she would say, “Oh, I like your new dress,” and have done with it. But the discourse demands a different kind of comment from Mary: she must in some way comment on the objectionable yellowness of the dress while keeping in character as friend and roommate. The question, “Where did you get such a pretty yellow dress?” conveys the implied comment so necessary to the ongoing discourse—”I notice you are wearing a new and very yellow dress.” As we shall see, this implied statement rather than the superficial question is the message to which Mom responds in the second part of the dialogue.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-10):
Discourse/Rhetoric: Epic prose in narrative
Style/Personalore: Dialogue foregrounded in personal style
Discourse/Rhetoric: Reported dialogue as fiction
Discourse/Rhetoric: Narrative characters
Discourse/Rhetoric: Implied statement
TC-11: And I said, “Yes, I look like a damn canary!”
The brief interlude of dialogue continues. As suggested above, the speakers of dialogue gain a new dimension for the characters they represent. As suggested in Chapter 2, there are three important dimensions that present themselves simultaneously when the characters—especially the character called “I”—speak. There is, of course, the teller herself, my mother. I have a current sense of her personality developed through a long and intimate association. It is belief that makes my sense of her personality a real configuration for me. For our purposes, I would consider my current sense of my mother’s character as an element of personalore, a typically nonverbalized cluster of information and feelings I bring to the story. Furthermore, in this case, I also have a current sense of who Mary Lyons is, though obviously my sense of her character is not founded on so intimate a relationship as is my sense of my mother’s character. Again, part of my response to the characters in the story involves my current sense of their personalities as my contemporaries. I should also mention at this point that the use of “I” in the dialogue has yet another dimension for the teller herself. As listener I cannot readily appreciate this function of the word I except as it is reflected in the discourse as a “shifter,” or a reminder that in the context of the storytelling the speaker must have some means of self-reference.
A second aspect of the characters in the story relates, as did the first, to their personalities, but in this case, the personality and other personal characteristics are ones I as listener would associate with the characters at the time of the incident related in the story. These characters are most like the ones usually found in written literature, especially short stories. They are what literary critics would call “static characters”; they do not change over the course of the story. Rather, the story serves to reveal something about them, something assumed to be a stable part of their personalities. As listener, I must accept the “I” in the dialogue as someone who is both the same person I see before me and also that person she was some forty years ago, a person I know only through photographs and verbal reminiscences such as this one.
I can, perhaps, bring the two aspects together through the creation of a composite, or more accurately cumulative, image of the personality represented by “I” in all the stories my mother tells. This “dynamic” character becomes visible only because I have heard many segments of my mother’s repertoire. Thus over a stretch of time, I do hear a “saga,” as Richard Dorson (1952:249-72) suggests in his comments on Michigan “sagamen.” I create for myself as listener the notion of a stable character who remains identifiable yet changes and grows. But if there is to be a Bildungsroman or saga that I am to perceive, then it is I as listener who must create it and give its character a stage on which to perform—like Pirandello’s characters—in my mind.
On a simple, narrative level, the “I” of the story is the main character or, structurally in Propp’s terms, the “hero” of the story. That is, the characters—both Mom and Mary Lyons and, though absent, Mom’s father and stepmother—are the dramatis personae of this rather brief plot. The story is not a fairy tale, so the characters do not represent Propp’s character prototypes exactly, though they do share some of the “spheres of action” Propp identifies. Propp argues that the actions of all dramatis personae are to be defined and evaluated “from the viewpoint of their meaning for the hero and for the course of the action” (Propp 1928:81). Thus, the “course of the action” demands that Mary be a foil for the hero. Similar to the role of the “straight man” in comedy routines, Mary’s “sphere of action” is that of helper (again, using Propp’s term). The “task” she helps the hero accomplish is, however, related not to the plot of the story but rather to the development of a direct thematic statement. Her initiation of the dialogue invites the articulation of the story’s primary motif—discomfiture—in the form of a verbal, almost jokelike simile. The “I” of the brief dialogue is the plot’s main character, and she is the “hero” who with Mary’s help creates the verbal climax of the story.
As suggested earlier, the emphatic “Yes!” in response to Mary’s question is in fact what Mary Louise Pratt (following Grice) would call an example of implicature through flouting of the literary cooperation principle (Pratt 1977:158-59). That is, Mom responds not to Mary’s actual question but rather to her own overwhelming sense of how she must look in the yellow dress. In effect, she agrees with a statement she thus attributes to Mary—i.e., that she looks like a “damn canary.” As a strategy of rhetoric, the “Yes!” answer violates a maxim of relation; it does not represent a proper response to the words preceding it. However, it does imply successfully that Mary knows and probably agrees that the real issue is not whence the dress came but rather how Mom feels she looks in the bright-yellow dress.
The next obvious rhetorical strategy is the invocation of a standard poetic device—the simile. Proverbial comparisons—“like a drowned rat,” “like a chicken with its head cut off,” etc.—are fairly common in ordinary speech. And the creation of new, context-specific similes modeled on these traditional examples is not unheard of by any means, though when generated spontaneously in oral speech, they are appreciated as “poetic gems” all the more because of their seeming flash of inspiration. Mom’s simile does have this insightful appropriateness as an attribute, and of more significance to me, it suggests the storyteller’s own image of herself as someone who enjoys and creates poetry. In this sense, the choice to cast the comment in the form of a simile represents a strategy of style that draws upon both the cultural tradition of poetic devices and the self-image of the storyteller (at least as I recognize that image).
Mom grew up writing poetry—as we all write poetry—as an assignment at school, as exercises in English classrooms, perhaps a few as sincere expressions of adolescent doubts and longings. But she continued on occasion to write poems as an adult. Always her poems are conventional in rhyme and scansion, and this, Roger Renwick (1980:158) suggests, is typical of modem “domestic” or “occasional” verse. She seems to enjoy the challenge of a regular meter and rhyme scheme. In 1959, one of her poems, “Castles in Spain,” was published in the National Poetry Anthology.5 She keeps the one-volume anthology on a shelf upstairs. In it are countless slips of lined composition paper with more poems—some of them Mom’s, some of them grade-school productions by my brothers or me, a few we wrote later in high school or college. Her own poems, like her stories, tend to be short and build to a concluding twist or punchline. I can remember hearing “Castles in Spain” as a child, and to this day I must remind myself, when I hear people talk of building “castles in Spain,” that it was my mother who borrowed from tradition and not the other way around. Here is her poem:
Castles in Spain
Airy and fleet are my castles in Spain,
Framed in a circle of rolling mist,
Spangled with diamonds and studded with stars,
Often blooming with hundreds of flowers
Where my winged thoughts keep their tryst.
Bird notes from fairyland float through the trees;
Hornpipes from elfland call down the hollow;
A ripple, a splash, from its broad shining bay,
A wave from the deep washed my castle away—
I’ll build me another—tomorrow!
Literary critics often proclaim that similes are a poor man’s metaphor, that “real” poets throw themselves directly into their imagery (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”), while lesser poets resort to the prepositions and conjunctions that spell out the comparisons at the base of their poetry. And, while it is true that the use of like or as or than is a hallmark of popular or folk poetry, still this in itself does not imply that this poetic device is necessarily inferior to the metaphor with its directness and complexity. In Mom’s answer to Mary, she does not at all want to equate herself and a “damn canary.” She does not want to get inside the image of a canary and draw lines of relationship between some charged symbolic configuration and her own self-image. Rather, she wants to say that in regard to the yellowness of her dress she looks like a canary; that is, like a canary, she is completely covered with yellow and nothing but yellow.
I am not suggesting that there is no significance (beyond the yellowness) in the choice of a canary as the object in the simile. It is significant that Mom chose “canary” rather than, say, a banana, a lemon, a pumpkin (which she does mention in version #2), a dandelion (which she mentions in version #3), or a daffodil. These other candidates for “yellow object” are all passive fruits or flowers—with symbolic characteristics of their own, of course, but without the animal liveliness and fablelike symbolism of the canary. There is no denying that the canary in Mom’s simile invokes its own store of traditional symbolism. However, I would stress again that Mom does not grasp all of the characteristics of the canary as her intended comparison. As listener, I may bring many cultural or personal associations to my understanding of her simile, but I recognize that her primary literary intent is to make the comparison of yellowness through a simile that is new but aesthetically acceptable and effective. On the other hand, it is the fuller symbolism of the canary that makes the simile more effective—for me—than would a “yellow” simile with any other object.
Canary is a stylistic and essential choice, then, and one Mom made forty years ago when the dialogue really took place. Though perhaps not intended, the symbolism of the canary has been recognized and appreciated not only by myself as listener but also by Mary Lyons as the original audience for the simile. This recognition—or perhaps expansion—of the original simile into a metaphor or transformation came home clearly to me at my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary celebration (they were married May 19, 1940). An open house was held to celebrate their anniversary on May 20, 1980, at the Evangelical United Methodist Church in Huntington, and Mary Lyons came bringing a gift reminiscent of that period forty years before—a ceramic canary.
Certainly, for Mary, the canary had become a symbol. And while a symbol has many simultaneous meanings, usually the varied meanings are assumed to arise from shared tradition—culture—rather than from personal associations. That is, if the canary is to be viewed as a symbol, I should outline a vast compendium of collectively held beliefs, customs, traditional stories, proverbs, or artifacts that embody that symbol and impinge upon the meaning Mary or I or anyone else attaches to this specific manifestation of the canary. And if I were confined to the ceramic bird and its abstract referent in the plot of the story, then indeed I would be bound to “the strategy of the type,” to a general survey of the symbol in folklore and culture. I could start with the wide-ranging symbolism of birds in general—as Cirlot (1962:25) says, “every winged being is symbolic of spiritualization.” I could ponder—as have generations—why the typically caged canary-bird yet sings. I could review the conflicting beliefs and customs surrounding canaries: they bring good luck; they bring bad luck; dead, they portend human bloodshed; singing, they promise a long and healthy life.
I shall not deny a rightful place to the collective level of the symbol represented by these characteristic interpretations; not surprisingly, as Umberto Eco (1976:62) suggests, the content of such a symbol is typically defined as a “cluster or system of interconnected cultural units” (my emphasis). Even so, I do feel that the same definition might function within a much more restricted system of intimacy. In other words, “canary” may function as a symbol both at the level of universal or cultural units and at the level of units of personalore. Unlike the amorphous attachment of associations that surround each segment of the storytelling, this more pronounced and often conscious clustering of personal, intimate, cultural, and universal associations around the image “canary” follows the procedure of symbolizing more commonly recognized by literary critics, sociolinguists, or cultural anthropologists (with the exception that both intimate and personal symbolization are often neglected or even rejected or denied). Formally, these personal associations (with the object “canary”) represent aspects of style, but functionally they represent the larger strategy of the type, the “multivalency of meanings” commonly ascribed to the symbol.
I can most easily demonstrate the intimate symbolism of the canary and its yellow color by turning again to the storytelling situation. Bobbie, you will remember, is listening to the story as I am. Because she knows Mom and knows me, she will share some of the meanings I attach to the canary. She will also have her own personal associations as well as the backdrop of universal or culturally determined symbolism. But she will not share those associations tied to my personal life history that come to the fore in my interpretation of the significance of the canary. However, Mom and I will in fact share a number of these associations, as well as some spawned by her life history (at least as I know it). These mutual associations (personalore) represent in this case a kind of intimate symbolism; the associations that are strictly individual revert to the level of style, unless, of course, they independently represent a level of personal symbolism that has evolved over time.
Appreciation of a symbol is covert; by definition a symbol must be unfathomable. Unlike the strands of meaning that attach to the story by association (the kinds I have outlined thus far), a symbol lives and does itself attract strands of meaning. The symbol is not embedded in the text, nor is the text simply a covering for the symbol. The symbol is not “the meaning” of the text, and the text is not simply a manifestation of the symbol. Both the text and the symbol are real entities I hold in my mind. Both are amorphous but may be represented (respectively) by the words of the text printed above or by the image of a canary. Mary Lyons’s ceramic canary is a sign, a direct and efficient reference to the story. But it is also a symbol, and one that I cannot assume is immediately lucid. Even if I were to exhaust all of the archetypal, psychological, or cultural references that might exhume the symbol from its unconscious or cultural depths (and I certainly will not be able to do this), I would not yet have laid bare the meaning of the symbol. Much of the meaning of any symbol is bound up in subjective and intimate procedures of symbolization. My subjective interpretation of the symbol (canary) necessarily draws upon these additional explanations in “private” symbolization as well as those “public” explanations that reflect collective (universal or cultural) knowledge. To reinterpret Raymond Firth (1973) but slightly, both intimate and subjective symbolization are private dimensions of the symbol, and these dimensions are as true to the meaning of the symbol as are the public dimensions recognized in native or scholarly analysis. My subjective interpretation of the symbol “canary” is something I would normally not articulate; rather, I would grasp it as a gestalt.
At least three levels of identification function in my recognition of the symbol. At the first level, the canary—like any bird—symbolizes the soul (or in Freud’s scheme, the superego). The canary is capable of flight; like the human imagination it rises above the mundane, it transcends; it leaves the brown earth and approaches the yellow sun and brings that yellow brightness back to cheer those earth-bound creatures it left behind. At the archetypal level, identification with the canary captures only these positive universal images of free flight, assent, brightness, and compassion. It is at the second level—cultural symbolization—that the negative images emerge to coexist with the positive. I have already mentioned that the color yellow can be seen as both good and bad, lucky or unlucky. And there are both positive and negative beliefs in tradition surrounding birds in general and canaries in particular. However, “civilized” culture has produced a particularly evocative image through its practice of selectively breeding canaries and selling them as caged pets. Because of this practice, our image of the canary includes this notion of the caged, restricted spirit. But unlike the caged lion, the canary still sings. In fact, the beauty of the canary’s song and plumage is the reason for its capture and display. An American proverb asserts, “It is the beautiful bird which gets caged” (see Barbour 1965:16).
There is an indictment in the image. We exaggerate the canary’s superficial characteristics to an unnatural state—the Harz Mountain songster, the Manchester show bird—and we deny it the natural grace of a free spirit. We make it an object of display and an item of commerce; we laugh at its frantic efforts when it sees how unbalanced are the odds when “Puddy-Tat” tries to raid the cage. We are the gods who have damned the canary, ignored its natural symbolism as a spirit that flies, made it a slave and denied its soul. But the canary sings despite its cage. Like Prometheus or Sisyphus, the canary is an existential symbol. It asserts its spirit in the face of the absurd and unfair condition of its existence. This, I think, is the source of Mom’s ambiguous identity with the canary. Or, at least it is the cultural imagery most prominent in my interpretation of the symbol.
There is an interesting story collected by Linda Dégh from a Transylvanian herdsman. It tells of a hunter who pursued a yellow bird for seven years, trying to shoot it down. Finally the man died, but there was no one to bury him. Some time later his skull split in two, and the rains filled it with water. The yellow bird he had pursued for so long came to drink, and as the bird alighted on the skull, the parts snapped together, trapping the bird inside (1965a: 199-200). This is a strange reversal of the typically ironic plot in the Old World narrative of Oleg’s Death. As Max Lüthi (1967) demonstrates, in that narrative tradition, the motif “Death by one’s own horse” suggests a theme of hubris—man through his pride is the greatest danger to himself. In the Hungarian story of the hunter and the yellow bird, it is the man who is able to harm the bird, even after his death, and again because the bird chooses to flaunt his triumph by drinking from the skull (it is clear that he knows it is the hunter’s skull). In life, the hunter was obsessed with pursuing the bird; like Ahab, he seemed to both hate and identify with his quarry. In death, the hunter captures the yellow bird; but, as the bird asks, “Of what use is that to you?” Obviously, the bird is of no use, except as a symbol. As long as the bird was free, the man was free. But the man wanted the bird brought down; he envied its flight. In the end the hunter captured the bird, but his prize was doomed—like the man himself—to a dreary, unsung death, since no one was there to nurture the bird in its ghastly cage.
It is common in cultural symbolism to thus identify with birds and with the treatment we often inflict upon birds. As the Psalmist says, “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped” (Psalms 124:7). The once-snared bird that knows the joy of escape is the psalmist singing (cf. Motif B375.3, Bird released: grateful). The caged bird knows that it can fly. Its flight—when caged—is all potential, is idea, is an untangible reality that is not physically actualized but yet has its effect in mundane reality—the caged bird sings. The canary on display in its cage signals man’s preoccupation with his own soul. We see our own great potential; our souls would fly were they not fettered by our three-dimensional world. We cage the canary as a symbol—a bit of yellow that would fly to the sun.
Both the song and flight of the canary are images Mom readily draws from the stock of cultural symbolism and assimilates into that more intimate symbolism she and I share. You may recall, in her poem “Castles in Spain” she gave an obviously birdlike animation to the traditional image of “winged thoughts,” and she filled the air around her imaginary castle with “bird notes from fairyland.” These clues simply reinforce for those who know my mother the positive symbolism they would attach to her creation of the canary simile. For example, most people who visit my parents’ home do notice the yellow lovebirds in the kitchen. The yellow lovebirds are neither expensive nor unique; they are not regarded as a special memento to the fourth-grader who gave them to Mom twenty years ago. Rather, they remain because Mom wants them there. She is quick to squelch any roughhousing in the vicinity of her birds. Some years ago, the birds and their swing did fall; one bird’s tail was broken. Most mass-produced decorative pieces are basically “throw-away art,” something to be tossed out when broken or to be sold bargain-rate at a white elephant sale when no longer interesting or appropriate. But Mom was not about to throw away her canaries—then or now. Instead, she asked Dad to glue the tail back on and attach a new (and stronger) chain to the swing. Obviously, the yellow lovebirds are a precious item, something of significance to Mom and consequently to her family. She has invested some of herself in the display and maintenance of these symbolic figures, and the family recognizes this investment and identification as clearly as it recognizes the association between Mom and her place at the kitchen table, her living-room chair, her golden chalice saved from the dinner set used on the farm in Michigan, her 1938 Macmillan dictionary given to her by Dean Davenport, her story of the yellow dress.
An almost superstitious aura surrounds the birds, as though they were some sort of subconsciously recognized totem or life-token. At a cultural level of symbolism, the birds may well represent the general motif E 732, Soul in the form of a bird, but at the intimate level of symbolism, they represent Mom’s identification with and affection for birds and her obvious appreciation for their close relationship with humans generally and herself in particular. It is significant, I suppose, that Mom has never kept a live canary as a pet. We did once have a green parakeet named Pete. He had been given to my brother Dick as a “gift” from someone on his paper route. Actually, the poor little bird was sick (literally lousy) and permanently lamed in one wing. But, rather than let the bird die—which I am sure the “benefactor” fully expected—Mom gently bathed the scrawny little fellow in Lysol every day until he was cured. Pete never could fly, but he learned to talk early and long. He died in 1963 after a long and noisy life and was buried out back by the pear tree. Mom prefers to see birds in the wild. In fact, this, I think, is part of her fascination with birds: they are so willing to openly share the immediate environment—even in town—with humans, and yet they are not domesticated but free.
I can remember that Mom was intrigued by my Great-Uncle Fred’s beautiful white pigeons that nested in the dovecote above his small barn. Uncle Fred lived just across the street in Huntington. The barn and dovecote (and “cow pasture” with no cows) attest to the fact that Vine Street had once been beyond the outskirts of town. Uncle Fred fed his pigeons well; they fattened and multiplied—and stayed. Aunt Opal finally protested that there were just too many birds. He couldn’t stop feeding them; that would be cruel. He couldn’t eat them; they were his pets. Finally, with a sad heart, he sold them and boarded up the cote. As much as she enjoys birds, Mom has never done what I am sure she would consider a disservice to the birds by making them dependent upon her. To be sure, she worries over the birds that come to the bird feeder during the winter, knowing that the food she and Dad give them may well be sorely needed. And she is saddened by the sight of frozen birds that could not survive the long subzero nights. But the birds are free, free to come to the bird feeder and in exchange bring some pleasure to the watchers inside the house. Mom faithfully keeps a record of the birds that visit the bird feeder, identifying them by species, noting when there are pairs, and counting their number. On sight, she can name most of the birds that winter in northern Indiana as well as those that migrate through the area in the fall and spring.
Uncommon visitors are a welcome challenge. She keeps two bird books handy on her utility table: a facsimile edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America and a more recent publication of the National Geographic Society titled Song and Garden Birds of North America.
Mom’s birdwatching, her anecdotal reaction to Uncle Fred’s pigeons (Mom often tells people about Uncle Fred and his pigeons, though both Fred and Opal died years ago), her attachment to the yellow lovebirds—these “characteristics” are some of the ones I experience as creating an allusive field in the intimate level of symbolization in my image of the canary. The universal, cultural, and intimate levels of identification in the symbol of the canary combine with the personal and cultural associations with the color yellow to create a positive imagery in the canary simile. Overall, as a symbol, the canary is an attractant, something with positive emotional, aesthetic, even spiritual attributes despite its philosophical image as a restricted spirit.
There is a problem, however, in this image of the canary as an attractant. A Brethren background and feminine modesty are hard-pressed to accept either the yellow dress or the metaphor of the canary precisely because they seem designed to attract attention, perhaps even sexual attention. Some years ago, Richard Dorson collected a recipe for a love potion from a Potawatomi Indian living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The potion was to be made of powdered canary root. The root was also useful in hunting and fishing, as his informant, Alec Philemon, said: “If you rub that root on your hook you can make fish and animals come to you. You know a canary is a nice bird, sings pretty. If you see a canary you’ll want to go up and look at it. Well, it’s the same way with the deer and the bear, when you use the root. They’ll come up to look at you, you aim your gun, down they go. It’s like you were a big canary. I looked all over for that root, never could find it” (Dorson 1952:36-37). The canary, like the canary root, attracts attention, positive attention, perhaps even that of a lover. Mom may have been reluctant to wear the yellow dress because it made her more attractive, blatantly so. Though there certainly is nothing scandalous or particularly sexy about yellow clothing in general, by invoking the symbolism of the canary, Mom seems to suggest that wearing the yellow dress is an open admission that she hopes to attract someone. Indirectly, donning the yellow dress represents a youthful, enthusiastic willingness to be beautiful, exciting, daring, wonderful—all the things a lover should be.
At this point in the story, meaning is generated (in my perception) through a tension between two levels of strategy of the type—the level of symbol and the level of structure. Or more specifically, there is tension between the superficial structure of the narrative and the psychological implications of the symbol. The canary, as symbol, is an attractant; it represents a blatant, exuberant statement of willingness to attract someone, to engage in life and love. From most perspectives, the symbol is positive; the willingness it represents is not a crude, jaundiced “offer” but rather a joyful, sunny rush of feeling, the canary’s ecstasy of song and flight. In contrast to the symbol, the structure of the narrative paints a rather dour picture. The key word that sets up the tension between structure and symbol is the word damn in Mom’s reply to Mary. Mom says, “Yes, I look like a damn canary,” not simply a canary. The tone of mock disgust is a secondary clue that Mom intends canary to be interpreted in a negative light. Had she said something like, “Yes, don’t I just look like a canary!”—even if spoken in a half-mocking tone, the listener would jump immediately to a positive semantic, and the motif of discomfiture would never have developed.
The word damn, then, is a highly charged word modifying the already ambiguous word canary and almost single-handedly deflecting the superficial structure into a negative direction. Damn reinforces the ambiguity of the symbol, bringing to the fore again the notion that the canary—bred and caged as it is—is “unnatural” either because we have “damned” it (enslaved it) or because it is “damnable” (certainly a projection in which we blame the victim for tolerating its enslavement). And yet the canary is a positive symbol. The temptation is strong to hear only a positive tone in the word damn. And this is possible in American folk tradition since damn enjoys a most ambiguous usage itself. Damn is a curse word with a variety of inhibitions and inducements attached to its use, and these of course affect its meaning in specific contexts and in the speech of specific individuals.6
In Mom’s case there are several strong inhibitions against its use and, I would guess, at least as many inducements toward its use aside from the simple demand of the discourse that she somehow express her dislike for the yellow dress. One inhibition is Mom’s religious background: cursing is blasphemous; a good Brethren does not curse. Another inhibition is Mom’s sex: ladies do not curse or use foul language. And I think we could say that Mom has a personal (family-based) inhibition against using the word damn. Her vocabulary is instead replete with traditional euphemisms; this story is one of the few times I have ever heard her use the word damn. Never have I heard her utter damn or any other potentially blasphemous word in a context (of despair or anger) that would actually constitute blasphemy. Even simple profanity as in the story is rarely a part of Mom’s speech.
The inducements to use the word damn obviously won over the inhibitions both at the time of the experience and with the initial telling and many retellings of the story. I can imagine that there might be some storytelling contexts in which Mom would substitute a word such as darn or maybe dumb for the word damn in her reply. It is, after all, the only potentially offensive word in the story. Obviously she does not feel a need to alter the sentence in my presence (or Bobbie’s), though I suspect that this is because I am now an adult; both Mom and Dad have always been very conscientious in their avoidance of profanity or “improper” language or stories in front of children.
In looking at the original sentence in its initial context, we can see other inducements to use damn and ignore the inhibitions (or rather play on the tension between the two). For a college senior (as Mom was in the story), there is a certain peer pressure to appear worldly and uninhibited, to rebel against family inhibitions and exhibit new signs of strong self-identity (or more accurately, a new group identity). Many a “good” girl learns to swear (and smoke, drink, etc.) in college because of peer pressure. Besides, women had “come a long way” since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the age of the flapper ushered in new values and standards of behavior.
Folklore of the time had already picked up on the more acceptable use of damn and other profanities in popular expression and everyday speech.7 Another short anecdote Mom often relates centers around a candy bar she and her friends created and marketed under the name “Dam-fine-O.” The name (aurally) can be interpreted as either “Damned if I know” in response to a question about the name of the candy, or simply “Damned fine-o” as a testimonial to the quality of the candy. In either case, they felt free to use the erstwhile taboo word damn in a humorous and public context. And finally, I might add that integrity and aesthetic sense seem to converge and compel her to tell the story (and recreate the dialogue) as it happened. She said damn then and sees no reason to lie about it now. (Besides, Mary Lyons corroborates her story and dialogue.) By now, “damn canary” simply sounds right. Anything else would be a self-imposed bowdlerization.
I would like to go back now to my earlier assertion that the conflict between structure and symbol is an important element in my sense of meaning in the story. The structure can be abstracted at various levels (as I shall demonstrate shortly), but none of these structural schemes alone conveys the psychological meaning of the story. To a great extent, the psychological meaning of the story grows out of the apparent failure of the structure to accommodate the positive aspects of the symbol (the canary as attractant). This failure coupled with the charged modifier damn is a clue that the “psychological structure” is not derived from the plot as presented but rather represents a special kind of nonverbalized folklore, what we might call an “inverse narrational value endorsement.”
Narratives support or endorse certain values through their repetition; personal narratives often serve to articulate or represent values that in fact become values only through the effect of literary foregrounding when the story is first told and then repeated as part of the teller’s repertoire. Narrational value endorsement is simply a recognition of this effect; it constitutes an abstract category into which various specific values might be slotted and thus endorsed by the storyteller. When this effect is inverted, the result is a seeming ambiguity in regard to the value involved. In fact, however, the listener’s response to such an inversion is very likely an acceptance of the underlying endorsement. In other words, as listener, I am convinced of the teller’s allegiance to the positive value of the canary symbol despite her presentation of a plot structure that would seem to support the opposite value of inhibition. In effect, by allowing the canary symbolism to win over the motif of discomfiture inherent in the plot, the teller endorses the value of assertion and attraction implicit in the symbol. At the same time, however, she projects responsibility for this new value onto her father, her roommate, even the clothing store—anyone but herself.
This particular narrative value endorsement involves in part what Alan Dundes (1980a:51) describes as a narrative “projection inversion.” That is, the teller hopes to establish other characters in the story as the perpetrators of the positive valuation of the yellow dress and its symbolic overtones. However, it is ultimately the teller herself who chose to endorse the value of attractiveness, though she presents herself in the plot as the antagonist opposing this value. Before looking further to the psychological structure, let me briefly present an analysis of the plot structure in the “Yellow Dress” segment that allows this psychological structure to develop.
I see three general levels of plot structure. Each level is identifiable by the size of the abstracted unit involved—large, medium, or small. Various schemes may be slotted into these three levels. For instance, at the level of the large structural units, we have a “problem/solution” structure something like Alan Dundes’s (1963) “lack/lack liquidated” sequence with, in this case, a lack represented by the “lack” of appropriate clothing and the “liquidation” of the lack manifested in the purchase of an appropriate summer-weight dress and shoes.
We might instead follow the cyclical (large-level) scheme of Claude Brémond and view the structure as the development of action from a “state of deficiency” through a “procedure of improvement” to an “improved state” (Brémond 1970:251). Or again, as my adaptation of Brémond suggests, we might specify the overall thematic goal in structural terms as a procedure that relieves the initial monotony of the long summer.
Procedure for relieving monotony —[Plot]
All three of these large-unit schemes view the action of the story as the means by which a negative state is neutralized. The structure in these terms is too abstract to create a sense of tension between itself and the primary symbol in the story. Though they do not point to a negative resolution, neither do they parallel the positive lines of the symbol. They simply represent the narrative tendency toward equilibrium.
The medium-level schemes for structural analysis contrast very sharply with the positive ambience of the symbol. Whether one looks to Propp or Dundes or Lévi-Strauss for a model to adapt for structural study at this level, the analytic schemes at this level point to a negative closing or failure in the plot of the Yellow Dress segment.8 If the plot is treated through its chronological progression, it generally represents a cycle from a state of dissatisfaction through an action and a return to dissatisfaction:
Discontent (dissatisfaction with clothing)
Receipt of gift (money from her father)
Misuse of gift (money spent on inappropriate clothing)
Discomfiture (embarrassment at wearing dress)
If, on the other hand, the story is treated with greater attention to paradigms of cultural meaning (adapting Lévi-Strauss 1958), then the negative structure is represented by the failure of the plot to mediate significant opposites:
NATURE Situation: inappropriate clothing
(Undervaluing of the environment)
CULTURE Action: purchase of the dress
(Undervaluing of taste)
FAILURE TO MEDIATE NATURE
AND CULTURE Consequence: discomfiture
(Failure to mediate between the environment and taste)
Even at the level of small units of structure (i.e., greater detail in the abstraction of functions), discomfiture is the primary result of the purchase of the dress. (I shall summarize this third level of structure separately in the review at the end of the instructional text.) Consistently, the message of the plot structure seems to be a negative one, a contention that the storyteller really should not have bought the yellow dress because she does not like it and feels uncomfortable wearing it. It is important for our perception of “projective inversion” in the story that we recognize this negative structure in the plot. In psychological terms, we must be able to see how the story as told allows Mom to project blame for her discomfiture onto the dress itself and (indirectly) onto her father for giving her the money to buy the dress and onto Mary for liking it.
In the discussion of the canary as symbol, I concluded that the dress symbolically represents the willingness of the heroine (Mom in 1938) to attract attention to herself. If the plot structure were not negative, Mom would, in effect, have been saying (1) I bought this dress because I want to be attractive (like a canary), (2) my father has given me the means to attract a suitor, and (3) I am ready to cast off my daughterly inhibitions, attract a suitor, and marry. However, the structure of the plot denies these statements. Therefore, to see the psychological structure, we must hear first the projection: women who wear bright-yellow dresses are like canaries; they enthusiastically solicit the attention of men. It is easy to see how the dress and her father (who gave her the money) are made responsible for her “taboo” behavior. If her father, of all people, encourages her to make herself attractive to other men, what choice does she have but to deny her value of inhibition and symbolically leave the nest and engage in life and love in the big world “out there”?
By professing discomfiture in the plot of the story, she is able to deny (to herself) her own interest in attracting the attention of a lover while at the same time reaping the benefits of her purchase. In fact, over the course of that summer she was dating three young men (including my father, whom she married two years later). In version #2, you might notice a joking exchange between Mom and Dad on the subject of these other two suitors—Glenn Beery and “Puffy” Plasterer. By insisting that she is embarrassed by the message the yellow dress conveys, Mom is able to project her own desire to be attractive onto her father. He is the one who has encouraged her to attract a lover; she obediently follows his suggestion, but he is responsible for the change. Superficially at least, she remains a modest, self-effacing young Brethren woman who condemns new bright-colored clothing as ostentatious. But her father’s gift has forced her to actively seek to be attractive.
Through this “projective inversion,” she is able to maintain the illusion that the yellow dress is a source of personal discomfiture and to decry any interest in attracting suitors. Much in the story could be analyzed as a fairy tale with all the psychoanalytic apparatus often used in such studies. (There are, conveniently, a father, stepmother, heroine, helper, and three suitors.) My tendency in this instance, however, is to hear what is most meaningful to me. I think Mom found a complex and clever way to use “projection inversion” (not that she would use that term or necessarily recognize the concept) to endorse those symbols and behaviors that celebrate life, and especially a natural delight in physical attraction.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-11):
Style/Personalore: Personalities of acquaintances who are characters in the story
Discourse/Situation: Self-reference by the speaker
Discourse/Rhetoric: “Static characters”
Discourse/Rhetoric: “Dynamic characters”
Discourse/Rhetoric: Characters as dramatis personae
Discourse/Rhetoric: Flouting the cooperation principle
Discourse/Rhetoric: Use of simile
Style/Culture: Poetic devices
Style/Personalore: Mom’s poetry writing
Style/Personalore: The significance of the canary to Mom and Mary Lyons
Type/Symbol: “Intimate” symbolism of the canary
Type/Symbol: Universal (bird, flight, yellow)
Type/Symbol: Culture (Caged bird, human envy of the bird’s flight)
Type/Symbol: Culture (Song as witness to the potential for flight)
Type/Symbol: Intimate (Ceramic yellow lovebirds)
Type/Motif: E732, Soul in form of a bird
Type/Symbol: Intimate (Birds in close relationship to humans)
Style/Personalore: Pete the parakeet
Style/Personalore: Uncle Fred and his pigeons
Style/Personalore: Mom’s birdwatching
Type/Symbol: Cultural and Intimate (Canary as attractant)
Style/Culture: Damn used to express negative tone
Style/Culture: Ambiguous meaning of damn
Discourse/Rhetoric: Expressing a negative
Style/Culture: Religious prohibition against swearing
Style/Culture: Bias against women swearing
Style/Personalore: Mom’s use of euphemisms
Discourse/Situation: Adult audience
Style/Culture: Peer pressure in the 1930s
Style/Culture: Folkloric use of damn
Style/Personalore: “Dam-fine-O” candybar
Type/Structure: Psychological structure (narrative value endorsement)
TC-12: I hated the thing, but it’s the only one I could get for that price, so that’s what I got.
In this comment that closes the “Yellow Dress” segment, Mom lets rhetoric pay the piper. She says, “I hated the thing,” but in fact she reaped the rewards of wearing a new and attractive dress. By claiming to dislike the dress and to resent having to wear it, she denies her own interest in being “like a canary” and indirectly faults her father for making it necessary that she thus proclaim an interest in being the object of love and attention from young men outside of her family.
Other cultural elements would include such things as the fear of assertiveness common among many women. Not only do many women fear or avoid assertiveness, but often their speech reflects this fear through appeals to others for authority when an assertion is tentatively made or through obvious awkwardness in accepting a compliment (Kramer 1974; Lakoff 1975). Mom was pleased that Mary thought the dress pretty, but her reply was the near-proverbial “This old thing!?” so often comically represented as the stereotypical response of a woman when complimented on her dress. Mom is not at all confident that she does look pretty in the yellow dress. Her transferral of the final authority to Mary (or others generally) would be judged typical behavior for a young woman. She still needs some reinforcement of her decision to try something new. She asks for this reinforcement by challenging Mary with a negative statement. She carries the challenge on to the listener by reiterating her dislike for the dress: “I hated the thing”—and by reiterating her practical rationale for buying it: “It’s the only one I could get for that price.” Like Mary, the audience must lend authority to the decision she has made.
Finally, I would return to the symbolism of the canary in a more superficial sense and view Mom’s closing words in the “Yellow Dress” segment as a clear statement of her reluctance to “leave the nest.” She knows the time has come to cast off the camouflaging feathers of childhood and take on the brighter colors of the adult, to leave the nest and her parents (real or substitute— Manchester was certainly in loco parentis) and fly out into the world where a mate and her own future family await. (Mom was in her middle twenties in 1938.) It is the disquieting thought of leaving the known and reaching for the unknown that bothers her. She “hates” to leave the known—her conservative Brethren tradition, her family, her dormmates, even her personal habits and tastes (the wool skirt and satin blouse). She “hates” the yellow dress as a subjective symbol of that leave-taking. It is a tribute to the comfort the nest has provided that she so hates to leave it. Yet, as in the fairy tales, the child must “go out into the world,” mature, and marry. I find it significant, personally moving, and instructive (certainly, a visible function of the storytelling) that Mom was so very sensitive to the drawing power of her primary family, the family of her birth (cf. Goode 1964). And it reminds me as listener that I went through much the same sequence of feelings when I earned my college degree, later married, and later still started my own family. To me, it is as though she felt that great sweep back in time and forward to the future where children must always leave what they love and themselves produce a world their children will be just as reluctant to leave. James Agee said it, too: “Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember”(from A Death in the Family).
Analytical codes (Segment TC-12):
Style/Culture: Women’s avoidance of assertiveness
Type/Theme: Reluctance to leave the nest
TC-13: That was the same summer—that was the broke summer—but anyway, Mary and I were getting awfully bored and we wanted to go to the show. But between us we had a quarter, and neither one of us wanted to go by herself, so we stayed home. And that night my name had been drawn for a hundred dollars—Bank Night. And I wasn’t there to claim it, so I didn’t get it.—Sad!
Here Mom brings us back to the theme of surviving hard times and the initial structural abstraction revolving around the monotony of “the broke summer.” Though it cost only a quarter to get into the movie theater, money was scarce enough that even a quarter was hard to find, especially for inessentials like entertainment. In contrast, food prices were even lower (remember the three pounds of hamburger for a quarter), while luxury items were completely beyond the budgets of most Americans living through the Great Depression.
The irony of the little sketch is that had Mom gone to the show (without Mary, of course), she would have won one hundred dollars, a most significant sum given the hard times. As is typical of such “misfortune stories” (cf. Brandes 1975), a direct causal line can be drawn from the misfortune back to an earlier decision, in this case Mom and Mary’s joint decision that since they did not have enough money for them both to go, then neither of them would go. Hindsight of course urges that Mom should have shown some initiative: You cannot win at Bank Night (or life) unless you leave home and go to the show (go out into the world).
As she explains in version #2, she was not aware that her name was in the hopper. Significantly, it was one of her dates (Glenn Beery) who had entered her name earlier in the summer. (Perhaps if he had seen her in her new yellow dress, he would have asked her out that night.) As it was, in true fairy tale fashion, she passed “the test” with an absence of greed and an appropriate display of compassion and loyalty (by not going without Mary). But in contrast to the typical fairy tale hero, she was not rewarded with riches for demonstrating her good character.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-13):
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Type/Structure: Initial situation (Monotony to relieve)
Style/Culture: Twenty-five-cent movie admission (1930s)
Type/Genre: “Misfortune story”
TC-14: That was the same summer we stayed up all night swatting mosquitoes because our screen had holes in it—let the mosquitoes in. We couldn’t go to sleep.
One might be tempted to hear this final segment of the story as an afterthought; it hardly seems significant in any way, except maybe as a sign that they were too poor to patch the screens. Nevertheless, there is a clue in the overall rhetoric of the story that suggests that the closing segment is significant and is in fact a part of the structural unity of the story. If you look at an unsegmented presentation of the text (see the Appendix), you can more easily see the repetitious phrase that indicates the start of each new segment of the story. The story begins, “When I was at Manchester that last summer. . .” (my emphasis). The next “paragraph” begins, “That was the same summer. . .”; the third segment begins, “That was the same summer—that was the broke summer. . .”; and this last segment as well begins, “That was the same summer. . . .” If nothing else, the repeated phrase is a rhetorical device that ties the four segments together temporally.
Thematically, the four segments all point to problems of living through the years of the Depression, especially “the broke summer” (though the theme is sounded only minimally in this last segment). In fact, because of the linear development of the story, reference to “the broke summer” becomes (by the third segment) an element of personalore growing out of the story itself.
However, the structure of the story is the analytic aspect most clearly affected by the “connections” implied by the rhetoric. Much earlier in the instructional text I suggested that “Monotony to relieve” was the primary structural impetus in the story. With that in mind, we can look to each of the four segments of the story as a new and specific illustration of how monotony was relieved that summer. The most important segment—important in terms of the greater meaning of the story—is the second, the “Yellow Dress” segment. Here change is brought about through intentional action by the story’s main character. The purchase and wearing of the yellow dress represents a spontaneity, a willingness to change her self-image and break away from her own monotonous attire and grooming habits.
Nevertheless, if we survey the Simplified Structural Chart (see figure 5-1), we can easily see that all four segments are representational movements from a state of boredom to one of excitement, improvement, or action. Segment one is situational; however, the “situation” extends beyond the time of the story action and into the time of the storytelling. The improvement can be perceived only from the listener’s point of view (personalore and cultural cues) since the storyteller herself does not directly mention anything about her own current economic situation.
In this simple structural scheme, the second segment seems no more prominent than the other three segments; it too involves a clear movement from monotony to change. The third segment actually seems more complicated structurally. Here the consequence (C) is not a goal but a result; Mom did not even know that her inaction (not going to the show) resulted in the loss of a potential one hundred dollars until the fact was conveyed through the attention and interaction of her friends who did go to the movie. In a traditional plot (a Märchen or romance), segment three would have been reversed (to a positive monetary outcome), and segments one and three together would have been the essential plot pair (lack/lack liquidated in Dundes’s scheme; a/K in Propp’s); the heroine would have won the reward and married the prince.
But in this realistic (nonfictional) plot, the attention and interaction with friends must be accepted instead as a positive consequence; the event “makes a good story” and stirs the admiration of her friends. She is consoled by her recognition as one of the souls fate has singled out to treat with such irony. The fourth segment would hardly qualify as an incident at all outside of the context of the overall plot. In Labov and Waletzky’s terms, the segment represents only a “complication”; theoretically (but not in the real world, I am sure) the mosquito-swatting segment represents what Labov and Waletzky (1967:41) call “the simplest possible narrative,” a complication without a clear resolution. But because the incident is a segment of the larger plot, the listener is able to (in fact, must) provide the necessary consequence (interaction instead of sleeping) and the positive evaluation (the perception of movement from potential inaction or monotony [sleeping] to action).
Alone, segment four would be negative, a complaint. What good could come from losing sleep and fighting off mosquitoes? Only in the context of the whole plot structure does the “good humor” of the last segment come through. Mom and Mary “got the giggles, of course” (see version #3 of “The Yellow Dress”, in the Appendix) as a response to the absurdity of their situation—two grown women kept awake by a tiny mosquito. The listener appreciates the segment as one last illustration of how the monotony of that long “broke” summer was relieved.
Analytical codes (Segment TC-14):
Discourse/Rhetoric: Repeated phrase (“That was the same summer”)
Type/Theme: Surviving hard times
Style/Personalore: The broke summer of 1938
Style/Personalore: Mom’s current economic situation
Type/Structure: Four-part structure (simplified)
“The Yellow Dress” in Review
The prominent theme of the story is economic survival. The 1930s were hard years in the United States. Probably Grandpa DeVault was able to survive the worst years because he was a farmer and a landowner. Even so, sending a daughter to college was a luxury he could not afford. By starting college later, by working part-time jobs during school and summer jobs in between, by borrowing money, even by teaching a class, Mom was able to pay her own undergraduate tuition and most of her living expenses. The five dollars her father sent was a welcome gift. But for me (and Bobbie) as audience to the storytelling, the five-dollar gift is a subtle clue that most of Mom’s college expenses were met through her own efforts. Mom would never come right out and say (to me, for example), “Just look at what I endured to be able to complete my college education. I couldn’t depend on my parents for money to go to school, but I wanted to go badly enough to suffer even that miserable ‘broke’ summer. I can laugh at it now, but at the time it was a pretty trying situation. I wouldn’t wish such a time on you, but I hope that by hearing my story you appreciate even more the money we have spent to help you through school and the comparative ‘good times’ we enjoy now in America.”
She does not resort to such obvious preaching; the story does it much more graciously. I am more inclined to accept the lesson in its narrative guise. In 1972, when version #1 was recorded, I was still in graduate school, and though the times were not so bad generally, my own economic situation was the typical substandard one of most graduate students. Most of my parents’ financial support had come during my undergraduate years; graduate school would not have been a possibility without that earlier help from them. Mom’s story is not a game in one-upmanship. Rather, she likely feels I canappreciate this latent message of her story all the more, now that I am experiencing something analogous to her “broke summer.” She offers clear evidence that she can sincerely empathize with me as I endure a period of economic hard times for the sake of furthering my education.
The story functions as an exemplum or parable, then, as, for example, do the “yarns” based on personal experience told by the La Have Island fishermen in Richard Bauman’s (1972b) study. There are a number of other less prominent functions of the story and storytelling. Sociability is certainly part of the raison d’être of the genre generally and this storytelling in particular: the men are out working in the garage, the children are playing, and the women are talking in the kitchen. “Talking” often involves the exchange of personal narratives as a way of reinforcing the intimacy of the particular social relationship. When grown children (or in-laws) do not live in the parents’ home or see them on a day-to-day basis, the exchange of such stories is a particularly effective way of reestablishing the sense of intimacy that otherwise fades without daily interaction and local interests in common.
The structure of the story reflects the dominant theme of surviving hard times, and it is this theme and structure that enable the story to serve so well its primary didactic function. The message (usually) to the audience of the story is that an economically difficult period can be endured with good humor if one learns to appreciate those precious intrusions into the monotony that is so often a stifling companion to hard times. (Many social theorists blame simple boredom for the rioting during the “long, hot summers” when a high number of youth are unemployed, bored with their inactivity, and unable to afford the kind of entertainment that would distract them from the monotony of their lives.)
The structure of Mom’s story is a sequence of actions that in some way relieve the monotony of “the broke summer.” Using my adaptation of Brémond’s model, I would represent the full narrative structure (small units) of Mom’s story as indicated in the chart in figure 5-2. The functions immediately within the largest level of structure (Monotony to relieve) are the three primary actions of the plot—(1) replacing the wool skirt with the yellow dress, (2) interacting with college friends (after losing out at Bank Night), and (3) interacting with Mary (swatting mosquitoes). The three functions in the story are parallel rather than internally dependent. They are each a separate illustration of a procedure for relieving the monotony.
This view of the structure is from the perspective of the storyteller and her literary goals relative to the main character. Each of the three main segments of action (labeled , , and  on the chart) is independently a “sufficient” fulfillment of the largest triad (Monotony to relieve). Nevertheless, the effect of the three segments is cumulative—which only makes sense in light of the quantity of intrusions (in this case, three) necessary before a person feels monotony has in fact been relieved. The internal development of each segment—the procedure for replacing the wool skirt, the procedure for seeking interaction—reflects the intradependent sequence of literary goals that directs the presentation of the plot. Each new function cannot be completed (the third line of the triad) until all of the functions within its triad are also completed.
With the completion of the final triad in each segment, the links in the chain of previous literary goals reaching back to that initial triad are simultaneously fulfilled (if they had not been completed earlier). The structure can be analyzed, then, in terms that clearly point to the traditionality of that structure, especially in such standard functions as “Help to give” or “Test to pass.” But the greater value of such a structural analysis is the frame it provides for abstracting less prominent themes and cultural values from the narrative.
The problematic economic situation in the 1930s is the most obvious theme, and the closely associated theme of boredom is prominent to some extent as a consequence. Friendship is another theme; in all three action segments, friendship is emphasized either through some form of positive social interaction—Mary’s compliment on Mom’s dress in the first segment, the gamelike activity of swatting mosquitoes and the accompanying laughter in the last segment—or through some obvious symbolic action that recognizes and reinforces the friendship—Mom and Mary’s mutual agreement that if they could not both afford to go to the show, then neither of them would go. A less obvious theme is the absence of men—not simply that they are not a part of the story; they are a part of the story, but primarily through their absence. The letter and five-dollar bill from Mom’s father are the only obvious clue to this theme of absence. However, the absence of men is clearly a part of the story if we look to the roles men typically fill in the real-life situations around which the story revolves.
In regard to the first action segment, a man—the father—is usually expected to provide for his family, especially his daughter. In this case, the daughter has left the home and gone to college. The home and sustenance the father would provide for her cannot be portioned off and sent along with her; neither can the father himself. He sends a token, wishing of course that he could be of more help. The five dollars is a help, but it is also a reminder that the father is not there. In the second plot segment the absent man is any young man who would fill the role of date. As I mentioned earlier, version #2 of the story suggests three potential candidates for this absent date: Dad, Glenn Beery (the young man who enrolled Mom in the drawing), and Puffy Plasterer (the one Dad guessed had put Mom’s name in the drawing). Of the three likely suitors, not one is available to take Mom (or Mary) to the show. And finally, in the last segment, we can infer the absence of men from the fact that the screen had holes in it. Typically, home repair jobs are handled by men—husbands, grown sons, or paid repairmen. Such conventional sex-role stereotyping allows us to assume that if there were a man around the house, the screens would have been fixed.
One other theme—and one that easily overlaps into the illustration of cultural values—is personal responsibility. The story involves no heavy responsibility or decision making; rather, the decisions that are made are simple everyday decisions—what purchase to make at the clothing store, whether or not to go to the show, perhaps even whether or not to leave the window open. Thematically, however, the decisions, minor as they are, require that Mom accept responsibility for the consequences of her decisions. She is the one who decides to wear the yellow dress, though it does not fit her previous self-image; she is the one who decides to stay home rather than go to the show. Fate does not cheat her or embarrass her; she makes the decisions herself and acts on them. Accepting responsibility for decisions is a sign of maturity and a positively valued characteristic in our culture.
Other values given some prominence in the story include the “prize” of a college education, a prize made increasingly valuable through the sacrifices made in its behalf and the personal investment of time and money. Money itself is valued positively in the story. Human avarice gives money its bad name; in this story, money is treated with respect for its power and scarcity and with great care in its apportionment. A related value is practicality; Mom cites this value as the primary influence on her decision to buy the yellow dress. She could buy the inexpensive dress and a pair of shoes for five dollars; buying a prettier, more expensive dress might be an appealing alternative, but it would not be as practical.
On the other hand, we can see that the story illustrates as well a concern with aesthetics. Mom is probably pleased that Mary finds the dress pretty, but she knows— from her own perspective anyway—that she has let practicality be the first priority. Her frustration with having had to make the decision in favor of practicality simply underscores the strength of her attachment to the positive values of beauty and good taste—which she feels have been somewhat compromised.
Altruism is a highly valued trait, one expected—nay, demanded—of mothers, nurses, perhaps women generally. As in Mom’s story, altruism usually does not mix well with the egocentric (male-dominated) world of moneymaking. By including the second action segment in the story (by telling it at all), Mom asserts her own conviction that the altruistic stance she and Mary demonstrate in their refusal to abandon a roommate and enjoy the show alone is of greater value than any monetary reward.
In addition, all three action segments illustrate the premium placed on a “good sense of humor.” The incidents in the story are not particularly funny; instead, at base, they are rather sober accounts of how “a good sense of humor” is necessary if a monotonous, “broke” summer is to be tolerated. On the other hand, if the audience shares that value—appreciation for the ability to laugh at oneself, to see humor in situations that are not so much funny as ironic— then they will likely find the story amusing as well.
Finally, I think the story serves a metanarrational function; it explores the question of how to evaluate experience within the context of the experience story itself.9 The canary, you will recall, is the primary symbol in the story; it represents Mom’s willingness to attract to herself new experiences, a welcoming of new relationships. Some of the less prominent symbols and images work along with the primary symbol to reinforce this positive evaluation of “new experience.” This other imagery in the story is less vague about just what kind of new experience is to be sought or at least welcomed. Certainly sexual experience is part of the new experience alluded to symbolically, but the more direct concern of the story is, again, the experience of leave-taking itself. The contemplation of any new experience involves both a projection into the future and a reassessment of the past. In the context of the story, the storyteller is again at that point of contemplation. Just why would anyone fly to experiences she knows not of? Or to reverse Hamlet’s query, why would anyone choose to “leave” an experience that has been good? By telling the story of the yellow dress, Mom considers again the painful necessity of that decision.
The experience in this case involves the archetypal nurturing family, the safe and loving household where love is given rather than earned, where, as Frost says, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” In the story the experience of home must be recognized as the symbol it is; if the canary is to fly, it is the home it flies away from. Symbolically, the story divides the home into its components and exposes these components as independent, as separate, though perceived normally as unified in the symbol. Once the components of home are exposed as separate people with independent lives, the child, like the novelist, can never go home again. The child teaches itself to be aware—to see the pattern of the symbol in the home, in the people it calls home, and then, courageously, to see the awful, unknown, and independent reality of the persons behind that pattern. The child must grow to its own independent personhood. It must perceive pattern in its experience and then look beyond the pattern to the wonderful uniqueness of each new experience.
Mom slowly carries out this painful task through her telling (and retelling) of the story. The clearest image of this “breakdown” of the home is in the long introductory section. The home in Manchester is literally divided—she and Mary sleep in one house and prepare their food in another. In version #2 Mom comments directly on the unusualness (and thus potential significance) of this sleeping-and-eating arrangement; she says, “And that was really kinda funny when you stop to think about it.” The symbolism was grasped intuitively and returned as a puzzle for the listener. The food imagery of this first segment is associated with Mary’s mother, who brings them lettuce, onions, and raspberries from her garden. The money—five dollars—of the second section is associated with Mom’s father. The traditional image of the mutually supporting parents is broken up into the stereotypical roles—the nurturing mother and the financially supportive father. The symbolic parents are from two separate households; they and their roles must be viewed apart.
The third segment of the story is a symbolic exposure of “the brother.” Older brothers are notoriously ambivalent toward their social role relative to younger sisters. Typically, older brothers are a source of pride to younger siblings, especially sisters. Even among today’s sophisticated children, sisters enjoy being escorted to social events by their brothers, especially if the brother is popular and good-looking. In Mom’s story, the absent “date” is of course a potential mate or lover, but he is also by his absence a reminder of the brother who would otherwise serve as the platonic suitor-substitute, escorting his sister to the show—and perhaps teasing her by entering her name in the Bank Night drawing without telling her.
In the last segment, Mary represents “the sister.” Like sisters, she and Mom competed for the attention of the brother in the segment before. Like sisters, they are happily playing together again in the last segment. But Mary is a playmate, and swatting mosquitoes is, after all, a childish game. The sister, the brother, the mother, the father, the home—all are images that Mom had assumed were really represented by her real experience of home. Now she sees that the experience of home itself is breaking down; she must leave the nest because it is no longer the nest she knew. The experience of home has passed already; she now has only to deny her loyalty to that lingering image.
Loyalty is what makes the leave-taking so painful. It is what makes any change, any new experience, painful. Here is the story’s comment on its own genre. When an experience is evaluated positively, it will be repeated or maintained sometimes to the exclusion of new experiences. Mom wanted to wear the yellow dress, to welcome new experiences, but all of her own best feelings berated her for her disloyalty to her “old” self-image, her previous well-ordered store of experiences, her predictable taste. Indeed, she “hated” the yellow dress for what it represented: change—a specific new experience and the general notion of new experiences. Poets of every age hate change, or rather they celebrate our great loyalty to our personal past, our great attachment to all the things that have changed us into what we are now and our dread of all things that would bring us away from that self our past has made. Some changes truly are worthy of that dread—the death of a loved one, the loss of health and vitality, exile, imprisonment. But most of our dread is that we will somehow dishonor or betray our present experience and the investment of self it has demanded by replacing it with a new experience. The challenge is to feel loyalty, appreciate its powerful attraction, and then move on to new experiences. Mom is able to do this herself by wearing the yellow dress. She challenges her listeners to do the same through her telling of the story of the yellow dress.
And what about this listener? All of the preceding is my interpretation, my suggestion of the function her telling and my listening serve (and, as Elliott Oring  argues, this commentary on function is still interpretation rather than explanation). I grasp the challenge she extends primarily because I hear the story as a cautionary tale; its function, for me, is attached not only to its thematic message (surviving hard times) but to its symbolic message as well. No platitude or fairy tale, no song or poem (not even her own) could move me to an acceptance of the symbolic message so easily yet firmly as does this story. For the story conveys an attitude—Mom’s subtle suggestion of how to handle the very human desire to remain loyal to the past yet move on to new experiences.
Unlike the poets who break their hearts and ours with laments for the falling leaves and “Time Long Past,” Mom cautions me to accept the truth that “nothing gold can stay” and move on to find more gold in each new experience. Frost and Shelley might wish to do the same through their poems; perhaps they succeed. Mom succeeds for me because the symbolism in her story is both universal and intimate. I know how difficult her leave-taking must have been; my own has been so smooth she may doubt whether I have given it much thought. In contrast, she lost her own mother when she was barely sixteen; her father and “home” became all the more precious and significant. Leaving something that valuable is hard, but once done, the leave-taking itself is a symbolic experience, valuable for the lesson it carries. The lesson it bears is an attitude, a chosen stance, a world view. It is the stuff of literature, the core of a personal narrative.