Analysis of Walter de la Mare’s Stories

Walter de la Mare’s (25 April 1873 – 22 June 1956) stories take the form both of wish fulfillment and nightmare projections. Believing that the everyday world of mundane experience is a veil hiding a “real” world, de la Mare used dream forms as a means of piercing the veil as well as a means of suggesting that between dream and reality looms, as de la Mare said, “no impassable abyss.” Because of their hallucinatory character, dreams merge with states of madness, travel to mysterious realms, childhood visions. The surfaces of de la Mare’s stories belie an underlying reality; rendering the texture of everyday experience with exquisite detail, he built his surfaces with such lucidity that a reader is often surprised to find a horror beneath that which is apparently placid or a joy beneath that which is apparently mundane.

The Riddle

“The Riddle” starts like a fairy tale with such lightness and grace that one might expect a “happy ever after” ending. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the quavering voice of the grandmother betokens something more than age, and the gifts she presents to her seven grandchildren become something more than sugar plums. Although it is never made explicit, one may assume that the grandchildren have come to live with their grandmother because of the death of their parents. The aged woman says to the children,“bring me smiling faces that call back to my mind my own son Harry.” The children are told they may come in the presence of their grandmother twice a day—in the morning and in the evening. The rest of the time they have the run of the house with the exception of the large spare bedroom where there stands in a corner an old oak chest, older than the aged woman’s own grandmother.

The chest represents death. It is later revealed to be decorated as a coffin, and it attracts the children one by one. Harry is first. Opening the chest, he finds something strangely seductive that reminds him of his mother, so he climbs in and the lid miraculously closes. When the other children tell their grandmother of Harry’s disappearance, she responds, “Then he must be gone away for a time. . . . But remember, all of you, do not meddle with the oak chest.”

Now it becomes apparent that the grandmother, herself so close to death that she seems more feeble every day, is also to be identified with the oak chest and that rather than a good fairy dispensing sugarplums she is a wicked witch seducing the children to their death. Ann is the last child to be called to the chest, and she walks as if in a dream and as if she were being guided by the hand. One paragraph more ends the story. With the children all gone, the grandmother enters the spare room, but her eyesight is too dim for her to see, and her mind is a tangled skein of memories which include memories of little children.

The Orgy

“The Orgy: An Idyll” seems an entirely different kind of story. Rather than being set in a house with myriad rooms suggesting something of the gothic, “The Orgy” is set mainly in a large and elegant department store in London; rather than beginning with a “once upon a time” element, it opens on a bright May morning, crisp, brisk, scintillating. Details of the great packed street down which Philip walks leave readers no doubt that here is the world of their own experience. Before the action is ended, however, it becomes clear that the story is an extravaganza. Philip is engaged in a buying orgy, charging everything that strikes his fancy to the account of his uncle who has just disinherited him, and the orgy is a fanciful idyll of the wish fulfillment variety. Philip’s desire for revenge projected into bright, hallucinatory images is carried into action in exactly the way the uncle will understand—to the tune of “a couple of hundred thousand pounds,” a considerable amount of money in 1931, the year the story was published.

In the Forest

“In the Forest” is a brilliant exercise in point of view restricted to the mind of a small boy in such a way that the childlike behavior and lack of perception characteristic of the very young take on the aura of nightmare. At no time does de la Mare vary the focus; no words are used that a child could not know; no insight is offered that a child could not understand. Although the child occasionally feels a twinge of guilt because he has not obeyed his mother, he is completely impervious to the horror of the action going on around him.

The story opens when the boy’s father is leaving to go to war. The boy is half asleep and is moving in and out of consciousness. It is the advent of the fall of the year, and a stormhas brought down leaves that are still green from the trees. Although the leaves are still green, it is getting cold. The boy asks his father to bring him a gun back from the war and notices without comment that his father, instead of leaving immediately, keeps coming back to say good-bye. Unaware of the anguish being suffered by his father and mother, the boy asks his mother if she is glad his father is going to the war. The mother does not answer, but the boy’s simple statement makes the point. “But she was crying over the baby, so I went out into the forest till dinner.”

Later the boy chops wood, an activity that causes him to be hot and excited, and then he brings the logs into the house. The wind is roaring as if it is angry, more leaves are falling, and the weather is cold and misty. The boy finds his mother asleep with the baby in her arms, and the baby, too, is asleep, although, as the boy notices, the baby scarcely seems to be breathing. The boy falls asleep by the warm hearth and stays there all night. In the morning he rushes out, glad that his father is gone, because now he can do just as he pleases. Visiting the snares, he finds a young rabbit caught by one leg and, imitating his father, kills the hare with a crack on the neck and appearance, she responds, “Then he must be gone away for a time. . . . But remember, all of you, do not meddle with the oak chest.” Now it becomes apparent that the grandmother, herself so close to death that she seems more feeble every day, is also to be identified with the oak chest and that rather than a good fairy dispensing sugarplums she is a wicked witch seducing the children to their death. Ann is the last child to be called to the chest, and she walks as if in a dream and as if she were being guided by the hand. One paragraph more ends the story. With the children all gone, the grandmother enters the spare room, but her eyesight is too dim for her to see, and her mind is a tangled skein of memories which include memories of little children. “The Orgy” • “The Orgy: An Idyll” seems an entirely different kind of story. Rather than being set in a house with myriad rooms suggesting something of the gothic, “The Orgy” is set mainly in a large and elegant department store in London; rather than beginning with a “once upon a time” element, it opens on a bright May morning, crisp, brisk, scintillating. Details of the great packed street down which Philip walks leave readers no doubt that here is the world of their own experience. Before the action is ended, however, it becomes clear that the story is an extravaganza. Philip is engaged in a buying orgy, charging everything that strikes his fancy to the account of his uncle who has just disinherited him, and the orgy is a fanciful idyll of the wish fulfillment variety. Philip’s desire for revenge projected into bright, hallucinatory images is carried into action in exactly the way the uncle will understand—to the tune of “a couple of hundred thousand pounds,” a considerable amount of money in 1931, the year the story was published. “In the Forest” • “In the Forest” is a brilliant exercise in point of view restricted to the mind of a small boy in such a way that the childlike behavior and lack of perception characteristic of the very young take on the aura of nightmare. At no time does de la Mare vary the focus; no words are used that a child could not know; no insight is offered that a child could not understand. Although the child occasionally feels a twinge of guilt because he has not obeyed his mother, he is completely impervious to the horror of the action going on around him. The story opens when the boy’s father is leaving to go to war. The boy is half asleep and is moving in and out of consciousness. It is the advent of the fall of the year, and a stormhas brought down leaves that are still green from the trees. Although the leaves are still green, it is getting cold. The boy asks his father to bring him a gun back from the war and notices without comment that his father, instead of leaving immediately, keeps coming back to say good-bye. Unaware of the anguish being suffered by his father and mother, the boy asks his mother if she is glad his father is going to the war. The mother does not answer, but the boy’s simple statement makes the point. “But she was crying over the baby, so I went out into the forest till dinner.” Later the boy chops wood, an activity that causes him to be hot and excited, and then he brings the logs into the house. The wind is roaring as if it is angry, more leaves are falling, and the weather is cold and misty. The boy finds his mother asleep with the baby in her arms, and the baby, too, is asleep, although, as the boy notices, the baby scarcely seems to be breathing. The boy falls asleep by the warm hearth and stays there all night. In the morning he rushes out, glad that his father is gone, because now he can do just as he pleases. Visiting the snares, he finds a young rabbit caught by one leg and, imitating his father, kills the hare with a crack on the neck and carries it to the house by the hind legs. Later he wonders how “they would carry back” his father’s body “if he was killed in the war.”

Because the baby is crying, the boy chooses to spend his days in the forest until one day when he tells his mother he is going to “bring her some fish for dinner!” The dialogue that follows is the first that occurs in the story. The mother tells the boy that the baby is very ill and tries to get him to touch and hold his baby brother, asking: “Do you love it?” The boy shakes his head and persists: “I think I should like to go fishing mother . . . and I promise you shall have the biggest I catch.” Then, denying the mother’s plea that he go for the doctor, the boy runs out saying, “It’s only crying.”

The boy catches no fish and believes the fish would not bite because he has been wicked, so he goes home, and now for the first time he hears cannons on the other side of the forest. When he gets home, he finds his mother angry, calling him a coward, and the baby dead. The next day he consents to his mother’s request that he go for the sexton, but as he is on his way he hears a rifle sound and “a scream like a rabbit,” and he is frightened and runs home. Since his mother has already called him a coward, however, he lies to her, telling her the sexton was gone. Now the mother decides she must take the dead baby to the graveyard herself, and once again she addresses her son: “Won’t you kiss your little brother, Robbie?”

Alone, the boy eats more than he should and builds the fire up so high that its noise drowns out any outside noises. Alone, he believes he is in a dream “that would never come to an end.” He does not cry, but he feels angry at being left alone, and he is afraid. He also feels guilty about the amount of food he has consumed. He fears his mother’s return and yet longs for her, feeling that he loves her and is sorry for his wickedness.

The next thing he knows, it is broad daylight. His mother has still not returned, but he hears a groan at the doorway. It is his father with a “small hole” at the back of his shoulder; dark, thick blood covers the withered leaves on which he lies. The boy tries to give his father water and tells him about the baby, “but he didn’t show that he could hear anything.” Then the boy hears his mother coming back and runs out to tell her “that it was father.” The story ends as abruptly as it begins, but the point of view so neatly restricted and the image patterns masterfully arranged create the tenor and vehicle of an Everyman’s Freudian nightmare. The subtly stated but powerfully conveyed theme delineates an Oedipal pattern that raises the story from an isolated and factual experience to an overwhelming and communal dream having mythic proportions.

An Ideal Craftsman

“An Ideal Craftsman” is just as powerful. Although the story makes use of a young boy as protagonist, point of view is different from that found in “In the Forest.” This time de la Mare allows an omniscient narrator to move in and out of the consciousness of the two major characters. Once again, however, a horror is present, foreshadowed from the beginning of the story; once again the aura of dream is cast over the entire story; and once again death, this time murder, is the focal point of the story.

For a short-story writer of such consummate skill, de la Mare has attracted almost no critical attention, and what books have been written about him concentrate more on his other writings than on his pieces of short fiction. This lack of attention is a great pity. In her bookWalter de la Mare, McCrosson devotes only one chapter of some twenty pages to de la Mare’s short-story craft, but her summary of his achievement is accurate:

His preoccupation with good and evil puts him on a level with [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and [Joseph] Conrad; his mastery of suspense and terror is equal to [Edger Allen] Poe’s; the subtlety of his characterizations occasionally rivals [Henry] James’s. And the range of his portrayals is impressive: children, old maids, the demented, old idealists and young pessimists, artists, business men, dandys, young women in love—all of whom share in the mysterious and sometimes maddening business called living.

Major works
Short fiction: Story and Rhyme: A Selection, 1921; The Riddle, and Other Stories, 1923; Ding Dong Bell, 1924; Broomsticks, and Other Tales, 1925; Miss Jemima, 1925; Readings, 1925-1926 (2 volumes); The Connoisseur, and Other Tales, 1926; Old Joe, 1927; Told Again: Traditional Tales, 1927; On the Edge, 1930; Seven Short Stories, 1931; The Lord Fish, 1933; The Nap, and Other Stories, 1936; The Wind Blows Over, 1936; Animal Stories, 1939; The Picnic, 1941; The Best Stories of Walter de la Mare, 1942; The Old Lion, and Other Stories, 1942; The Magic Jacket, and Other Stories, 1943; The Scarecrow, and Other Stories, 1945; The Dutch Cheese, and Other Stories, 1946; Collected Stories for Children, 1947; A Beginning, and Other Stories, 1955; Ghost Stories, 1956; Short Stories, 1927-1956, 2001 (Giles de la Mare, editor).
Play: Crossings: A Fairy Play, pr. 1919.
Anthologies: Come Hither, 1923; The Shakespeare Songs, 1929; Christina Rossetti’s Poems, 1930; Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe, 1930; Stories from the Bible, 1930; Early One Morning in the Spring, 1935; Animal Stories, 1939; Behold, This Dreamer!, 1939; Love, 1943.
Novels: Henry Brocken, 1904; The Return, 1910; The Three Mulla-Mulgars, 1910 (reprinted as The Three Royal Monkeys: Or, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, 1935); Memoirs of a Midget, 1921; At First Sight: A Novel, 1928.
Nonfiction: Rupert Brooke and the Intellectual Imagination, 1919; The Printing of Poetry, 1931; Lewis Carroll, 1932; Poetry in Prose, 1936; Pleasures and Speculations, 1940; Chardin, J.B.S. 1699-1779, 1948; Private View, 1953.
Poetry: Songs of Childhood, 1902; Poems, 1906; A Child’s Day: A Book of Rhymes, 1912; The Listeners, and Other Poems, 1912; Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes, 1913; The Sunken Garden, and Other Poems, 1917; Motley, and Other Poems, 1918; Flora: A Book of Drawings, 1919; Poems 1901 to 1918, 1920; Story and Rhyme, 1921; The Veil, and Other Poems, 1921; Down-Adown-Derry: A Book of Fairy Poems, 1922; Thus Her Tale, 1923; A Ballad of Christmas, 1924; Stuff and Nonsense and So On, 1927; Self to Self, 1928; The Snowdrop, 1929; News, 1930; Poems for Children, 1930; Lucy, 1931; Old Rhymes and New, 1932; The Fleeting, and Other Poems, 1933; Poems, 1919 to 1934, 1935; This Year, Next Year, 1937; Memory, and Other Poems, 1938; Haunted, 1939; Bells and Grass, 1941; Collected Poems, 1941; Collected Rhymes and Verses, 1944; The Burning-Glass, and Other Poems, 1945; The Traveller, 1946; Rhymes and Verses: Collected Poems for Young People, 1947; Inward Companion, 1950; Winged Chariot, 1951; O Lovely England, and Other Poems, 1953; The Complete Poems, 1969.

Bibliography
Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Beetz, Kirk H. “Walter de la Mare.” In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Revised Edition, edited by Carl Rollyson. Vol. 2.
Benntinck, Anne. Romantic Imagery in the Works of Walter de la Mare. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
Manwaring, Randle. “Memories of Walter de la Mare.” Contemporary Review 264 (March, 1994): 148-152.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Perkins, David. “Craftsmen of the Beautiful and the Agreeable.” In A History of Modern Poetry. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Sisson, C. H. English Poetry, 1900-1950. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1981.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Whistler, Theresa. Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare. London: Duckworth, 1993.



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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