Sweetie and the Wolf, and Other Stories
Liminality is a feature of all five stories in this collection; the main characters must engage with a crisis of initiation. The title story is a re-telling of "Little Red Riding Hood," in which Sweetie, eager for the journey, embraces her initiation and embellishes it. This most overtly metaphorical jaunt contrasts with the turbulence of the other initiation struggles. The other main characters are male, their trials involving an imperative to transcend a state of being which is no longer appropriate, into the next, more useful phase of life. The imperatives involve identity and self-definition, and perception is crucial. Dismemberment is another theme explored, by the literal surrendering and receiving of vital organs, the ingesting of animal organs, or the psychological castration of the male by women, by animals or by other males. Intimacy in some stories is achieved only with animals, and the dynamics of human/animal relationships have an intensity that seems integral to the survival of the humans. All animals are sympathetic, and function in almost spiritual roles as helpers to the humans. In "Animal Nature," the potential initiation of a young librarian is into healthy sexuality. He appears to have made a selfless gesture in donating one of his kidneys to the mother of a child library member whom he hardly knows. But for this exemplar of goodness and altruism, obsession is revealed to be the true instrument of decision, a secret obsession with chastity that warps and destroys his rlationships. Albion's life is filled only with women, all of whom he uses in a variety of abusive ways. His perceptions are skewed, his dismemberment psychological, as well as physical. This dismemberment theme is echoed in "Change of Heart," in which Frank Miller is the recipient of a donated heart. His ensuing psychic distress also alludes to themes of identity and self-definition. He has been given new life, and his task is that of acceptance, but he has descended into mental chaos. He believes himself to be changing, taking on an unfamiliar, perhaps undesirable character. He is haunted throughout by the knowledge that the heart is a foreign body that belongs, not to him, but to someone else. His initiation trial is to make the adjustment into a new life. In "Threshold," young Michael is also confronted with a tricky new phase of life. By a fluke he gets his first job as an insurance salesman, in which he is on trial. His mother borrows money to help him pay for the car he is driving on approval. On his first day, he calls at the house of Mrs. Porter, a sweet old woman who lives in a house full of antique furniture. Standing against him is Boris, a very large dog, who protects his mistress and monitors Michael's every move. At the same time, Mrs. Porter is not all she seems to be. Like Albion, Michael is on a turning point of maturation. His task is to make the enormous leap into responsible adulthood. In contrast to Frank Miller, but like Albion, his identity crisis takes place below his own awareness. While "On The Mountain" deals with a similar pivotal moment of change, the contrasting relationships with animals are more starkly drawn. Sam, an American hostage in his final hours of captivity by tribesmen in Afghanistan, leads an isolated life in the mountains amongst goats. For him the animals become a refuge, for his captors they are chattels. The extremity of his condition causes Sam to reappraise his identity, but the physical and psychological conditions of his existence distort his perceptions: In a weakened state and under armed guard, he measures his strength and masculinity against that of the tribesmen. His initiation dilemma is more sharply focused than those of Albion, Frank and Michael, with conscious, reflective examination of role and self hood. With all males, the Strong Man of Success myth is absent; instead frailty threatens failure In "Sweetie and The Wolf," the self is ripe for change and the human/animal relationship is symbiotic. In contrast with the other stories, the struggle here appears easy. This ironic retelling of an old fairy story presents an idealized initiation in the context of the uses for, and effects on the community, which in this case includes almost the whole of creation at its most basic level. The story is metaphorical but also literal. Human interaction with a wild animal is the vehicle for an emergent adult identity and self-definition. Female/male archetypes are redefined, along with the old myths of the female victim/initiate, and the initiation-by-ordeal. A more survival-oriented initiation myth is affirmed, and the wolf is presented as a sympathetic and beneficent character who is crucial to the survival of Sweetie, but who has his own vulnerabilities. Importantly, Sweetie takes notice and returns the favor. By going beyond her happy engagement with the wolf in the forest, Sweetie affirms a new dimension of her own survival myth: the real dragon she must slay is not so much the overtly big bad male beast, but the secretly big bad female grandmother/mother figure who has lurked "innocently" in her bed for centuries. In terms of the other struggles, this concluding story suggests that danger can be a matter of perception and that initiation crises can be fun.
A Crisis Of Initiation
March 17, 2003.
A Thesis submitted to the Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts.
Includes bibliographical references.
Sheila Ortiz-Taylor, Professor Directing Thesis; Janet Burroway, Committee Member; Karen Laughlin, Committee Member.
Florida State University
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