Capote’s “Miss Bobbit” in “Children on their Birthdays”: Character Creation and Motivation

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“A wiry little girl in a starched, lemon-colored party dress, she sassed along with a grownup mince, one hand on her hip, the other supporting a spinsterish umbrella.” In this line, Truman Capote gives us his initial portrait of the character of ten-year-old Miss Bobbit in his story, “Children on their Birthdays.” The line sets a precedent for the paradoxical imagery and subsequent actions belonging to Miss Bobbit: her portrayal contains both child-like and adult attributes. “Lemon-colored party dress” and “sassed” denotes the look and behavior of a child, while the details accompanying the latter part of the sentence, “one hand on her hip” and “spinsterish umbrella” signal the opposite. Capote’s juxtaposition of contrasting details contributes to the paradoxical nature of Miss Bobbit, capturing her essence at certain key junctures, when she is facing obstacles that define her character. Through these details her personal history and motivations are revealed, and by the story’s resolution, her physical depiction has altered to match the outcome of her character arc.

Yet another facet Capote observes about Miss Bobbit in the first scene and notes repeatedly for the rest of the story is her stare. This creates a third dimension to her character, a masculine one, in the language Capote uses: “…what is more, she looked you in the eye with manlike directness.” This description is most prevalent in her interactions with the boys who constantly try and get her attention: “Most of the time she simply looked through them, even when they tomcatted up and down the street trying to get her eye.” In Miss Bobbit’s depiction as a paradoxical figure, at once part child, part lady and even part male in her directness, Capote creates a character set apart from the rest of the town and further illustrates Miss Bobbit’s distinctive physical qualities with her actions. She sits on her porch, and keeps away from not only the boys but the girls: “Miss Bobbit did not show any interest in them, either.” Capote revisits this aspect of her character again, much later, in her statement, “I don’t want a sweetheart.” For all her outspokenness and going out of the way for others, she casts off attention and sexual advances. With the story’s progression the effect of Miss Bobbit’s paradoxical, even super-human qualities, is heightened

The first interaction which shows greater insight into her thought, value and motivation is Miss Bobbit’s reaction to the rough-handling of the colored girl. “Miss Bobbit helped the colored girl to her feet; she dusted her off, dried her eyes, held out a handkerchief and told her to blow her nose.” Miss Bobbit cares for others and refuses to stand by and do nothing; from this point on she takes a more active role in the events. When she adopts the girl as a friend, gives her a new name, Sister Rosalba, and the two behave in a set apart fashion, it further illustrates her inner motivation to right the wrongs she encounters. Capote also describes her as having physical strength, an external manifestation of her inner maturity and power, as in the incident with Mr. Henderson’s accusations. “Miss Bobbit, who had behaved with admirable calm, told the men they did not know how to tie a proper knot, and undertook to do so herself. She did such a good job that all the circulation stopped in Mr. Henderson’s hands and feet and it was a month before he could walk again.” With each obstacle she overcomes, her character grows in power and action. The next line is, “It was shortly afterwards that Miss Bobbit paid us a call.” She no longer remains an observer on her porch, but a leader.

With each obstacle, the stakes grow higher for Miss Bobbit. Perhaps the highest stakes set for her character are depicted in her speech about the Devil. “…I have called the Devil in just recently. He is the only one who can help me get out of this town.” Her outspoken invitation to darkness juxtaposed with her determination to do good forms yet another paradox about Miss Bobbit. It is she who sets the highest stakes for herself. At the same time that she sets them, she takes even greater action in regards to taking care of others. By starting the business, she exhibits even greater leadership, for here she sets others into action underneath her. More shocking is her insistence to attend to the sick boy: “She stripped the covers off Billy Bob and rubbed him down with alcohol from head to toe. When Aunt El told her she did not think that was a nice thing for a little girl to do, Miss Bobbit replied: ‘I don’t know whether it’s nice or not, but it’s certainly very refreshing.’” Her dismissal of the criticism of others adds an almost saintliness to her action. With each obstacle overcome, her motivation to do right no matter what increases.

Capote’s portrayal of Miss Bobbit’s speech, the matter-of-fact directness, most notably in her dialogue when she refuses to go to school, works as another facet of her paradoxical nature. The greater the paradox, the stronger her character grows, and the language used here is simple and defiant, so much so that it transcends the speech of the adults around her and ascends to a different plane. “No, Mr. Copeland, consider for a moment and you will see neither of us has the time nor energy. After all, it would only be a matter of whose spirit broke first, yours or mine.” The subtext apparent in her speech, of course, is that it would be Mr. Copeland’s spirit that would break first, not Miss Bobbit’s.

The contradictions embodying Miss Bobbit drive the story toward its climax, for immediately following the height of her defiance and disapproval comes Miss Bobbit’s ultimate moment of glory at the amateur program. It also pits Miss Bobbit against the darkness she called upon earlier, and the Manny Fox scandal proves the ultimate test for her. In his description of the aftermath of events, the crowd gathered at the post office, Capote implies that she, too, is part of the crowd, but does not single her out distinctly by observing her character. Thus, in the absence of her standing out, Capote creates the portrayal of her as fallen—the only time she loses her distinctness.

But because of the strength achieved by her surmounting so many other obstacles, “it was Miss Bobbit who broke the spell.” Only after Capote tells of her triumph does he give a brief physical description to reveal the inner struggle, and he chooses to fix on perhaps the most telling physical detail about Miss Bobbit: “Her eyes had grown more vacant than anyone had ever supposed they might, but one day, after the last mail was up, all her old sizzle came back…and proceeded to herd the whole troupe home with her.” Her action and the verb Capote chooses to describe it, “to herd,” reasserts Miss Bobbit as caring leader, her motivations focused outward. “Within a week she’d written over three hundred descriptions of Manny Fox and dispatched them to Sheriffs throughout the South…”

In the final scene, Capote returns again to portray Miss Bobbit with a similar focus as in the beginning, on her physical dress. He seizes upon the moment to let the clothes and props speak to the inner manifestation which her character has reached during her life in the town. “She looked as though she were going to Communion, dressed in white and with a white parasol.” The direct reference to religious practice as well as the purity of her in white matches the outward expression of Miss Bobbit to the inward state, a contrast to her arrival earlier in yellow—a bright, distinct image yet not as pristine as white. Capote follows through in showing her with the same deliberate attention to telling detail through the end. The final portrayal of Miss Bobbit focuses on action and gesture, the most distinct aspect of her character. “…When Miss Bobbit saw them, two boys whose flower-masked faces were like yellow moons, she rushed down the steps, her arms outstretched.” He paints her with the ultimate gesture of openness; in reaching out, she has arrived at her completion upon death.

Setting and Cather’s “The Bohemian Girl”

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The customs, motivations and actions of the characters throughout Willa Cather’s fiction grow almost entirely out of her various depictions of the American West. Cather utilizes the settings and atmosphere of her fictive narrative moments to show the collective historical background of families, townsfolk, and neighbors, their ties and rivalries, as well as their interactive relationships with setting to project to their futures. At various points in her fiction the setting entraps, threatens to entrap, frees or nourishes the lives of the characters, both as individuals and in their relationships to one another. In “The Bohemian Girl”, setting functions almost as a separate character of its own, and the active interplay between Nils, Clara, Eric and Olaf with the setting thrusts the story forward seemingly inevitably.

Cather clearly defines Nils’ relationship to his surroundings at the story’s immediate onset. Through her descriptive details of his character, she places the foreign-attired Nils immediately at odds at the story’s narrative moment—the plains are tied to his past and all he’s left behind for a better, more exciting life. This is even noted by the station agent in a remark about the luggage, “Depends on whether you like the country, I suppose” indicating the importance of this place for all who encounter it—those at odds with it usually leave. Yet even Nils who had fully cast off his ties to this place years before feels the tug of the surroundings right away, foreshadowing the inherent conflicts he will encounter with the inhabitants of this country: “Just now he was experiencing something very much like homesickness, and he was wondering what had brought it about. The mention of a name or two, perhaps; the rattle of a wagon along a dusty road; the rank, resinous smell of sunflowers and ironweed, which the night damp brought up from the draws and low places; perhaps, more than all, the dancing lights of the motor that had plunged by.” The first sentence describes an emotional state, and that which follows uses hard physical detail to invoke that state. Cather uses the sensory effects of Nils’ surroundings to obtain his inner emotional and psychological underpinnings, a tactic she continues to use throughout the entire story.

The characters of Mrs. Ericson, little Eric and Olaf behave in harmony according to the Western environment and provide resistance to the characters of Nils and Clara whose high-spirited individuality operates in contrast to the setting. Of all the family members, the description of Olaf perhaps resounds most strongly as a pure, unchanging product of his environment. Consider the following metaphor, rooted in landscape: “The one thing he had always felt in Olaf was a heavy stubbornness, like the unyielding stickiness of wet loam against the plow.” In contrast, while Clara and her father are also tied to the Western landscape, their Old World transplant roots brings a greater mobility to their outlook, although the landscape still threatens to permanently entrap and stifle Clara.

A more expansive depiction of the social context and the main characters’ ongoing conflict with it occurs during the barn-raising scene. Among the plethora of sensory details and actions illustrated here, perhaps the most demonstrative is the portrayal of the old women comprising the knitting circle, which Nils refers to as, “the Old Guard.” Cather writes,

“They were a fine company of old women, and a Dutch painter would have loved to find them there together, where the sun made bright patches on the floor and sent long, quivering shafts of gold through the dusky shade up among the rafters. They were fat, rosy old women who looked hot in their best black dresses; spare, alert old women with brown, dark-veined hands; and several of almost heroic frame, not less massive than old Mrs. Ericson herself.”

As the passage continues, the language used to describe the women matches the harshness rendered by the environment, and thus reveals Nils’ attitude toward them and the larger setting of his boyhood: he observes with respect, at times even awe, but is determined to keep a safe distance from or else risk his own entrapment. Nils’ focus on these women as a timeless encapsulation of setting, of their place within it, is contrasted with Clara walking by and representing the complete antithesis both in her striking physical appearance and behavior to the social context set by the environment.

The awe of the Western landscape and its power to entrap its inhabitants Cather executes most powerfully in the next scene, when it threatens to ensnare Clara forever unless she bucks against it from within and leaves with Nils. As with her characters, Cather draws us in with the dreamlike, bewitching details, the images building one after another:

“The moonlight flooded that great, silent land. The reaped fields lay yellow in it. The straw stacks and poplar windbreaks threw sharp black shadows. The roads were white rivers of dust. The sky was a deep, crystalline blue, and the stars were few and faint. Everything seemed to have succumbed, to have sunk to sleep, under the great, golden, tender, midsummer moon. The splendor of it seemed to transcend human life and human fate…”

This is a prime example of how Cather blends description of nature with expository interpretation. The first half of this quote focuses on observed detail—the second half on interpreting the detail. This balance between the use of concrete description and abstract prose, between hard specific detail and expository prose that interprets that detail for the reader, creates the kind of back and forth that was a characteristic of the naturalist writers at the time, notably in the work of Stephen Crane, among others. The technique is a less common in Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, as he searched for epiphany through the juxtaposition of imagery, or by writers who work in a more representational mode, e.g. Hemingway, Welty, Flannery O’Connor. Still, a certain blending occurs in the latter authors’ work, a certain degree of movement back and forth between the specific and the abstract interpretation of the specific.

Through the external, Cather shows us the effect of this landscape as it pulls on Nils, already reshaping his life and identity: “Near the road, Nils Ericson was lying against a straw stack in Olaf’s wheat field. His own life seemed strange and unfamiliar to him, as if it were something he had read about, or dreamed, and forgotten.” Again—this quote opens with observed detail—them moves towards abstract interpretation. The all-encompassing nature of the landscape, the apparent boundlessness of the earth and sky, ironically shuts out the rest of the world and forms a prison for those free spirits who happen to be born underneath it; the only way for those like Nils and Clara to live and thrive is to break away or become rooted to landscape, and the rough living it promises, forever. The environment most threatens Clara’s character, as she has known no other place compared to Nils, who has left and will leave again for the wider world. But she must severe her ties with the place or else risk losing all of herself to the confines of her surroundings.

Ultimately, Clara is only able to severe her ties because Nils enables her to do so, and because they share the same restless spirit within. For those lacking such spirit, like little Eric, the surroundings enact a twofold interplay: they entrap but at the same time, nourish. Different creatures in harmony with the land, Eric and Mrs. Ericson find their sustenance from the landscape and don’t need to break away to thrive. Their situation is the opposite, and the train ride places Eric instead in “despair” as he reflects on leaving his home, demonstrated by the story’s final image: “His tears splashed down on the boards; happiness filled his heart.”

Melanie Rae Thon’s “In This Light” ~ my review at The Iowa Review

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Several months ago I wrote a review of Melanie Rae Thon’s volume of new and selected stories, In This Light. She’s a writer I wasn’t familiar with but am delighted to have discovered. You can read my review here:

http://iowareview.uiowa.edu/?q=reviews/jan-10-2012/melanie_rae_thons_in_this_light