Walter de la Mare Short Fiction Analysis
Walter de la Mare’s 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” 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: 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 entire section is 1845 words.)