"I'm a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy" is a short story by Louise Erdrich. She is the daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father, and she often writes stories that treat themes that are central to her native heritage and uses characters from each side of her cultural identity.
The literary device of characterization is used with a shrewd and perceptive hand in this story. Erdrich packs a lot of complex characterization into this story, and she does it subtly and with great economy. She also depends on us to pay attention and put together the pieces. The protagonist—we do not learn his name—decides to steal a stuffed toucan from a Walmart in Fargo, North Dakota, as a present to give to his girlfriend. In the beginning he tells us:
Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I'll be is the result. This come clears to me at the wrong time. I am standing in a line, almost rehabilitated.
The line he is in is the line in the Walmart. His reasoning causes him to steal the toucan. We learn here that he is "almost rehabilitated," which suggests that he has been in trouble with the police and has probably been arrested before—once a crook, always a crook, he is telling himself.
He is soon chased by the store manager and mentions that he sticks out plenty—even more so when he runs. It is unclear what he means by this: he could be overweight or he could be very tall. We learn his familial history: while his grandmother is Scandinavian, we also learn that, when he serves time for his poor choices, he is "serving time alone here in Mandan." Mandan is the name of a Native American tribe and their land in North Dakota. Most tribes have their own criminal justice system and jails, so this suggests that he is Native American—a member of the Mandan Plains Indian tribe—and is doing time on the reservation for his crimes.
Another literary device Erdrich uses is flashback. While this story is narrated at a fast pace, at various points, the narrator steps back and provides ironic or explanatory commentary about what is happening, from a future perspective. For instance, he tells us at the beginning that he is carrying a large stuffed "parrot" but that "really it is a toucan. I get told this later in the tank." This also tells us that, at some point in this story, he is going to get arrested, so we know the outcome of his misadventures before they even begin.
Irony is another strong literary element in the story. While he tells us at the beginning that he is stealing the stuffed bird for his girlfriend, Dawn, much later he tells us that she has moved and now lives far away, in Colorado, and:
She lives with someone now, a guy ten years older than me, five years older than her. By now he has probably taken her places, taken her to restaurants and zoos, gone camping in the wilderness, skied. She will know things and I will still be the same person I was the year before.
Clearly, she's not his girlfriend anymore; he is hanging on to a pipe dream. If we go back and reread the story and his many references to Dawn—who is his motive and agenda for everything he does on this unfortunate night—the irony is clear.
This segues into another interesting literary device Erdrich uses in the story. The tale is told as a first person narrative with a deep inner monologue going on. So we are hearing all of the thoughts and musings of the narrator as we go along. And yet, as with the example of his "girlfriend" Dawn, not everything he tells us is necessarily true. So this is a great and complex use of an "unreliable narrator"—who, as they relate the story, compromises their own credibility as the story progresses.
The protagonist steals a car after he steals the stuffed bird and then discovers, to his horror, that there is a four-month-old baby in the back seat. After driving wildly into the countryside and through the snow, he abandons the car (and the baby) and walks away, soon to be caught and jailed. Late in the story, he tells us:
All right, you know that baby wasn't hurt anyway. You heard. Cold, yes, but it lived. They ask me in court why I didn't take it along with me, and I say, well it lived, didn't it? Proving I did right. But I know better sometimes, now that I've spent time alone here in Mandan, more time running than I knew I had available.
The narrator thus reveals himself as an anti-hero: a central character who lacks traditional heroic attributes. He is a complex young man who is being as honest with us as he knows how to be. He is certainly "messed up," as the saying goes, but he is also a romantic daydreamer. His sense of right and wrong has been compromised—he is alienated and so detached from normal life that he has trouble seeing the baby as a human being when he inadvertently steals him. He is severely wounded by life and the loss of his girlfriend, and ultimately his quest to get her back goes terribly wrong. At the end he says, about the baby he kidnapped:
I know I'll always be inside him, cold and black, about the size of a coin, maybe, something he touches against and skids. And he'll say, what is this, and the thing is he won't know it is a piece of thin ice I have put there, the same as I have in me.
Our anti-hero struggles to find some kind of solid connection with another person, even if it is an imagined negative connection with this child. But ultimately, in his jail cell, he is staring in the mirror at the "piece of thin ice" that holds him apart from other people.