Tears, Idle Tears

by Elizabeth Bowen

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

Seven-year-old Frederick bursts into tears in the middle of Regent’s Park on a beautiful, sunny May afternoon as he and his mother are on their way to the zoo. His elegantly dressed mother is mortified at his crying, yet it is her reproach that draws the attention of the passing people to the scene. She has been so troubled by her son’s frequent crying that she is unable to speak about it with any of her friends or relatives. Once she had started to write to a mother’s advice column for assistance but never sent the letter because she could not think of the correct way to sign it.

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Frederick cries often and long. He never knows why or what happens to make him cry. He just cries. Nothing matters to him when the tears take over; this day in the park his mother refuses to take him to the zoo, but he does not care. His lack of self-respect makes others look at him and respond in unkind ways; he gets no sympathy. His mother tells him at least once a week that she does not know how he will fit in at school because of his crying. Mrs. Dickinson hates the fact that when she takes a privilege away from him for crying, he seems not to care. She seldom openly punishes him, but she rebukes and belittles him almost constantly. When he seems to feel no emotion about not going to the zoo, she tells him she wonders what his father would think of him. She goes on to say that his father, a pilot who had died after an airplane crash, used to be so proud of him that she is almost glad that he is no longer with them. After this strong reprimand, Mrs. Dickinson walks on ahead so as not to be embarrassed. She tells Frederick to pull himself together before he catches up to her.

Frederick stays behind, knowing that his mother is really ashamed of him. He makes little noise as he sits composing himself and watching a duck. Mrs. Dickinson keeps walking, and as the distance extends, so do her emotions. She had been a pillar of strength when her husband died five years ago. While she sat by his bed for two days waiting for him to die, she never shed a tear. After his death, she remained unnaturally composed, only crying once when she went to see her baby, Frederick. At the age of two, Frederick lay awake while his mother’s tears had put her to sleep. The look in Frederick’s eyes caused the servant to comment that it seemed as if he knew what had happened. Since then, however, Mrs. Dickinson has stood straight and tall, accepted no pity, and needed no support. Her response to men who wanted to marry her was always that Frederick was now the man in her life, and she had to put him first.

Once Frederick stopped crying, he knew he could go after his mother, but he did not want to. Instead, he climbed over the rail to go down and pat the duck. As he reaches out and the duck swims away, he hears a voice warning him about being over the rail and on the grass. He looks and sees a young woman sitting on the park bench, and he thinks that she does not really look or act like a woman. He is intrigued. She gives him an apple and asks about his crying. She has been sitting on the bench during the whole crying fit and wants to know what makes him cry. Something in her tone and her remarks comfort Frederick and make him talk with her: She is not demeaning to him; she really wants to understand. She tells him a story about a boy named George who used to live in a place where she worked. He was a boy, older than Frederick, who also cried out of control. She says he cried as if he knew about something that he should not know. She tells Frederick that he should stop crying so that he does not become like George. Frederick’s mother comes into view, and the young woman tells him to go to her before there is more trouble. They shake hands and part.

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Mrs. Dickinson is coming down the walk, being careful not to look or seem anxious because Frederick has been gone so long. Appearance is everything to Mrs. Dickinson; she remains calm and unflustered at any cost. As she waits for Frederick to come, the young woman stays on the bench and thinks about George and Frederick; their eyes “seemed to her to be wounds, in the world’s surface, through which its inner, terrible unassuageable, necessary sorrow constantly bled away and as constantly welled up.” As the young woman is thinking about her meeting with Frederick, he is running toward his mother shouting that he has nearly caught a duck.

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Latest answer posted April 26, 2010, 1:35 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Although years later Frederick still recalls with pleasure the afternoon that he spent trying to catch the duck, he has never again thought about the young woman or George.

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