AH. When I forwarded my comments on "Mary Postgate" to a colleague, Susan Stuart, I received the following reply

SS. A completely different reading!

'..Each piecing out the other's gaps'. This is part of a key sentence from the story. No narrative is complete; it can't be. As the photographer or painter frames the picture so the narrator structures the tale. And as the whole picture cannot be shown, the reader must piece together the tale from the clues in the narrative.

On a first reading it seemed to me that Wynn was a bully and Mary a poor thing, or worse. A close reading reveals something quite different. I think in here is a link of mutual affection between Wynn and Mary (despite the way he talks to her). He reduces her to tears of fatigue and laughter, but not distress. He keeps the letters from the two ladies (why does the narrator say for some absurd reason, unreliable in his judgments, as you suggest). He has Mary's photograph. He speaks of her to his fellow airmen.

Of course she knows she loves him. But she's not demonstrative, that's not the tradition she's been brought up in. Nor Miss Fowler. After passing on truly useful items they both want to burn the rest - because it stops him or his memory becoming the property of other people, tea party tittle tattle.

Mary isn't a monster. She doesn't even kill someone, she just lets the airman die - it balances out the death of the child and the death of Wynn. Why does she experience rapture? Perhaps because even the (existential?) decision to do nothing is a positive act for her, for a person who has had few choices in life and some difficult things to face. And perhaps because the bonfire represents a real achievement - making fire is a real pleasure for some people."

AH. To which I replied:

"Yes, it's really convoluted. There is no doubt she loves him. And the VERY dry but matter of fact Miss Fowler does too - and their affection is returned, it's clear, in spite of the smoke screen of insults and boorish behaviour on Wynn's part. That recognition is crucial - and sometimes with students it's a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat! The lean arms stretched out to the wee plane is the clincher (backed up by other bits like "The room was coming to rest now"). And Mary and Miss Fowler keep their trophy/relics (cap and belt), disposing of and burning the rest as you say.

Where we may disagree (?) is in reactions to Mary at the end. What happens in the garden, and what does the reader make of her when she comes down the stair? It doesn't actually matter in a key respect whether the airman is German or not - though it does have an impact on the dramatic ironies threaded throughout.

But letting the airman die doesn't balance out in my mind - as it appears to do in hers. Letting someone else die when you could prevent it is "monstrous" to me - I'm in Dr Hennis's camp on this one. So though I am thoroughly caught up in the acts that lead to her transformation (the final irony being that she never looked so full of life and purpose until she has stood by cold-bloodedly while someone has suffered and died), I am certainly not prepared to endorse what she has done. And it's here that the matter of authorial intention clouds the issue for me rather than clarifing it - especially when I know now that he was active in developing propaganda against the Germans.

It's a brilliant twist to have Mary (so very quickly) appear before the conventional, routine-minded household as a "scandal": completing the change from "empty tin can" and "dowey old cassowary" to looking "quite handsome". This was the one who didn't "ever think" of anything. Well, she's been thinking AND acting now. And what are the consequences? "That's all right" - her own final judgement. What are WE meant to think - and can we understand? Are we meant to admire and condone? Are we simply aghast? Or what mix in between? Those seem to me the key questions for readers/students who have started properly to sort out theme and plot, and to examine the extent to which Kipling's "humanity took over" - in George Landow's phrase - from any political and personal agenda.

P.S. I suppose I would describe the narrator as "unreliable", since he presents the action both from "his" or "our" point of view (" 'Forty-four,' said truthful Mary"), AND from a perspective that appears to be Mary's (eg "..so closely cropped that she could see the disgustingly pink skin beneath"; and also perhaps in his use of the phrase "for some absurd reason," which you mention).

More generally, though, he maintains an ironic, "detached" perspective that means as readers we have to work for each significant detail (learning, as you point out, to "piece the gaps"), and discover, for instance, that the "what" on Mary's boots is little Edna's lifeblood.

This veiling of the horror, and the dramatic irony attending it, is an integral part both of the meaning of the tale, and of the author's narrative method."


Victorian England Rudyard Kipling

Last modified 2000