Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit. Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath • Sylvia Plath is most well known for her poetry • Her novel The Bell Jar (1966) has echoes of her own life, as it records a young woman’s descent into mental illness and suicidal tendencies. • Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 near Boston Massachussetts. • As an American student at Cambridge University she met Ted Hughes, whom she married in 1956, though they later separated. • In 1963 Sylvia Plath took her own life. • For many years Ted Hughes refused to comment on their relationship, but shortly before his death, in 1998, he published a series of poems on the subject in The Birthday Letters.
Summary • The title is well chosen – for the first part of the story is about Superman and the second about the snowsuit. • The story begins with pleasant fantasy and ends in unpleasant reality. There is no Superman to rescue the narrator – only Uncle Frank to help her accept what has happened. • The story tells how the narrator (whose name never appears) plays games in which she makes up adventures for Superman. Later she is invited to Paula Brown’s birthday party. Paula is proud of her birthday present, a blue snowsuit from Sweden. • Some time later, Paula is playing tag in the snow when another child pushes her and she falls into an oil slick, which ruins her snowsuit. Paula blames the narrator and the other children also join in the accusation. Although her Uncle Frank believes her, the narrator has no happy ending to her story – everyone is convinced that she is to blame for the damage to the snowsuit.
Characters • The narrator, Uncle Frank, David Sterling, Sheldon Fein, Paula Brown and Mother. Identify the features of each character. Look at the text and underline their descriptions. This can include anything from their appearance, personality, how they treat the other characters, etc.
Characters • What do we learn about each character from their description? • How do the descriptions, of the characters, help us relate to the story?
What do we learn about Paula Brown? • We learn that Paula Brown is very feminine from her description: “white organdie dress, her red hair tied in sausage curls with a satin bow”. From this description we can see she also has bright red hair; red is generally used to signify aggression, so we can assume that Paula is an angry person prone to irrational outbursts. In the text she appears to be very wealthy and likes to show this to the other characters. Paula does not treat the narrator very fairly and comes across as being very spoilt.
How does the description of Paula Brown help us to relate to the story? • We know that Paula Brown lives on Somerset Terrace this implies that she lives in a colourful, picturesque place and from what we hear about her she seems to have a fairly nice, colourful life. In contrast to this the narrator goes home to a ‘dark,’ ‘long hall’ where the ‘window-panes were fringed with frost.’ This shows that the narrator and Paula are from very different worlds. Paula is a privileged child who comes from a dream-like world and we find out that the narrator’s ‘technicolour dreams’ are nothing but a mere childhood fantasy.
The narrator • It is tempting to read this story as autobiography, but this would be a mistake. The story tells a general truth – people do make false accusations, and innocent people are sometimes blamed for things they have not done. • On the other hand, Sylvia Plath clearly does use her own experiences to tell the story. The chief character is a girl, who recalls the outbreak of war while she was a child. She is an imaginative person, who prefers inventing dramas to more social or athletic games. And we never learn her name – the one person to speak directly to her calls her “honey”. • In many ways her experiences are not very unusual. Mostly she recalls quite pleasant things, though the adult writer understands better than she did as a child what she and David were doing to Sheldon. For example, she wins a prize at school – but this seems of little importance in the story. One terrible event occurs almost through chance – she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her “crime” does not seem really serious. But her experience of false accusation is described in such a way that most readers will identify with it.
David Sterling • David at first appears as a rather admirable character. • He is independent of the other children not because he is unpopular, but because he shares the narrator’s imaginative impulses, and wants to help create the Superman dramas. • He is more realistic than the narrator, as he finds it harder to see Uncle Frank as Superman in disguise. (Incognito is an Italian word, which means “unknown” or “unrecognised”; it is used to refer to people who hide their real identity, as Superman does under the alias of Clark Kent.) • But David is not able to keep faith with his friend. When the word goes out that he has ruined the snowsuit, David has the task of bringing his mother’s suggestion to the narrator’s family.
Sheldon Fein • Sheldon is something of a stereotype. • He is described as a “sallow (sickly or pale) mamma's boy” whom the other boys despise a weakling. • There is not much sympathy for Sheldon. He is so weak he is quickly corrupted into the cruel torturer of flies. He waits for Jimmy to back up Paula’s accusation, then adds his voice to theirs in saying: “You did it”.
Paula Brown • Paula is another stereotype – the unpopular child whose parents indulge her. She wears clothes that are decorative but unsuited to the rough and tumble of children's games. She shows off her possessions at parties, where the other children are more or less forced to admire them. Why she makes her accusation is not completely clear. There are various possible reasons: • She is afraid her parents will blame her for ruining the snowsuit, so she points at the nearest person she can blame plausibly (believably). • She thinks she can become more popular by attacking someone else's character. • She knows that the narrator does not really like her, and this is a chance for revenge. • She knows that Jimmy pushed her but is afraid to blame him. • She is unsure who pushed her, so chooses the most likely person.
Mother • The narrator's father has died before the start of the story and she lives with her mother and uncle. • Her mother barely appears in the story, and never seems decisive or effectual. She says she is happy her husband didn't live to see what things in the USA have “come to”, rather than wishing him alive to fight for the country as Uncle Frank is about to do. • Later she tells the narrator off for not admitting to spoiling Paula's snowsuit. She says she believes her daughter, but the claim is unconvincing.
Uncle Frank • We do not know how Uncle Frank is related to the narrator. Is he the brother of her mother or of her late father? • He is certainly affectionate and protective towards his niece. He swings her into the air, and when he speaks there is “a big love in his voice”. She obviously loves him and likes to think that Superman is lodging in her home, disguised.
Historical context • The narrator tells us directly that the events in the story take place in wartime. The opening of the story is the phrase: “The year war began…” • Throughout the story there are reminders of the war: • Uncle Frank is “waiting to be drafted” (to join the armed services). • Sheldon pretends to be a Nazi, while his Uncle is a prisoner in Germany. • There is a war film showing with Snow White. • The narrator wins a prize for drawing the best Civil Defence signs. • As well as the references to the war, there are other details, which tell the reader the historical context. It is early enough for flying to be seen as exciting and mysterious. It is after the release of Snow White – Disney's first feature-length animation, from 1937. It coincides with radio broadcasts of Superman adventures
Time in the narrator’s life • We can also understand time in terms of a person's life, with its various stages. • This story marks the end of childhood as a time of trust and innocence. Adults are no longer powerful people who can make things right or save the narrator from trouble – they are seen to be as powerless as children. • In fact here it is children who have more or less manipulated the adults into believing their version of events. • In childhood, time can be measured in school years, and the narrator does this, referring to the fifth grade, for example. We can see that she is small and light enough for Uncle Frank to swing her in the air (although he is very strong, so this may not tell us much). • Another way that the narrator signals a sense of time is by referring to the sports and games the children play (baseball, dodge-ball, Chinese tag). We see this also in the way Frank teaches her ju-jitsu and the way he addresses her “my favourite trooper” and “honey”.
Place • The setting of the story is in the eastern USA, near Boston. • Although the USA has entered the war, it is being fought far away in the Pacific and Europe. • The children learn about Civil Defence but there is no hint that the war will interfere with their security.
Simile and metaphor • The story is full of word pictures. • Some of these are similes (which make an explicit comparison): “the blood beat in my ears like a slack drum” and “wiped away like the crude drawings of a child” – explain the effect of these similes, and any others you can find. • Often Sylvia Plath uses metaphors (where the comparison is implied): “the threat of war was seeping in everywhere”, “hair tied up in sausage curls” and “the colossal blackboard of the dark.” • Sometimes as in the penultimate (last but one) sentence of the story we find simile and metaphor together. And many of the comparisons make demands on the reader's knowledge.
Imagery • Here are some examples. Try to explain what they mean: • “The airport was my Mecca, my Jerusalem.” • “My flying dreams were believable as a landscape by Dali.” -“...a breathless sense of having tumbled like Icarus from the sky...”
Imagery • Mecca and Jerusalem are holy places to which Muslims and Jews make pilgrimages. For the narrator, the airport was a place that she hoped one day to visit to see the planes more closely. • Salvador Dali was a famous Spanish painter. His best-known work is in the style known as surrealistic. It is highly realistic in its detail but puts things into arrangements which seem impossible or which confuse the scale of different things. Sylvia Plath's comparison is ambiguous. At first, it might seem that such a landscape is unbelievable. But seeing is believing – the paintings of Dali, like vivid dreams, may seem wholly believable to some spectators. So the meaning of the comparison depends on the reader. • Daedalus was a famous inventor in Greek myth. King Minos of Crete kept him prisoner with his son, Icarus. Daedalus made wings with which he and Icarus escaped. But Icarus flew too near the sun, and the wax in the wings melted, so he fell to his death. The comparison here is quite a loose one, as the narrator falls from the sky but lands safely.
Language • Sylvia Plath tries here to show us the thoughts of a nine year old. Do you think that she writes like a child? Can you find things in the text that suggest that an educated adult wrote this story? You might consider: • The structure of sentences • The vocabulary – would you know the meaning of words such as: “kaleidoscope”, “flaunted”, “sallow”, “incognito”, “foreboding”, “organdie”, “ju-jitsu” and “colossal”?
Themes • Scapegoats • Fantasy and reality • Man and Superman • Material Possessions • Corruption and betrayal
Scapegoats • Do all the children know that the narrator did not push Paula? Are they perhaps unsure of what really happened? Try to find evidence for your answer. • Why should all the children take the side of a child that “nobody...really liked”? How sure are we that the narrator is right in giving this measure of Paula’s unpopularity?
SECTION B—PROSE Answers to questions in this section should refer to the text and to such relevant features as: characterisation, setting, language, key incident(s), climax, turning point, plot, structure, narrative technique, theme, ideas, description . . . 4. Choose a novel or a short story in which you feel there is an incident of great importance to the story as a whole. Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. 5. Choose a novel or a short story which has a character who affects you emotionally. Describe how you feel about the character, and show how the writer leads you to feel this way. 6. Choose a prose work (fiction or non-fiction) in which the writer uses a memorable style/voice/narrative technique. Explain in detail how features of the writing style/voice/narrative technique contribute to the effectiveness of the text.
4. Choose a novel or a short story in which you feel there is an incident of great importance to the story as a whole. Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. Introduction: Address your question/ use the words of the question Say what you will write about Use the author’s name and the name of the story Could also contain information on the historical context of the story ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit’ by Sylvia Plath is a short story which demonstrates a young girl’s emotional journey from childhood to adolescence in Boston, USA. This essay will focus on the key incident which causes a significant change in the main protagonist’s life and show how important this incident was in determining the central concern of the text.
Summary: The main points of the story Should be no more than 8 sentences Plath creates a character who has a great love for flying. From the beginning of the story it is clear that the main protagonist is in awe of anyone who gets to experience the wonder of flight. Daily she dreams of flying, looking out to the lights of Boston airport from her bedroom window. She also adores her Uncle Frank; to her he is her Superman incognito. Throughout the story the narrator’s life changes dramatically after she watches an American propaganda film about Japanese prisoner of war camps and regurgitates her cake and ice cream. From this event stems a significant change in her life; she no longer dreams of Superman, but of the horror of war. Towards the end of the story she is falsely accused of pushing Paula Brown in an oil slick and realises how bitter and cruel humanity can be. Her Uncle Frank is no longer Superman and her dreams of flying are wiped away along with her childhood.
Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. Main body: Make sure you are using quotations and answering your question. You should refer to the incident at least once in the paragraph. Use a quotation and explain how this proves your argument. Remember the question only refers to the incident so you should focus your answer on only one incident, not several. With the exception of the narrator one of the characters who is greatly affected by Paula falling in the oil slick is David Sterling. At the beginning of the story David appeared to be an admirable character, he indulged the narrator in her Superman games and even agreed that the narrator’s Uncle Frank was: “the strongest man he had ever known.” However, towards the end of the story David’s character undergoes a huge change. His allegiance no longer lies with the narrator, but with the majority of people who falsely accused the narrator for pushing Paula Brown into the oil slick. In fact David, in some ways, betrays the narrator more than the other characters because he is the one who comes to her house and tells her family the news. This shows that one small incident, which may seem insignificant to us, can cause a dramatic change to a character’s personality. David, initially was the narrator’s friend and towards the end he betrays her because of an incident which we are not even sure if he was involved in. This links with the central theme of the text as it demonstrates the corruption of humanity; people who appear to be friends can often betray us and the narrator certainly feels that she has been betrayed by her friend David.
Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. Paragraph 2: the narrator How does the narrator’s character develop throughout the text? How does she change? What does this help us to understand about the central concerns of the text? Use quotations to support your answer Think about the passage of time in the narrator’s life Mention the distinct contrasts from the start of the story to the end: • Fantasy then reality • Light/ bright colours then dark and gloomy • In awe of adults then disappointed by them However, David Sterling is not the only character that undergoes a dramatic change throughout the text. We learn that the narrator is the character who is most affected by the events that take place in the story…
Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. Paragraph 3: Uncle Frank How does Uncle Frank’s character develop throughout the text? In what way does he seem to change? (used to swing the narrator up in the air and then he betrays her) How does Uncle Frank’s character help us to understand the central concerns of the text? (downfall of humanity / being a normal human and not Superman) You could think about the distinct contrasts in that character’s behaviour: • Uncle Frank being the narrator’s Superman then paying for another snowsuit to make ‘everyone happy’ • The narrator was his ‘favourite little trooper’ and he spoke with ‘big love in his voice’ until he thought she had done something wrong and then he became ‘solemn and sorrowful’ At the beginning of the story the narrator thought she had found her hero in her Uncle Frank. He was a big strong man who had an “extraordinary resemblance to Superman incognito” and we get the impression that he was there to rescue the narrator. However, towards the end of the story Uncle Frank moves away from Superman and becomes more like a normal human being. At first he represented the brave, heroic, male figure in the narrator’s life but by the end of the story he appears to be somewhat defeated by life and gives in to the demands of the majority: “OK, but we’ll pay for another snowsuit anyway just to make everybody happy”…
Describe the incident and go on to show its importance to the development of the characters and the central concerns of the text. Paragraph 4: Sheldon Fein How does Sheldon Fein’s character change throughout the text? What distinct change happens? Think about: • He was a “sallow mamma’s boy” • At first Sheldon had to be “prompted” to become a torturer • He then becomes an “expert” at inventing tortures • He follows the crowd and blames the narrator • Finally, he tells his mother the lie which leads to the narrator being questioned by her family. • He becomes corrupt from the very beginning The incident that occurs in ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit” also helps us to understand the development of the character Sheldon Fein. At the beginning we learn that Sheldon is a ‘sallow mamma’s boy’ who was always left out of the “boys’ games because he cried whenever anyone tagged him and always managed to fall down and skin his fat knees”…
Conclusion • Sum up the main points that you have discussed • Use the words of the question • Include your personal opinion on the issue – how do you feel about the narrator having to grow up at nine years old? ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit’ shows a child who has gone from a dream-like existence to understanding reality. This essay has demonstrated how one insignificant incident can have a huge impact on someone’s life and can stem a change in character… It highlights the difficult passages of time that we all face during our lives and how some of these can stay with us forever…
Essay 2 • Choose one of the questions from the list below. • Use your notes and the text to plan your essay. • Start writing your essay. • You will have today’s lesson and tomorrow to complete this.
SECTION B—PROSE Answers to questions in this section should refer to the text and to such relevant features as: characterisation, setting, language, key incident(s), climax/turning point, plot, structure, narrative technique, theme, ideas, description . . . 4. Choose a novel or a short story in which a character is in conflict with his or her friends or relatives or society. Show how the conflict arises and what effect it has on the character’s fate in the novel or short story as a whole. 5. Choose a novel or a short story which deals with the effects of evil or war or deceit or a breakdown in society or a breakdown in relationship(s). Show how any of these negative pressures affects the main character in the novel or short story and go on to show whether or not she or he tackles it successfully. 6. Choose a non-fiction text or group of texts which interests you because of its detailed and vivid description of scenes, events, people. Show how the detailed description makes the scenes, events, people vivid for you and increases your understanding of what is happening.