Faerie Tales

An essay about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its effect on the interpretation of a recent piece of writing, A Tiny Feast. This essay was written as a past assignment for the unit “Narrating Selves”. 

Max Vos

Chris Adrian’s short story ‘A Tiny Feast’ (2009) utilises multiple narrative strategies to position readers in a way that forces them to confront the topics of mortality and the subjectivity of passing time. The narrative uses two characters from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania and Oberon, and can be thought of as a continuation of the faeries’ story begun by Shakespeare in the late 16th century. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania and Oberon argue over Oberon’s desire for a changeling, and in ‘A Tiny Feast’, the pair adopt a changeling named Boy. The faeries are subsequently confronted by the fragility of human existence and mortality, and the flaws in their immortality, which is so idealised by all facets of the culture in which the concept was imagined; “we should accept that our obsession with immortality is inherent in the human condition” (Perdanasari, Zhang, & Lazzeri, 2015). As this fragility is not explored by characters that are subject to it but rather witness it from its exterior, the narrative focuses its plot on a short period of time relative to the story’s infinite timeline – that timeline can be infinite when considering the immortality of the faeries, should this story be theirs, and not Boy’s. ‘A Tiny Feast’ particularly focuses on the faeries’ emotional journey throughout the plot. The narrative effectively mirrors the fragility of mortality with the fragility of Titania’s worldview; her entire perception of the world is shaken by her love for Boy. ‘A Tiny Feast’ also mirrors this theme in the employment of ‘glamours’ as a narrative device. When thinking of the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the story mainly focuses on love and its instability, ‘A Tiny Feast’ can be thought of as discussing the same idea in a much darker manner.

Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faeries “are a continual and un-avoidable reminder of a certain indefiniteness in the world of the play,” (Miller, 1975), which is significant in their re-use in ‘A Tiny Feast’ – their recurrence is certainly a continuation of their story. The play also implicitly discusses the “problem of reconciling a faith in cosmic order with our experience of life’s apparent chaos” (Mebane, 1982). Both of these themes are evident in ‘A Tiny Feast’, and within the narrative the complications between perceived illogical human life and ideal, immortal existence is highlighted; “the festive mood is interrupted by problems which have resulted from arbitrary and irrational human action,” (Mebane, 1982). Through their characterisation, the faeries can be thought of as a personification of perfection or idealism, and the narrative a discussion in its weaknesses.

Titania and Oberon are characterised in a multitude of ways. Direct characterisation “names the trait by an adjective (e.g. ‘he was good-hearted’), an abstract noun (‘his goodness knew no bounds’), or possibly some other kind of noun (‘she was a real bitch’) or part of speech (‘he only loves himself’)” (Rimmon-Kenan, 2003). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are directly characterised in their very first communications of the play:

Enter, from one side, OBERON, with his train; from the other, TITANIA, with hers

OBERON

Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.

TITANIA

What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence: I have forsworn his bed and company.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare, MIT

Titania and Oberon’s nature as prideful and jealous (respectively) is consistent in ‘A Tiny Feast’ in the form of “indirect presentation” (Rimmon-Kenan, 2003). As the story is narrated through dual character limited omniscience, which “allows the anonymous narrator to reveal the inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of two characters” (Smith & Hart, 1981) the continuation is evident in Oberon and Titania’s actions and dialogue:

“It wasn’t long before Oberon regretted his gift, and started to hide the child elsewhere on the hill, attended by faeries, so that he could have his wife to himself.”

“Heartless and cowardly,” Oberon said. “A most unattractive combination.” (Adrian, 2009)

“You stupid sour cock,” Titania said, and then they just called each other names, back and forth. (Adrian, 2009)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has no consistent narrator to create reliable characterisations of Titania and Oberon, and so this characterisation is certainly only their image of one another that continues into ‘A Tiny Feast’. “They had been quarrelling for as long as they had been in love,” (Adrian, 2009), and allusions to the lore of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – “Oberon had rubbed poppies on its eyes to quiet its crying,” (Adrian, 2009) and “Enter OBERON and squeezes the flower on TITANIA’s eyelids” – is yet more evidence that continuation of the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was an intentional and necessary part of the narrative. There is significance in using the same characters as Shakespeare.

The recycling of characters enables Adrian to create a meaning in the modern context of their appearance, which was entirely unavailable to the audiences of the 16th century. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies represent an intrusion of fiction into an otherwise possible/realist narrative; “they pose open-ended questions about illusion and reality, existence and art … the fairies obliquely hint that our own offstage existence may be touched by mysteries no less genuine than those that disrupt the world of Theseus, Hermia, Bottom, and the rest” (Miller, 1975). In ‘A Tiny Feast’, they represent the fallible and flawed concept of immortality and the fact that its flaws lie in the remaining mortal. Unlike in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the faeries activate moments in the plot, faeries do not fit Propp’s narrative function model (Lacey, 2000) where characters are irrelevant and only act to create events (Lothe, 2000).  We know that ‘A Tiny Feast’ explores the ideal’s interaction with the real, but the resulting message of the noncompliance is to depict a world in which immortality is flawed – compliance with the functions would indicate a world in which immortality is strong and beneficial.

Considering the above, the duration of the faeries’ story and the text’s duration are phenomenally different. The story lasts for centuries (from the point of the faeries’ first appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to the end of ‘A Tiny Feast’, and likely beyond. ‘A Tiny Feast’ is around a twenty minute read at most. Comparing these lengths, there is acceleration between the time the faeries were last written about and the amount of time the reader interacts with their narrative, and also between the events within ‘A Tiny Feast’ and the amount of time a reader would spend reading it. The effect that this vast difference has on the message of the faeries’ interaction with human beings is to exaggerate the distinct and alien nature of immortality to the short time the audience, presumably humans, have. The infiniteness of faerie immortality and the story is paralleled with the finite nature of human mortality.

The story also uses the technique of analepsis, “a narration of a story-event at a point in the text after later events have been told” (Rimmon-Kenan, 2003), to highlight just how much Titania and Oberon’s attitudes have changed towards Boy. The narrative describes a time at which Titania did not love Boy but treated him with curiosity and slowly fell in love. By the end of the narrative, both Titania and Oberon have fallen in love with Boy and are devastated at their loss.

In this way, the text also undergoes a transition in which the equilibrium is established (Titania and Oberon have no changeling), disturbed (Boy comes into their lives, makes them happy but abruptly dies), and once again established in an altered state (Titania and Oberon have no changeling). “Narrative is, in fact, a causal transformation; in other words, narratives have within them some form of logical change” (Lacey, 2000), and so this change is a narrative transformation. The plot of this narrative, “the way in which events are combined, structured, and developed” (Lothe, 2000), as a part of this transformation, is constructed in such a way that we see the development of emotional character building and then abruptly end in two characters feeling brand new emotions at the resolution. The equilibrium is not the same as before, the characters have changed. The plot is an exploration of the interaction between the perfections of immortality and its weaknesses if not every being is immortal – the human construction of immortality as an irresistible and unattainable dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, named a “comedy”, has been transformed into a tragedy.

Having said that, even if the relationship to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was to be ignored, ‘A Tiny Feast’ as a standalone piece still discusses human mortality; a subject that Oberon and Titania are (for the first time in their lives) forcibly facing, and their experiences in the paediatric ward highlights the disconnect of their previously utopian existence – above and hidden from human beings due to magic. There is significant symbolism in the use of magic and ‘glamours’ to hide the faery world, to hide the ideal world, and the effect that ‘glamours’ have on individuals in the story. “As Shakespeare plays his sly games with the insubstantial fairies, we are forced by the ambivalence in their status to ask questions, ultimately unanswerable, about the substance of those mortal experiences with which they are linked”; experiences such as “love, luck, imagination and even faith” (Miller, 1975) are pulled into question by the faeries and their use of glamours.

The piece ‘A Tiny Feast’ therefore is a request to question the nature of dreams and idealisations that culture places so much significance upon. As it draws from lore and re-uses characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so too does it draw on the nature of the faeries and their relationship with the mortal world. Through this parallel, the audience is forced to question perfection and, with A Tiny Feast’s concluding sentence, if there is room for emotion in an immortal existence.

Image: Illustration by Yvetta Fedorova

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