*The following is an assignment written as part of my MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University for module ‘Critical and Theoretical Perspectives’.
In Pamela Lydon Travers’ 1934 children’s novel Mary Poppins the pivotal character of Mary overthrows the platitudinous notion of witches representing something evil and corrupt. In this essay I will be discussing how Travers modernises and normalises occult matters, making magic accessible, familiar, and carefree. I will also investigate how Travers creates a deeply complex female figure who draws upon psychoanalytic theory, the carnivalesque, and yields more questions than answers from both the children in her care and the readers invited into her world.
P.L. Travers’ concept of Mary Poppins’ character draws parallels to ancient sorceresses of pre-Christian origins, as well as to modern Wiccan witches (BBC, 2002). There are several instances throughout Mary Poppins which demonstrate that Mary is a powerful medicine woman with magical powers, possessing the ability to communicate and cohabit with the spirits living inside plants and animals. This includes the manner in which she arrives and departs from the Banks family’s lives, on Eastern and Western winds, respectively (Travers, 1981, pp.3 and pp.201). When we are first introduced to Mary in Chapter One (‘East Wind -The Day Out’) we see that she is perfectly harmonised with the magic of the natural world; “As soon as the shape was inside the gate the wind seemed to catch her up into the air and fling her at the house” (Travers, pp.3). Unlike evil stepmothers and wicked witches from traditional fairy tales, such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Grimm and Grimm, 2007), Mary Poppins does not terrorise or harm children physically or psychologically, such as the Evil Queen poisoning Snow White (Grimm and Grimm, pp.82). Instead, Mary cares for and morally guides the Banks children, introducing Jane and Michael to all manner of new and exciting alternative realities which hold deep-rooted lessons and mysteries about life and human existence itself. In Chapter Four (‘The Bird Woman – Mrs Corry’) the children learn to be kind and charitable to those less fortunate than themselves. In Chapter Six (‘Christmas Shopping – The West Wind’) the children are joined on a shopping trip by one of the stars from the Taurus constellation. Historically, “any deviation from the accepted and enforced norm for femininity was suspected as witchcraft” (Anderson, 2007, pp.87). Women who were solitary, independent, and possessed unusual talents or abilities were presumed in Christian history to be malevolent individuals. These qualities all fundamentally describe Mary Poppins exactly; she is a manifestation of the spinster sorceress, and should, in theory, be a character who incites fear in child readers. Cashdan claims that witches in traditional fairy tales, often adopting the rouse of “wicked stepmother” as a disguise, manifested within the story as a means to terrify children who existed in scenarios where their father figure is “weak or unavailable” (Cashdan, 1999, pp.94). Mary Poppins however, despite her magical qualities, cares for the children as a nanny and a guardian, while simultaneously behaving as a “mediator between the children and the magic realms” (Valverde, 2009, pp.273). Mary offers Jane and Michael opportunities to see the world around them from a new perspective, fundamentally changing who they are and how they think through their experiences with her, and does not generate negative feelings or experiences in either the Banks children or in the child reader. As stated by Valverde, “Her magic endeavours tend to occur at night-time, when the logic of the household is suspended, a circumstance that enables the children to discover other levels of reality, together with a system of values different from the one prevalent in their own milieu (for instance, they learn to respect all creatures). Despite her seemingly officious and irritable manner, then, she helps the children appreciate the importance of dreams and the imagination.” (Valverde, 2009, p.267).
Along with Mary’s apparent connection to magic, there is also an undeniable aspect of her character which is underpinned by psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud’s paper entitled “das Unheimliche”, translated to “the Uncanny”, is an elaboration of a concept first proposed by Ernst Jentsch in his essay ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ in 1906. “The Uncanny” is an essay which, in part, outlines how individuals are psychologically affected by unusual occurrences when reading literary fiction. In German “heimlich” or “heimisch” means “familiar” or “native”, and as such it is a term that relates to the usual, the expected, and the safe. “Unheimlich” therefore is deduced as the complete opposite of “heimlich”, meaning an experience, person, or object which is unknown and unfamiliar, and as a result could be construed as frightening. However, this explanation of the uncanny is not necessarily a strict rule which can be applied as a blanket statement to all unusual scenarios. It could be argued that just because something is new or out of the normative does not inevitably mean it is consequently frightening or traumatic. New endeavors can quite easily be associated with many positive emotions and life experiences such as joy, growth, exploration, and adventure. It may be disputed that while the unfamiliar can be either disturbing or exciting depending upon the circumstances, the familiar on the other hand can never be considered frightening. Consequently, if neither the familiar or the unfamiliar are distressing as a precept, there must be an additional element added to what is unfamiliar in order to make it adhere to the true definition of “uncanny” and to therefore become frightening (Freud, 1919, pp.7). There is a factor of uncertainty within the opening paragraphs of Mary Poppins where the reader is initially unsure if they are going to be invited into a realm of familiarity or one of unfamiliarity. However, Freud explains that “Uncanny requires an element of real-life fear or danger not felt in fairy tales or fictional literature” (Freud, 1919, pp.16) and also states that “a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life” (Freud, 1919, pp.18). By considering these two Freudian statements, consequently it is not possible for readers to be disturbed by the situations presented in Mary Poppins as they do not pose a real-life threat to the audience. Freud elaborates that “wish-fulfillments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, animation of lifeless objects” (Freud, 1919, pp.18), when experienced in the context of literary fiction, cannot become uncanny as there is fundamentally no question as to their validity or authenticity due to the writer having outlined a new reality which does not correspond to the rules of everyday life. In the context of fiction, we are able to reestablish what is familiar and expected. Because of this, as readers we develop an ability to accept what would typically be unacceptable if we experienced it in the real world. However, Grilli (2013, xvi, preface) proposes that Mary Poppins does in fact contain scenarios and situations which disturb the reader. Grilli explains that the situations in Mary Poppins are disturbing not because they are entirely new, but because they recall extremely remote or highly intimate experiences that have been erased from human consciousness. Considering Grilli’s proposal, it could be suggested that the forgotten or repressed experiences which readers are reminded of within Mary Poppins are humanity’s ancient links to magic, nature, and paganism, concepts which have since been primarily discarded and exchanged for technological developments, modern comforts, and Christian teachings and values (Wolfgang, 1999). From this perspective, it is possible that Mary Poppins could fit into Freud’s notion of the uncanny, as there are potential elements of fear and discomfort concealed within these repressed collective human memories and experiences.
An additional aspect of Freud’s theory of the uncanny which is relevant to Mary Poppins is the exploration surrounding the notion of inanimate objects, specifically dolls, coming to life in literary fiction. According to Freud, this unusual and unfamiliar experience is not uncanny at all, despite initially appearing to fit into the proposed criteria for an uncanny incident. Freud elaborates that the concept of a child’s toy coming to life does not induce fear, but rather generates delight, and might even be considered to be a childhood wish or “infantile belief” (Freud, 1919, pp.9). Mary is described by Jane, upon first seeing her, as “Rather like a wooden Dutch doll” (Travers, 1981, pp.3). Mary depicts a “living doll”, which may therefore be an illustrative example of how Travers utilises the unfamiliar but charming loophole that exists within Freud’s theory of the uncanny. Although Mary may not be typical, or normal, or behave in ways which are expected, through the extending parameters of acceptability within literary fiction she does not incite fear or anxiety, but excitement and wonder through childhood desires becoming acceptable, familiar, and possible.
There are notable parallels between the themes in Travers’ Mary Poppins and the theories which were suggested by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Jung built on the works of Sigmund Freud and outlined his own notable theories. Jung’s theories related to the processes that occur in the psyche and the fundamental role of psychic energy on human behaviour and experiences. Jung described his concept of psychic energy as being the “intensity of a psychic process, its psychological value” (Jones, 2018, pp.4). In particular within his approach to the inner workings of the psyche, Jung rejected the commonly held concept that “consciousness is sense and the unconscious is nonsense” (Jung, 1964, pp.102). Instead, Jung developed and promoted the theory that there is a profound power and intelligence concealed deep within the hidden parts of the psyche. This could imply a psychoanalytic grounding for the existence of psychic abilities and, hypothetically, a form of magical powers, as demonstrated by Mary in Mary Poppins. Sigmund Freud wrote a paper prior to Jung’s explorative work on the psyche entitled ‘The Ego and the Id’. This paper suggested that mental energies move or displace between the unconscious and conscious mental systems, with the id being the source of psychic energy (Freud, 2001). However, although Freud supported the notion of psychic energy, his concept of it differed to Jung’s. Freud proposed that psychic energy is a scientific, measurable source of energy similar to electricity, and not a spiritual or profound power. However, some theorists do agree with Jung’s approach to psychic energy. William McDougall considered the idea of psychic energy differing to pre-existing laws regarding other forms of energy as irrefutable; “In view of the purposive nature of human activity, [we] must postulate some energy which conforms to laws not wholly identical with the laws of energy stated by the physical sciences.” (McDougall, 1950, pp.10).
Along with information entering the brain through the five known physical senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing) and the individual’s memory, there are two more additional inputs; one enters through the cortex which involves rational and orderly inputs, and the other enters through the brainstem which consists of irrational and disorderly inputs (Driscoll and Neufeld, 2014). The balance of these two inputs enables the brain, and consequently the individual, to grow and perform healthily and correctly. With no input from order, the psyche would develop irrationality and ultimately, insanity. With no input from chaos, the brain would become too habitual and would lose its ability to dream (Wieland-Burston, 2015, pp.10). According to Jacobi (1973, pp. 117), “The psyche is made up of processes whose energy springs from the equilibration of all kinds of opposites”. Mary Poppins is herself an individual of opposites; she provides freedom for Jane and Michael Banks while also implementing rules, she encourages the children to think for themselves and to seek answers but refuses to provide any, and she is stable while also being completely unpredictable. By considering Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytical works on the psyche and their theories of psychic energy, it could be suggested that Mary Poppins operates as a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms, triggering the Banks children’s imaginations and enabling them to escape cultural expectations and societal norms through their adventures with her, and that ultimately this ability in itself performs as a variety of psychic witchcraft. Outwardly Mary has the appearance of a sensible, reliable adult who supports conventional ideals and behaviours, but she has a dual existence; Mary is also a portal to other worlds and an enabler of the fantastical and seemingly impossible. She is orderly, yet unpredictable and spontaneous and is, in essence, a perfect metaphor for the complexity and duality of the psyche itself. As outlined by Jung’s description of the psyche, she “functions outside the spatio-temporal law of causality” (Jung, 1963, pp.304).
It is reasonable to presume that P.L. Travers was, even if only to a small degree, influenced by the topical information provided in publications at the time by theorists regarding the power and complexity of the psyche. There is also the possibility that Travers took inspiration for her Mary Poppins character through her own experiences with the paranormal and magical. It is understood that Travers had a great interest in occultist and spiritual topics, having been mentored by the Irish poet, mystic, and Theosophist George Russell, as well as liaising with William Butler Yeats who was intrinsically involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Young, 2019, pp.36).
Alongside Jung and Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of the psyche and the concept of the conscious aligning with the unconscious, Mary Poppins’ role of contradiction and chaos also lends itself to Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival sense of the world, or the carnivalesque (Bakhtin, 1984). The character of Mary, synchronistic with the carnivalesque “fool” archetype, enables the mundane to become extraordinary and tips the status quo on its head. In carnivalesque literature, ridiculous make-believe worlds seem real and accessible to the reader, and bizarre scenarios are treated with everyday normality and a matter-of-fact attitude; this is absolutely Mary’s disposition, once more reinstating her complex personality of opposites previously discussed in relation to the human psyche. Mary Poppins can be seen to offer an optimal utopia free from social constructs and overarching powers which stifle creativity. The story of the Banks children’s adventures with Mary performs as an idealistic mental and emotional escape which could be considered as a coping mechanism for children who, unlike Jane and Michael, are confined by the everyday and the ordinary. Grilli (2007) explains that a large proportion of why the story of Mary Poppins appeals to both children and adults alike is the way in which the story, and the character of Mary herself, draws upon the human desire to have a socially suitable position within the social order, but to simultaneously possess a feeling of freedom within our acceptable and normative role. Grilli’s observation links to menippean satire, one of Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnival sense of the world, where conventional mental attitudes are besieged. The chaos of the carnival is temporary and normality will resume, observed in Mary’s unique ability to transcend other realms and command inanimate objects and animals, but to then insist on routine and order once the adventure is over, often even completely denying that the event even happened, leaving the children with only each other to corroborate the extraordinary events which occured.
In Bakhtin’s carnivalesque literature, eccentric behaviour can be seen as an absolutely fundamental element of the story. Behaviour which would ordinarily be considered as unacceptable becomes conventional and typical, and the inherent demeanor of characters divulges itself naturally and without any negative outcome. For example, Uncle Albert laughs uncontrollably while they all take tea on the ceiling, a typically impolite way to behave in Edwardian Britain but completely acceptable through a carnivalesque lens (Travers, in the Chapter entitled ‘Laughing Gas’). Another example presents itself on Mary’s birthday which coincides with a full moon, when she and the children take a trip to the zoo and observe that the cages are full of humans while the animals are walking freely about the zoo looking in at the people behind bars. As said by the king cobra, “Tonight the small are free from the great and the great protect the small” (Travers, 1981, pp.172), which is in perfect keeping with the topsy-turvy disposition of the carnival. According to Elick (2001, pp.455) this scenario of animals and humans switching roles in the zoo “is temporary and therefore more directly analogous to the mock crowning and decrowning of the carnival king important to Bakhtin’s notion of carnival”. It is a humbling experience of bringing humans below those which they see as below them.
Despite initially appearing to be typically carnivalesque, Mary Poppins is also contradictory to the freedom of expression and chaos that Bakhtin’s sense of the carnival represents. In relation to the moonlit visit to the zoo, Mary Poppins tells the children “One more question from you—and spit-spot, to bed you go!” (pp.150). She is observed to be maintaining order and discipline, even scolding the children for requesting an explanation for the utterly bizarre scenario which they find themselves subjected to. This opposition of behaviours links back to Carl Jung’s theory of the psyche and how there must be a balance between the chaotic and the mundane in order for individuals to be healthy and to grow. It is with this information that we begin to observe how Mary’s existence supports a manifestation of cognitive functions and psychoanalytical development theories.
It could be suggested that P.L. Travers’ mode of writing in Mary Poppins fits in with a modernist framework, rebelling against traditional storytelling methods. Travers is resistant to telling linear stories and doesn’t offer the reader any absolute answers or explanations, instead alternating her method of writing between the known to the unknown and from familiarity to uncertainty. According to Thacker and Webb (2002), modernist literature is open-ended, with the reader being left to connect the dots and to draw conclusions without the author dictating them or providing any clear answers. Mary Poppins herself echoes the same air of mystery as a character which Travers creates as an author within her writing. Although Mary is vain about her appearance, she is not vain about her own thoughts or opinions. Jane and Michael are given the freedom to hypothesise and conceptualise rationalisation and meaning from their own viewpoint without Mary’s input or guidance. Mary outright refuses to provide answers to Jane and Michael’s questions about their adventures together; “It’s no good asking her. She knows everything, but she never tells” (Travers, 1981, pp.153). This is the same characteristic that we can witness within Travers storytelling.
The unpredictability of Mary Poppins’ character, reverting from otherworldly and outlandish to being a “typical” adult who inflicts rules and boundaries upon the children, ironically provides the reader with a greater level of creative freedom. If Mary were truly and purely carnivalesque, behaving only in the opposite way that a responsible adult should, then the carnivalesque freedom begins to impose rules on the story and limits Mary’s character. By introducing restrictions and traditional morals to Mary’s character, Travers instills a deeper complexity to the tale and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions based on their own interpretation, inspired by their personal life experiences and beliefs. There is a distinct sense that as a reader you never quite understand or get to know either Mary as a character or P.L. Travers as an author. Both women, magical and witch-like, are continually changing, developing, and leaving questions unanswered. This unpredictability creates a wonderfully large scope for imagination and provides golden opportunities for the reader to address personal fantasies, wishes, and fears from within their own psyche in an environment which is safe and, according to Freud, impossible to be uncanny or frightening.
Consequently, Mary Poppins has a timeless, unrestricted quality that surpasses conventional literary norms, as the content and writing style of the story directly relates to and demonstrates fundamental human behaviours, wishes, historical paths, and psychological motivations. Mary Poppins as a character postures as a means for both child and adult readers to create a connection between the conscious and the subconscious as she represents a physical embodiment and literary metaphor for the psyche, enabling individuals to reconnect with long forgotten and hidden aspects of ancient occultist human belief systems which would otherwise cause significant discomfort or fear. Mary balances order with disorder, seamlessly behaving as both a conductor of anarchy and an implementer of social law and etiquette, becoming quintessentially carnivalesque one moment and fundamentally Edwardian English the next. It is all of these qualities which make Mary Poppins a stand-out piece of children’s literature which perfectly embodies a child’s desire to explore the magical unknown while being divinely protected by a powerful adult who knows everything and has all of the answers, even if she often refuses to provide them.
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