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The Tragic Carnival: A Reflection on "The Hanging of the Mouse"

M.A. in English from National University and currently serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Bryant & Stratton College.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop's "The Hanging of the Mouse"

“I once hung [my cat’s] artificial mouse on a string to a chairback, without thinking what I had done – it looked very sad.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s animal fabliaux, "The Hanging of the Mouse," was written in response to the excerpt above taken from her autobiography (Barnet, Burto, Cain, pg. 1313). Bishop uses a range of literary techniques in this short story, such as anaphora, catastrophe, and catharsis. However, her story thrives on her ability to anthropomorphize her characters and carnivalize an otherwise serious scene to poke fun at the strict regulations of law and order by transforming kingly figures into clowns.

And her cat

And her cat

“’Squee-eek! Squee-eek!’ went the mouse”

Bishop brilliantly embraces the ambiguity of a public execution as she sets up a scene of paradoxical feelings. I found no humor the first time I read through the fabliaux. I felt the effect of the catastrophe – “’Squee-eek! Squee-eek!’ went the mouse” and only sensed the tragedy (Barnet et al, pg. 1315). However, through my second reading, I found some gentle satire that I could not help but smirk at, particularly her clever anthropomorphic conjuring of animal and bug characters based on their similarities with their human counterparts. Perhaps I found humor in my second reading because the shock of the tragedy is subdued when the reader already knows the catastrophe. This allows the reader to step back from the tension of conflict and can embrace the comic.

Bishop's Satire

After a few readings of "The Hanging of the Mouse," themes definitely emerge between seriousness and playfulness, high establishments reduced to low establishments, and the comical in the grotesque. The transformation of the king’s soldiers into brainless beetles, the priest into a ‘praying’ mantis, an executioner into a raccoon, and the king himself into a “very large and over-weight bullfrog” exemplifies these sub-themes and emphasizes her satirical vision of mocking high establishments.

Bishop's Characterizations

With these metamorphoses, she essentially is lowering the high establishments of rulers, religion, and political war down into an earthly, animalistic carnival, a carnival where the suffering and death of the mouse erupts into the birth of laughter, pleasure, and entertainment among the crowd. In two major parts of the story, this is highlighted. The first example: “But his whimpering could not be heard, and the end of his nose was rose-red from crying so much. The crowd of small animals tipped back their heads and sniffed with pleasure” (Barnet et al, pg. 1314). The second is less obvious but just as effective. It highlights the tension between the high establishments of society, such as religion, and brings it down to a low, earthly reality surrounded by sin: “He [the praying mantis] seemed to feel ill at ease with the low characters around him: the beetles, the hangmen, and the criminal mouse” (Barnet et al, pg. 1314). Even the praying mantis’s voice is “high and incomprehensible” compared to the lowly characters he is surrounded by. In this case, ‘high’ is symbolic of the higher establishments of religious zeal, which to the low characters is nothing more than rubbish.

Bishop's Style

Despite Bishop’s tragic plot, she manages to ease the sadness through very clever satire. Her anthropomorphisms greatly reduce the emotional impact of the catastrophe when the mouse is executed because the situation becomes more surreal. Furthermore, the style in which she tells her tale makes it seem like the fabliaux is more of a performance of puppets or costumed characters than a written story. From the very beginning of the story, this effect is created with Bishop’s use of anaphora; “Early, early in the morning… stayed up later and later” (Barnet et al, pg. 1313). Anaphora contributes to creating a prosaic quality to the text, making her story sound more like an oral performance later recorded. This style of writing can add a sense of playfulness to text. As a result, ambiguity is created through the tension between playful storytelling and the seriousness of the plot.

Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin

Bakhtin's Carnivalesque

This ambiguity is also largely a result of the ambivalence of experiencing both pain and pleasure, suffering and laughing, and witnessing the comical with the grotesque. This is the embodiment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque; the uniting of unlike people, encouragement of eccentric behavior, the reuniting of birth and death, pleasure and pain, and practicing of ritualistic performances centered on a catch-pole or the mouse in this case (Bakhtin, 1984). Essentially, Bakhtin’s carnival flips the world upside down, dragging down high establishments and making a mockery out of them. A sound example of the ambivalence of the carnival is in the transformation of the king into an overweight bullfrog. The king is portrayed in his royal gowns, but his true gluttonous nature shows through his skin; a fine-placed jab at the royal highness that drops him to the status of lily hopping amphibian; “made him look comically like something in a nursery tale, but his voice was impressive enough to awe the crowd into polite attention” (Barnet et al, pg. 1314). Here Bishop tells us about the ambivalent nature of the seriousness and playfulness of the king’s presence.

The Comic and the Tragic

Despite Bishop’s brilliant satire and comically twists, the very essence of "The Hanging of the Mouse" retains its tragic component. Readers experience the catastrophe of the mouse’s execution, and are offered an interpretation for a catharsis at the conclusion. This is familiar for animal fabliaux’s because most of these fables end with a moral lesson or consideration. Bishop does not explicitly tell readers what the moral of this story the time she says “[Tears] rolled down to the child’s back and he began to squirm and shriek, so that the mother thought that the sight of the hanging had perhaps been too much for him, but an excellent moral lesson, nevertheless” (Barnet et al, pg. 1315).

This line is open for many interpretations. A popular inference is that the lesson is based on the proverb “Who hangs one corrects a thousand.” I find this reasonable and fitting. Learning from others mistakes is a powerful generative force into molding an impressionable youth’s moral behavior. If they see a harsh punishment done unto someone because that person violated a particular rule or law, they will be more apt to avoid violating that same rule because they do not want to get punished themselves. Public hangings, I could only imagine would provide an incredible impact on our behavior. Often times throughout history, governing forces practiced public executions to keep the people’s behavior in line (Montefiore, 2011).

Summary and Suggestions for Further Reading

"The Hanging of the Mouse" is a peculiar and intriguing story. The ambiguity, ambivalence, the comical, and the tragedy are such a perplexing blend that we do not see much of in literature. Her literary conventions add unique elements to her ability to tell a capturing tale. Her ability to carnivalize an otherwise serious scene is impressive and ultimately gives way to her goal of mocking the high establishments of society. Even so, the moral lesson alluded to in the final sentence of the story is still open for interpretation.

If readers are interested in the style and themes expressed in this story and wish to explore further readings to connect with the contents of this essay, I recommend Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories. Carter’s stories are a great starting point for studies in magical realism and the grotesque. Carter and Bishop’s prose strikes many similarities like anthropomorphic characters, tragic carnivals, gently mocking satire, fairy tale themes, and eloquent, prosaic writing.

Angela Carter: author of "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories"

Angela Carter: author of "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories"


The Professor (author) on September 09, 2015:

There is a possibility that Orwell was influenced by the writings of Elizabeth Bishop because Bishop had already become a recognized poet long before Orwell began his career as a writer. Although, Bishop was an American author-- actually she was the poet Laurette of the United States at one point-- Orwell was an English writer and may not have encountered her literature during his studies in England. This is all speculation though. The most important connection between Orwell and Bishop would be under the umbrella term of magical realism. Both stepped beyond the psychological realism of the early 20th century and invented a new way of expressing modernist realities. Once again, thank you for the comment.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 02, 2015:

Shades of 'Animal Farm'. Was there any influence either way? I know 'Animal Farm' was political satire (written when George Orwell was at odds with his old Stalinist comrades in the Communist Party), then again this was a sort of political satire as well. The use of animals as their human counterparts hasn't been done all that often - or has it? Interesting read, Brandon. I'll have a dekko at some more...