‘The Child Screams and Looks Back at You’ by Russell Banks: Short Story Analysis
This story is set in the early 1960s in a small mill town in Central New Hampshire. ‘The Child Screams and Looks Back at You’ is a story about domestic violence, loneliness, guilt, forgiveness, and the duty adults have to bring up their children in a ‘healthy’ atmosphere. The style of this story is unique where sentence construction is concerned as well as the lack of proper punctuation in certain areas. But, the tone of the short story demanded that these slight deviations in grammar should take place. It is really very effective. When right at the beginning of the short story, we read the litany of a sentence about Marcelle’s four children and how they had to be wakened up for school, we notice the sentence doesn’t have any punctuation marks other than the breathless full stop at the end. This is indicative of the anxious and frenzied mental condition of Marcelle where early mornings were concerned. We see this same example when her dying son speaks to her in a delirium due to meningitis. One sees these ‘litany sentences’ in many parts of the story to show how broken, chaotic, worried, and anxious the world of Marcelle is. She is a mother raising four boys without her husband. Her husband was her physical abuser as well as the physical abuser of her sons when he got drunk.
Many times, in the early parts of Marcelle’s marriage, she is said to have ‘forgiven’ the beatings of her husband Richard Chagnon. But this was a deplorable condition. Domestic violence was a main issue in the protagonist Marcelle’s married life. Russell Banks takes us on a roller coaster ride of anxiety through the trauma of domestic violence, its repercussions on Marcelle and her little boys, and the skewed theme of forgiveness. Richard used to get drunk, beat up his family, and then when he came back to his senses, he would ask for forgiveness. He used to feel ashamed of himself and would beg for forgiveness. This act of Richard’s is replicated by Marcelle in an indirect way which she takes very seriously because she was a fervent Roman Catholic. Richard used to only beat up her and his boys, but Marcelle’s lust would lead to the death of her eldest son. The eldest son’s name is Joel and he is suffering from meningitis. He doesn’t get up one morning to get ready for school. Marcelle, his mother, calls for a doctor who came to the house with other intentions in mind. He was not interested in the boy’s condition. He just brushed the fever off as flu. He casually told Marcelle to keep the boy in bed for a few days, give him a lot of liquids, and three aspirins along with two more every three-four hours. He then gets down to the business he had come for. He wanted to have sex with Marcelle. In his desire for Marcelle, Dr. Wickshaw was the second adult to have failed Joel in his short life span of nine years. Richard fails Joel and so does the doctor. The last person to fail Joel would be his mother, Marcelle. She would do so by giving in to the lust of the doctor and the ‘promise of pleasure’ she gave him was the reason why she did not call him back when Joel’s temperature reached 105°. By the time she did, it was too late to help Joel. Either he would die or suffer severe Central Nervous System damage which was irreparable. He dies and for the rest of her life, Marcelle is stuck with the guilt that it was she who failed Joel.
This is, of course, the way most of the bereaved feel towards the dead, but Russell Banks with his lucid prose, frenzied but emotional writing, and brilliance bring out the facts that:
- Marcelle, Dr. Wickshaw, and Richard, the ‘so-called’ adults, were unable to let their children or Joel live in a ‘healthy’ environment. Their method of diagnosing and curing the problem was toxic to the child.
- It seems like the adults were only interested in the children and Joel on a superficial level. They wanted to treat the sickness in parts; they wanted to spread it out. But they didn’t realize that to bring up a child, you need a ‘healthy environment’ and not just try to keep away temporary or immediate ‘sicknesses’.
- Just like the Titanic that did not see the largeness of the iceberg underwater, the adults were unable to see the larger picture: The duty they had as ‘adults’ to look after the needs of children.
Thus, in this way, we see the playing of the words ‘sickness’ and ‘health’ throughout the story. If maybe ‘health’ could have been treated like a gift or a blessing, then the understanding of ‘children’ in our lives also being a blessing would dawn on us, because children need a ‘healthy home’ to grow up in. Marcelle’s life was terrible and the repercussions of it all fell finally on her favorite son Joel. It is he who she entrusts to go to her brother Steve’s place to say those memorable but sad words:
Come and keep my daddy from hitting my mommy!
Steve comes to her help. But now conventions have been crossed. She has let an outsider into her very internal family situation. More than her husband she feels ashamed of his domestic violence. This is what often happens in cases of domestic violence. It is very difficult to make the victims realize that, first of all, they are the ‘victims’ and that they shouldn’t be ashamed about seeking help. These victims don’t understand that they should not feel ‘guilty’ of another person’s physical abuse.
The more that we choose not to talk about domestic violence, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose. ― Russell Wilson
This ‘guilt’ was what was stopping Marcelle from picking up the courage, and going on with her life. There is a mention in this heartbreaking story about how Catholic priests and medical doctors are treated in the same manner by people. We need their ‘blessing’, their validation that we can be forgiven, or that one of our loved ones can get better in health. According to the indications given in this story by Russell Banks, when priests and doctors deceive us intentionally or unintentionally, we are very quick to think that it is maybe something we have done wrong and not them. That is what happens to Marcelle here, and she stays with that guilt for the rest of her life. Marcelle was loyal to the Catholic Church so she must have taken the guilt in a pretty extreme way. We as readers are left with a question at the end of our reading: Should she have felt guilty? I would like to say here that we are not to judge because in cases like these, the whole atmosphere is wrong! Marcelle’s crude behavior with her children every morning to get them to eat breakfast, brush their teeth, go to school, and so forth doesn’t sound like something reassuring. The whole thing is a charade of a family that is broken too badly to be mended again. We realize this through the symbols of Marcelle’s cracked ceramic jar’s face and the theatrical chaos of Joel’s room. There are some beautiful lines in this short story which I want to make mention of here:
She had ceased to protect her husband and you cannot forgive someone you will not protect.
The room was dark and cluttered… like the prop room of a small theater group.
But when she reached out in the darkness… touched his neck, it was burning, like an empty black pot left over a fire.
This story’s title is taken from a dream or rather a prophetic nightmare that the mother has about Joel. In the description of that dream, the narrator uses the lines ‘…the child screams and looks back at you’ in a very pointing way indicating to us that Joel is not going to survive and it is because of something his mother has done.
There are so many ways and avenues to interpret this story. One which I would like to conclude this analysis with is ‘forgiveness’. It is mentioned very beautifully in the last part of the story that those people who deal with nurturing children are like priests officiating in a divine office. Such people know the value of forgiveness when they see their children. Thus, looking after children can help God to forgive us and for us to become in that action, divine incarnate.
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. —Matthew 18:2-6
The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children. —Mahatma Gandhi
This story was one of the first Russell Banks short stories I have read. I stumbled upon him last week and decided to give him a try and I was glad to have made his acquaintance through this exceptionally wonderful short story. I hope to read more work from him soon. If you are interested in more book reviews, book review analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan