As the sun slowly sinks beneath the horizon, the black sky becomes a canvas for the unique and lively stories of the evening’s countless authors.
The Fallacy of the Bedtime Story
Natural darkness looms over the sky, a visual transmogrification that strips humanity of the brilliance of day and signals the impending night. As the sun slowly sinks beneath the horizon, the black sky becomes a canvas for the unique and lively stories of the evening’s countless authors. Millions of words dance in the eerie shadows, awaiting to be claimed and woven together to produce nuanced worlds. A writer at heart, old August Brill passes the dreary hours of his sleepless night escaping to fictitious lands with characters and events of his own design. Elsewhere lies a young Georgie Cottar, full of childlike wonder. Hoping to influence his dreams in the whimsical evening ahead, Georgie creates elaborate tales to spark his excitement. Whether filled with yearning calls for sleep’s rejuvenation or a satisfying rest with fantastical dreams, the night serves as a time of unrestricted imagination. The most beloved and nostalgic soporific, the bedtime story, has been utilized across history to help soothe a wailing child or ease the worries of a tired insomniac. When engaging in either conscious or unconscious imagination, humans tend to believe that we, as authors, possess total authority over the worlds we create. However, this is hardly the case. While the protagonists in Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark and Rudyard Kipling’s The Brushwood Boy evince conflicting sentiments concerning sleep, both pieces characterize storytelling as a tool that can create a false sense of refuge in the night. For the purpose of this essay, I will examine the role that storytelling occupies in the lives of both August and Georgie, and explore the illusion of control that their stories offer.
Man in the Dark introduces the reader to August Brill, a seventy-two-year-old insomniac who uses storytelling as a means of escapism. With the aim of evading the processing and acceptance of his immense emotional baggage, August contrives a protagonist: Owen Brick, husband and professional magician. After waking up in a civil war-ridden America, Owen is recruited as an assassin to execute August Brill. Instead of allowing himself to ponder his former love, Sonia, or grieve the death of his granddaughter’s ex-boyfriend, Titus, August places faith in his creativity to keep his mind occupied throughout the night. Storytelling also serves as a critical instrument in granting August a sense of control. As the author of his story, he determines each trial and tribulation his characters will endure. Given the multitude of mistakes and traumatic events August has experienced throughout his life, he finds security within the fallacy of autonomy as an author. His authorship grants him the power of revision, contrasting his own reality which cannot be rewritten. For instance, following the unfortunate car crash which resulted in damage to his leg, August is immobilized and requires assistance to move throughout the house. In the late hours of the night, when both his daughter, Myriam, and granddaughter, Katya are trying to sleep, August is confined to his bed, an ironic placement given his insomnia. He laments his frustration with his limitation, “I would love to be able to walk up the stairs, go into [Katya’s] room, and talk to her for a while. Tell some of my bad jokes, maybe, or else just run my hand over her head until her eyes close…damn this idiot leg.”1 August’s reality is restricted by the decisions he’s made and external events that were imposed on his life. His dissatisfaction with his physical state, his performance as a husband and father, and his literary career all reveal his longing for the ability to rewrite his past. Thus, storytelling has become a way for August to mask his insecurities and continue rolling on, as said in his favorite quote, “the weird world rolls on.”2 While in bed, August writes stories encompassing universal themes such as war, loss, and love, making his personal troubles seem more endurable in comparison to the greater suffering of humanity.
As August uses his stories to escape from his emotionally trying reality, The Brushwood Boy’s six-year-old Georgie Cottar uses stories as a means of escaping his nightly boredom. Drawing inspiration from the nursery tales told by his mother, Georgie embarks on a creative journey to fuel his curiosity and spark excitement. For any child stuck in a room bereft of stimuli, the mind is an incredible tool with endless possibilities for entertainment. Without moving a muscle, Georgie can teleport himself to unknown regions, embarking on new adventures that override the monotony of the night. His storytelling evolves into a mechanism of extending the fun of the day into the night, as he dreams of himself running races near the beach and leisurely riding ponies. As well as being a source of amusement for him, his conscious storytelling serves as a foundation for his unconscious storytelling. Georgie escapes the confines of a six-year-old as he “dubs himself prince, pasha, giant-killer, and all the rest… and his tales fade gradually into dreamland, where adventures [are] so many that he could recall half of them.” 3
In other words, his storytelling allows him to mold the content of his dreams. However, Georgie lacks more control than he may believe, as his dreams are far from reality. Instead, they represent a false projection of his desires and amusements. Intending to protect his personal oasis, the contents of Georgie’s stories and dreams are kept private. Georgie felt content escaping reality throughout his younger years but as he grew older, he adopted a more present role in his waking moments. The dreams and stories he once sought refuge in slowly dwindled in significance to Georgie, as his life in public schooling demanded more of his attention. As a student-athlete, Georgie rose through the ranks and eventually obtained the respect and admiration of his peers. Fulfilled by his academic and athletic successes, Georgie no longer felt the need to play with fantasy. With the adoption of new responsibilities and expectations placed upon him, Georgie’s priorities shift. The narrator divulges the distinction between Georgie’s two worlds: “Home was a far-away country, full of ponies and fishing, and shooting… but school was [Georgie’s] real world, where things of vital importance happened, and crises arose that must be dealt with promptly and quietly.”4 Many years later when an older Georgie is brought to India, where he “taste[s] utter loneliness” and is forced to “learn… life from the beginning,”5 his relationship with his imagination is rekindled. In a new environment where he feels that he is lacking control and is subject to the forces around him, he begins storytelling once again, but only while unconscious.
Although he prides himself on being a skilled writer, August does not possess autonomy over his storytelling. He faces trouble in attempting to remove himself from his stories and act solely as a detached author. After becoming disconnected from his story, an upset August imparts his experience of being unable to stick to his plot, “Concentration can be a problem… and more often than not my mind drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about.”6 Although he does put forth a notable attempt to continue his story, August is faced with unintentional pauses that force him to confront his humanity. August pauses his narrative to change position in bed, use the bathroom, and cough, all reminders that he is a real person with flaws and needs, therefore making it impossible to distance himself from the work he creates. His cognitive charade possesses a sense of temporality, as it requires an ending and thus, cannot continue forever. Ultimately, he violently kills off the protagonist of his story, Owen Brick, shattering his last remaining haven of imaginative refuge. As the novel progresses, August grows tired of denying his mind the thoughts it seeks to indulge in. Inevitably, his personal story supersedes his fiction. While Owen Brick may appear to be a distraction from August’s reality, many elements are analogous to those present in his own life. His reality seeps into Owen’s plot which is natural given that creators and artists are often inspired by their own experiences. One example of this is Owen Brick’s dilemma with his irresistibly beautiful childhood crush, Virginia. Although very tempted, Owen resists committing adultery with Virginia and instead, remains happily married to his wife, Flora. Later in the text, when August finally allows himself to speak about Sonia and his affair, he shares a quote that possesses many similarities to magician Owen Brick. August shares, “I began to resemble a character in a nineteenth-century novel: solid marriage in one box, lively mistress in another box, and I, the master magician, standing between them, with the skill and cunning never to open both boxes at the same time.”7 Through this analogy, it is apparent that August’s narrative safe havens are an effort to produce a false sense of refuge, and delay his inevitable grieving process. By grief, I am referencing not only the important lives he has lost but also mourning the past opportunities he squandered to make the right decisions. August questions his intrinsic inclination to dwell in the past: “Why this compulsion to pick at old wounds and make myself bleed again?… here I am staring at a crack in the wall and dredging up remnants from the past, broken things that can never be repaired.”8 Given his intent to use the tool of storytelling to avoid his trauma, August is unable to reap the benefits of creation and imagination. Instead, he is left in a false reality that he will have to one day leave.
Similar to August, Georgie does not possess full autonomy in his unconscious storytelling. He is only able to enjoy and remain within his dreams if he can make the distinction between imagination and reality. Thus, his nightly escape is restricted by its temporality. Kipling shares the impermanence of Georgie’s dreams, “Ships ran high up the dry land and opened into cardboard boxes, or gilt-and-green iron railing that surrounded beautiful gardens turned all soft and could be walked through and overthrown as long as he remembered that it was only a dream.”9 Georgie’s dreams are constrained not only by the duration of his sleep but also by his ability to find an equilibrium of indulgence and control. At first, he struggled in maintaining this balance, as “he could never hold [the knowledge of differentiating sleep and reality] more than a few seconds before ere things became real, and instead of pushing down houses full of grown-up people, he sat miserably upon gigantic door-steps trying to sing the multiplication table up to four times six.”10 Thus, the results of Georgie’s dreams are dependent on his mastery of control, revealing that he is not able to freely bask in his nightly oasis, as he would prefer. Another way we can identify Georgie’s dreams as straying outside of his control is by examining Miriam’s role within them. Miriam is introduced as “the princess of [Georgie’s] tales… a person of wonderful beauty… always applaud[ing] Georgie’s valour among the dragons and buffaloes.”11 Essentially, Miriam is presented as a character to flatter Georgie through her praise of him. As if considering Miriam to be a figment of his imagination, Georgie grants himself the authority to name her. Similar to how a child names their pet, Georgie names Miriam, “Annieanlouise.” However, Annieanlouise is not a product of Georgie’s dreams. In fact, she is a real girl named Miriam who had somehow also entered the same unconscious domain. Georgie thinks of her simply as a character in his dreams when in reality she is an individual with free will, whose purpose expands beyond his own excitement and desires. Thus, once again, Georgie’s dream haven is presented as independent from his control. Although Georgie seeks to assert control, there are external factors that push against him.
Both Man in the Dark and The Brushwood Boy highlight storytelling as a critical element of their plot, as the stories that August and Georgie create help reveal significant depth in the psyches of both characters. For August, his initial storytelling serves as a means of escapism and avoidance, enabling the reader to recognize his tumultuous emotional state in the processing of his trauma and the commencement of his journey to take accountability. The refuge that he seeks in these stories is nothing but a temporary facade; as he is unable to stay within the realms of his narratives, often switching back to moments of his own reality where he must confront the uncomfortable thoughts he so desperately seeks to hide from. Through the progression of the piece, his use of storytelling transforms from creating new worlds to retelling the truths that he has lived. August stops seeking solace and instead, heals by reflecting on defining moments and in doing so, allows himself the patience and understanding needed for him to one day heal. Similarly, Georgie has his own awakening when it comes to his storytelling. At the beginning of The Brushwood Boy, Georgie attempts to control his unconscious storytelling with conscious storytelling. He strives to influence the images shown to him as he dreams the night away. In doing so, Georgie sought to create a false sense of entertainment to hide from the boredom and terrors of the night. Eventually, he learns to let go of his constant effort to assert control and instead, experiences his dreams as they come. Once he allows himself to just enjoy the brushwood island for all that it is, he is able to find a balance that permits him to soak in the experiences of his waking hours. Once they let go of storytelling as a tool to assert control, both August and Georgie make advances to attain a more fulfilling life. Rather than creating a distraction from their internal conflicts, the protagonists use storytelling to achieve personal growth. By recognizing the inspiration that one’s personal life has on their creations, an author is able to better understand and appreciate the nuances of life. As Georgie and August strive in making this discovery, The Brushwood Boy and Man in the Dark, reveal the significance of becoming intentional holders of the tools we possess.
- Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), 12-13.
- Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), 180.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 1.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 3.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 4.
- Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), 2.
- Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), 156.
- Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt and Co., 2008), 47-48.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 1.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 1-2.
- Rudyard Kipling. The Brushwood Boy (Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), 2.