Point of View in Rosellen Brown’s “How To Win”
from Street Games
Rosellen Brown uses first-person point of view in several of her short stories in Street Games. None, however, is as powerful as the first-person perspective in the short story “How To Win.” Perhaps that is why John Updike chose to include “How To Win” in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
“How To Win” opens by foreshadowing the main conflicts of the story (p. 39):
All they need at school is permission on a little green card that says Keep this child at bay, Muffle him, tie his hands, his arms to his ankles, anything at all, Distance, distance. Dose him. And they gave themselves permission. They never even mentioned a doctor, and their own certified bureaucrat in tweed (does he keep a badge in his pocket like the cops?) drops by the school twice a year for half a day. But I insisted on a doctor, and did and did, because Howard keeps repeating, vaguely, that he is “within the normal range of boyish activity.”
“But I live with it, all day every day.”
“It? You live with it?”
Well, Howard can be as holy as he likes, I am his mother and I will not say “him.” “Him” is the part I know, Christopher, my first child and first son, the boy who was a helpless warm mound once in a blue nightie tied at the bottom to keep his toes in. (“God, Margaret, you are dramatic and sentimental and sloppy. How about being realistic for a change?”) “It” is what races around my room at night, a bat, pulling down the curtain cornice, knocking over the lamps, tearing the petals off the flowers.
The stage is set for several major conflicts. First, conflict with authority — the bureaucrats versus the parents, the “cops” versus the citizens. As we see later, this conflict with authority is also expressed as conflict between the parents and their child, Christopher, and somewhat between the two parents themselves. Next is “permission” — this is a type of authority, but is can also be defined as a personal freedom, ie giving yourself permission to think or feel differently, perhaps. The ensuing actions that the school has permission to do (keep, muffle, tie, dose) are very physical and punitive. Also, there is an understanding that the school has permission to be physical with Christopher but the mother (I, Margaret) does not — or has not (yet?) granted herself permission to be physical with him, perhaps still trying desperately to win him over with love or something other than physical means.
The second sentence repeats the authority conflict, introducing the doctor and the thought that the child’s behavior might have a medical explanation (ADHD? Autism?). The second sentence also bashes the authority of the school’s “certified bureaucrat” with a badge in his pocket — intimating that the bureaucrat’s word is the last word, and wins over any medical explanations regardless of qualification or knowledge of the doctor. The mother apparently tried hard to bring reason and logic into the discussion (“But I insisted on a doctor…”), which is commendable; but the repetition of the act (“And did, and did, had to…”) also foreshadows a theme of “no exceptions” by the school and desperation by the mother. It also suggests that the mother is in a state of guilt, ie she worries she is not a good mother, is not trying hard enough, is not able to do the things that need to be done to control her son (the “it” personality) in social situations like school.
Next we are introduced to Howard, the husband and father. First there is a comparison established between moral behavior and parenting: “Howard can be as holy as he likes…”. Then there is Howard’s denial mantra, ie “within the normal range of boyish behavior.” This reaches for some objective but far-away authority, and also foreshadows the tension between boys and girls developed in the story, between Christopher and his “normal” sister. In Howard we are introduced to a man in denial of the situation. He is not with Christopher “all day, every day” like Margaret, yet he criticizes her for calling Christopher “it.” This is yet another mention of the social conventions at work and in conflict/tension in this story — mothers and son, husbands and wives, fathers and sons. Howard can be “as holy as he likes,” a brilliant way to bring morality into the situation, as well as mimic both empty religious promises and Howard, and the final de-nutting of Howard with the intentionally faulty pronoun reference: “I am his mother and I will not say ‘him.’” We all know the “him” being referred to here is Christopher the son, but also in a brilliant piece of writing serves to suggest that the “him” is also Howard, and that Howard needs as much mothering and pampering in his own way as Christopher does.
Arguably, all of the above conflicts could be established without using first-person point of view. But then we get this “aside”: “God Margaret, you are dramatic and sentimental and sloppy. How about being realistic for a change?” This COULD be a statement from Howard, because it sounds a little like him — but we already know he is not the man he appears to be, his denial is too deep to engage in reality, his own and his wife’s, already. However, my interpretation is that Brown is having Margaret say this to herself. This fits with the core of the conflict, ie Margaret’s conflict within herself, with herself, as a mother that both loves and despises her son, or at least despises the things that her son does in his “fits.” She is in love with her image of Christopher her son, but also in major conflict with “it,” Christopher in his altered state. The first-person point of view allows Rosellen Brown to explore the much more interesting and tragic psychological conflict within her main character than could be fully accomplished with any other point of view.
In some ways, practically speaking, Margaret is the only one that can tell this story. Howard is too distant and in denial. Christopher himself is too disjointed to give a balanced account. Jody the daughter is too young. Having Margaret do the telling also elevates her to the level of a major character — while Christopher is the object and subject of the story, the events and realizations (i.e., change in the character) happen in Margaret more than in Christopher, as we’ll see. The first-person perspective makes this possible, and adds much to the complexity and richness of the story.
Consider this incident of the bad dream in “How To Win” (p. 40):
I know how he dreams me. I know because he dreams my dreams. He runs to hide in me. Battered by the stick of the old dark he comes fast, hiccoughing terror. By the time I am up, holding him, it has hobbled off, it must be, into his memory. I’ve pulled on a robe. I spread my arms — do they look winged or webbed? —to pull him out of himself, hide him swear the witch is nowhere near. He doesn’t go to his father. But he won’t look at my face.
Not only do we get a sense of Christopher’s terror in this beautifully written, absolutely terrifying section; we get a very strong sense of the conflict within Margaret too. Is she winged or webbed, ie angel or reptile/snake/devil, to pick up the religious imagery? And what must it take out of her as a mother, physically and mentally, to know that her only son “won’t look at my face”? I know that as a father, I would not be able to stand that more than once, if once — I long for Hemingway’s hero, “I only have one life to give, I can only die once — so the hell with it all.” But instead what we get here is Brown’s nightmare. First-person makes us readers take it more personally, experience the moment more internally than an omniscient narrator’s account. I find myself sympathetic to Margaret’s situation and conflict without her asking for sympathy or even empathy.
In the very next sentence, Brown has Margaret accused of betrayal (p. 40):
It was you! He looks up at me finally and says nothing but I see him thinking. So: I was the witch, with a club behind my bent back. I the hundred-stalked flower with webbed branches. I with the flayed face held in my two hands like a bloody towel. Then how can I help him?
Certainly there is accusation here. But that is only one dimension; with first-person Brown can suggest another level: The reader is left wondering if the account is reliable or not. Certainly the mother could feel so much guilt in a situation like this that she could be wrong in her conclusions. Again: first-person narrator is not just a technique used by the author to relate a story — it is a technique that is an intricate part of the story itself (belated kudos to Rust).
Brown is not without sympathy; she gives us the next paragraphs to resolve the incident, with echos of prose poetry. Yet they also serve to plunge us deeper into the tragic web of the mother’s/parent’s living nightmare (p. 40):
I whisper to him, wordless; just a music. He answers: “Mama.” It is a faint knocking through layers of dirt, through flowers.
His sister Jody will dream these dreams, and all the children who will follow her. I suppose she will, like chicken pox every child can expect them: there’s a three o’clock in the dark night of children’s souls too, let’s not be too arrogant taking our prerogatives. But if she does, she’ll dream them alone, no accomplices. I won’t meet her halfway, give her my own last fillip, myself in shreds.
Brown’s metaphors rule — chicken pox and flowers? Somehow it works, and works deeply. But also at work is the psychological battlefield of not only every child but every parent — and the parent of the ADD or autistic child especially. The mother’s treatment and regard for Christopher is contrasted with her treatment and regard for her daughter Jody, who is “more normal” in this regard, who does not leave her mother in “shreds.”
An aside: Another religious reference is “children’s souls.” And does “there’s a three o’clock in the dark night of children’s souls too, let’s not be too arrogant in our prerogatives” sound like the woman who earlier called herself “sentimental” and “sloppy” and unrealistic? I wonder what time it is in Margaret’s soul? Close to three o’clock, I’d say.
These and other elements of the story, presented through first -person narration, make the ending of “How To Win” even more poignant, much more than the harsh physical rendering that it appears to be at first (p. 51):
But Christopher sinks down, quiet. She reaches down roughly and yanks his fresh collar. Good boy, he doesn’t look up at her. But something is broken. The mainspring, the defiant arch of his back that I would recognize, his, mine. I find I am weeping, soudless as everything around me, I feel it suddenly like blood on my cheeks. This teacher, this stranger, and her cohorts have him by his pale limp neck. They are teaching him how to lose; or me how to win. My son is down for the count, breathing comfortably, accommodatingly, only his fingers twitching fiercely at his sides like gill slits puffing, while I stand outside, a baby asleep on my shoulder. I am the traitor, he sees me through his one-way mirror, and he is right. I am the witch. Every day they walk on his neck, I see that now, but he will never tell me about it. I weep but cannot move.
So now we know what it take “to win;” but is that an acceptable solution? Why is Margaret crying? Because they are hurting her son? Because she can’t (or doesn’t) move to save her son? Because she lost all hope now for the return of her son (“my son is down for the count”)? Because she would rather lose than win, if this is the price she has to pay? Or is it even more deep and tragic, as supported by the first-person narrative: She is crying at the loss of herself, of her ideals, of her fight, of her strength to carry on fighting the “other” fight against authority, fighting the battle of peace and love, which always has its martyrs (Christ-opher), and always has its Pontious Pilate’s?
Rosellen Brown could have told us this story from many perspectives — but she chose the first-person perspective for good reason. And she chose Margaret the mother of the chosen son to tell ths story to give us its most powerful impact on the most universal of themes at the most intricate and personal level.
Brown, Rosellen. Street Games: Stories. Introduction by Frederick Bush. W.W.Norton: New York. 1991.