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Blurring the Boundaries: Dreaming Children in Katherine Mansfield's "Sun and Moon" and Daphne du Maurier's "The Pool"

Michaela Schrage-Früh
p. 15-36


Cet article propose une analyse de la fonction qu’occupent les éléments oniriques dans deux nouvelles quelque peu négligées par la critique : « Sun and Moon » de Katherine Mansfield et « The Pool » de Daphné du Maurier. Au cœur de chacun de ces deux textes se trouve la perception spécifique à l’enfant pour qui intérieur et extérieur, rêve et éveil n’ont pas de frontière distincte, ce qui renforce la pertinence et la qualité de la perception subjective de l’imaginaire et du rêve qu’ils esquissent. L’analyse proposée ne se contente pas d’explorer la relation entre l’expérience du rêve et la structure épisodique de la nouvelle ; elle s’efforce aussi de mettre en lumière la profondeur tant psychologique qu’artistique qui s’y déploie en ce qui concerne l’évocation du passage à l’âge adulte. Le lien entre la forme de la nouvelle et le rêve se montre ainsi particulièrement à même de révéler des façons alternatives, « non traduites », non explicites et potentiellement dérangeantes d’envisager la réalité.

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1This article explores the use of dreamlike elements in two short stories which have not received the critical attention they merit, respectively Katherine Mansfield’s “Sun and Moon” (1920) and Daphne du Maurier’s “The Pool” (1959). As I will argue, the genre of the short story is in many ways well-suited to convey the experience of dreaming. Thus, concerning the often fragmented quality of the dream, Colin McGinn rightly notes that dreams “can be more like sketches than fully realized representations” (85). Conversely, Clare Hanson emphasizes the “‘open’ quality of the short story” (Things 23) which lends itself to a comparison with the characteristic incompleteness of the dream experience. Another similarity is that both the dream and the short story are often image-dominated as well as elliptical. As Adrian Hunter argues, in contrast to the novel, the short story tends to cut away “the kind of material we normally depend upon for narrative continuity and coherence, […] working with these tactical omissions to suggest and imply meaning, rather than stating it directly” (2). While the short story depends on images to retain a sense of narrative continuity and coherence, these images often “tend to resist such interpenetration and integration [as takes place in the novel], which is why they disturb us in a particular, a distinctive and distinctly non-novelistic way” (Hanson, Things 24). Besides disturbing us, these images can also provide us with moments of psychological or existential insight: moments of being (to use Virginia Woolf’s term) or glimpses (to use Katherine Mansfield’s)— fleeting, intense and dreamlike. According to Hanson, the short story is thus often fuelled by “images from the unconscious mind” which can be presented “in the text in a relatively untranslated state. Such images retain an air of mystery and impenetrability, an air of dream” (Things 25).

  • 1 For a more in-depth discussion of similarities between dreaming and literary genres cf. Schrage-Frü (...)

2Besides these structural analogies between dreams and short stories, further similarities include the dreamer’s/focalizer’s typical self-absorption as well as the dream’s/short story’s characteristic focus on the present. As Nadine Gordimer succinctly puts it: “Short story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment” (Gordimer 1968 qtd. in Hunter 2). Or, in Frank O’Connor’s words, the condensed life stories which are presented in the short story are “lit by an unearthly glow, one that enables us to distinguish present, past, and future as though they were all contemporaneous” (22). The same is true of the dream, which rearranges “the contents of the real world according to a non-historical, extratemporal, and subjective directive” (States, Dreaming 29). What is more, the dream experience, and especially the liminal borderland between dreaming and waking, is ideally suited to destabilize established boundaries between inner and outer reality, self and other, reality and fantasy. Thus, in the same way that a short story’s setting tends to reflect its focalizing character’s psychological concerns and frame of mind, the dream environment is often a projection of the dreamer’s emotions and mood. In their fragile, image-dominated restructuring of reality, then, both the dream and the short story are arguably predisposed to the questioning and breaking down of established certainties, conventions and norms, providing a natural outlet for subjective, and often marginalized, perspectives and voices.1

3In what follows, I will explore the ways in which dreamlike elements may be translated into and fuel literary texts that do not, at first glance, narrate a dream. As I will argue, the fact that Mansfield’s “Sun and Moon” and du Maurier’s “The Pool” are narrated from a child’s point of view enhances both their dreamlike effect and credibility, drawing the reader into an imaginative world experienced as real. Blurring clear-cut boundaries between waking and dreaming, these stories open up liminal spaces which give expression to the protagonists’ inner life and their subjective perception of reality. As Claire Drewery notes, drawing from Victor Turner’s theory on liminality, such “psychological and literal thresholds are places of fear and ambivalence” but also potentially “liberating, enabling the transgression of social boundaries, a confrontation with otherness, and a challenge to the limits of subjectivity” (2). From this precarious vantage point, these stories of childhood seek to “fracture the conventionally agreed upon world by reshuffling conventional meanings” (Mageo 29). Accordingly, my analysis will explore not only how the dream experience and the short story form are related but also how reading the two stories in light of their references to dream may yield new insights regarding their psychological and artistic depth as initiation stories or rite-of-passage tales.

Katherine Mansfield, “Sun and Moon”

4My first example is Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Sun and Moon,” written in 1918 and first published in Bliss and Other Stories (1920). According to Mansfield’s account in a letter to John Middleton Murry, the story was actually inspired by a dream:

I dreamed a short story last night, even down to its name, which was Sun and Moon. It was very light. I dreamed it all—about children. I got up at 6.30 and wrote a note or two because I knew it would fade. I’ll send it some time this week. It’s so nice. I didn’t dream that I read it. No, I was in it, part of it, and it played round invisible me. But the hero is no more than 5. In my dream I saw a supper table with the eyes of 5. It was awfully queer—especially a plate of half-melted ice-cream… (Letters 161)

5Mansfield ’s use of the term “queer” seems to refer to the bizarreness of the dream experience which, in turn, is linked to the child’s point of view. Barbara Meier explains that even if the dream elements typically considered bizarre such as “strange settings, incongruent characters, objects out of place, inappropriate or impossible actions, perception deviating from normal experience […] do not comprise a substantive amount of all the dream elements, they may color a whole dream, giving it its touch of strangeness” (65). This seems to be precisely the case here and even though the short story does not explicitly narrate a dream, the dream’s “touch of strangeness” is preserved in the telling.

  • 2 Jeffrey Myers, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (London, 1978); Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield (...)

6Jacqueline Bardolph points out that Mansfield “dismissed ‘Sun and Moon’ as easy and minor, and so do most critics. […] It is an idyllic tale, according to Murry, but the sign of pathological longing for childhood refuge, according to Jeffrey Myers, and a ‘purely sentimental story of children,’ according to Claire Tomalin.”2 Yet, as Bardolph rightly cautions, “maybe we should question Mansfield’s flippant dismissal of a story so close to basic emotions” (165). I certainly agree with Bardolph that, on closer reading, the story’s supposed lightness proves deceptive. I would add, though, that reading the story in terms of its dreamlike elements helps bring to light some of its emotionally salient implications which are most poignantly conveyed by its instances of narrative discontinuity and bizarre, dreamlike imagery. Harry T. Hunt suggests that in dreams the element of surprise is achieved by the predominantly visual element of dream bizarreness, arguing that “it is just these image-based transformations of experience that introduce the unexpected into the dream narrative and push the dreamer toward some response (whether during the ongoing dream or upon awakening)” (161). According to Hunt, then, “unexpected visual-spatial transformations do not so much disrupt narrative continuity as provide the dramatic sense that fulfills and completes it” (166). In this sense visual dream bizarreness, far from being randomly disruptive, can be considered “the very fabric of dream semantics” (Hunt 167) by means of which a trivial action sequence may be turned into a meaningful and coherent story. In “Sun and Moon” these instances are unobtrusive enough not to disrupt the dreamer’s “complete conviction in the exclusivity of the dream Umwelt” (States, Dreaming 34), yet occasionally they may lead to moments of surprise or hesitation on the reader’s part. Such moments of hesitation arguably link the dreamlike mode to Todorov’s well-known definition of the fantastic. However, while in Todorov’s theory the fantastic is dependent on “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (41), situated between belief (the marvelous) and disbelief (the uncanny) and always on the verge of turning into one or the other, in Mansfield’s story hesitation is caused by the continual blurring of inner and outer reality. It is impossible for the reader to know for certain where waking reality ends and dreaming begins.

7Even though “Sun and Moon” does not present itself as a dream narrative, then, it creates a dreamlike atmosphere by means of narrative point of view. This is because a child’s perspective allows for the simultaneous perception and acceptance of bizarre elements. A child’s psychological boundaries are not yet fully formed; they are “thin boundaries,” facilitating an easier blurring of inside/outside realities, which is precisely what dreamers experience in their malleable, unstable dream environment (cf. Hartmann, Nightmare 213). According to Ernest Hartmann, thin boundary personality types will “often experience states of being half-awake and half-asleep, or will become deeply immersed in daydreaming and reverie, so that sometimes the boundary between real life and fantasy may be unclear” (Nature 89-90). The child’s perspective, then, makes the dreamlike effect plausible for the reader without causing them to doubt the story’s overall reality status, despite occasional moments of hesitation. As Uri Margolin points out:

Both science and common sense distinguish between standard and non-standard modes of perception and resultant mental images. Nonstandard modes, resulting in a disproportionate or distorted visual image, are associated in literature with the defamiliarization effect on the reader, and are realistically motivated by the perception of an infant or small child. (291)

8This defamiliarization effect can, in turn, open up new and subversive perspectives on everyday practices and norms, in the same way that dreams can “offer an incipient critique of cultural reality, and people within it, by mirroring that reality [and] by offering us abnormalized copies of our waking worlds” (Mageo 26). Finally, it has been noted that “Sun and Moon” is reminiscent of a fairy tale such as the Grimm brothers’ “Hänsel and Gretel.” As such, it conveys a vision of “natural human anxieties” (Bardolph 165) that are also at the heart of the dream.

9The story’s beginning—“In the afternoon the chairs came […]” (SM 153)—corresponds to the characteristically in medias res beginning of a dream, as the dreamer, simply thrown into the dreamworld, can never consciously grasp the dream’s precise beginning but always experiences it as already in progress. The little boy Sun, through whom the story is focalized, is witnessing the preparations for a party that the grown-ups are having later that evening. He and his little sister Moon are more or less left to their own devices, trying to keep out of the way and taking in the bustling activity with childlike wonder and curiosity. Sun’s liminal state is recurrently hinted at. Thus, in terms of psychological development he is situated between his little sister and the adults’ world as well as between perceptive observation of waking reality and his own dreamlike imagination. He repeatedly sets himself apart from his “silly” (SM 158) little sister but secretly still longs to receive the same kind of emotional attention bestowed on her: “He did so hate being sent stumping back to the nursery. It didn’t matter about Moon. If she got tangled in people’s legs they only threw her up and shook her till she squeaked. But Sun was too heavy for that” (SM 154). Characteristic dream transformations are suggested from the beginning, for instance when the flowers for the party are being delivered: “When you stared down from the balcony at the people carrying them the flower pots looked like awfully nice hats nodding up the path” (SM 153-154). This imaginative transformation of people and flowers into hats has an Alice in Wonderland quality, and even though Sun prides himself on being able to know “the difference between real things and not real ones” (SM 154), in the course of the story this difference will repeatedly blur, suggesting a gap between objective reality and subjective experience. From the beginning the reader, too, is implicated in this blurring of boundaries because of the inclusiveness suggested by the pronoun “you.”

  • 3 Interestingly, preschool children have been found to experience nightmares in which “the predominan (...)

10Significantly, the supposed lightness of the story is undermined by the subtly suggested neglect and carelessness with which the children are treated. This strategy is in line with Mansfield’s frequent depiction of “the child’s entry into the world as one of pain, cruelty and oppression” (March-Russell 207). While this tendency is more blatantly realized in Mansfield’s early stories, notably “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired” (1910) and “The Woman at the Store” (1913), the seemingly idyllic environment in “Sun and Moon,” too, is ultimately one that is hostile to the children. Early on in the story we learn that “[t]here was nobody to look after Sun and Moon” (SM 154). Their mother tells them to keep out of her way, and Sun is surprised at Cook’s unusual kindness (cf. SM 154). When his father contradicts his mother, Sun is certain that “Mother would have been dreadfully cross” (SM 159). Similarly, he repeatedly expresses his surprise at “this jolly Father” (SM 159), which suggests that this is not the kind of father he normally knows. What is more, throughout the story, the children are treated like objects; they are dressed up and presented to the guests who are allowed to fondle them as though they were pets or puppets. In fact, they are continuously given pet names such as “ducks,” “lambs” and “sweets” (SM 157). Their very names Sun (most likely derived from son) and Moon depersonalize them, emphasizing their gender rather than their individuality. The brutal carelessness inherent in this treatment becomes obvious when “a skinny old lady with teeth that clicked said: ‘Such a serious little poppet,’ and rapped him [Sun] on the head with something hard” (SM 157). As Bardolph notes, animate and inanimate objects continually blur in the story, as when food is humanized (“almond finger,” “collar on the ham,” “fishes, with their heads and eyes”) and the children objectified (as suggested by the passive voice indicating the way in which they are being handled: “unbuttoned,” “dressed,” “picked up”). These descriptions help create what Bardolph calls “a Hansel-and-Gretel atmosphere” in which “desire and eating seem to be of a cannibal order, and the intimacy of the parents aggressive and threatening, as when Father ‘pretended to bite [Mother’s] white shoulder” (166).3 It is in line with this atmosphere that, when looking at the magnificently transformed and decorated dining-room table, Sun asks, much to the adults’ amusement, “Are people going to eat the food?” (SM 155). This anxious question foreshadows the ending of the story, when Sun is quite upset at the sight of the ruined dinner table and the melted house, and suggests Sun’s futile longing for a lasting state of beauty and perfection.

11The story hinges on two central images that turn the relatively simple plot into an emotionally and symbolically resonant story: the miniature house and a character referred to as “little grey man” (SM 157). Ernest Hartmann has extensively studied interconnections between dream imagery (especially what he terms the “central image” of a dream) and the underlying emotional concerns experienced by the dreamers at the time the dream occurred. According to his model, “the central imagery of the dream seems to be picturing [...] clearly, though metaphorically, the emotions of the dreamer” (Underlying 202). In Mansfield’s story, these central images indeed contextualize Sun’s emotional concerns and provide the sense of bizarreness that makes the story “shimmer with instability and otherness” (States, Bizarreness 25). They also serve to structure the text and mark Sun’s emotional development. Thus, for instance, “the text presents the little house three times, following the pattern of folktales” (Bardolph 166).

12Sun gets his first glimpse of the house when the children are allowed to admire the ice pudding while it is still in the fridge: “Oh! Oh! Oh! It was a little house. It was a little pink house with white snow on the roof and green windows and a brown door and stuck in the house was a nut for a handle” (SM 155). The sight of this perfect, miniature house has a strong emotional effect on Sun. At first, “when Sun saw the nut he felt quite tired and had to lean against Cook” (SM 155). In Bardolph’s words, the “small house of make-believe and dreams” provides “a promise, a vision that makes Sun nearly faint” (166). Before Sun catches another glimpse of the house, however, the children are dressed up and briefly presented to the party guests. It is on this occasion that Sun, for the first time, notices a grey-haired stranger among the guests:

There was only one man that Sun really liked. He was a little grey man, with long grey whiskers, who walked about by himself. He came up to Sun and rolled his eyes in a very nice way and said: “Hullo, my lad.” Then he went away. But soon he came back again and said: “Fond of dogs?” Sun said: “Yes.” But then he went away again and though Sun looked for him everywhere he couldn’t find him. He thought perhaps he’d gone outside to fetch in a puppy. (SM 157-158)

13After this episode, there is an abrupt change of scene; the children are in bed, falling asleep: “A long while after Sun woke up again” (SM 158). He wakes his sister and suggests going to the landing, from where the children watch the party guests stroll over to the dining-room and Sun catches a second glimpse of the house:

Then that door was shut; there was a noise of ‘pops’ and laughing. Then that stopped and Sun saw them all walking round and round the lovely table with their hands behind their backs like he had done. Round and round they walked, looking and staring. The man with the grey whiskers liked the little house best. When he saw the nut for a handle he rolled his eyes like he did before and said to Sun: “Seen the nut?”(SM 158)

14It is easy to miss the implied change of consciousness here, but in fact Sun is dreaming this scene. After all, it is not possible for the children to witness what the grown-ups are doing in the dining room since “that door was shut.” So Sun must be imagining their childlike amazement, projecting his own sense of wonder onto the party guests, who most likely are not as deeply impressed with the decorations as Sun was earlier that day. He also dreams about the mysterious man with grey whiskers, who communicates with Sun in the dream and shares the boy’s particular fascination with the little nut serving as a handle to the little house’s door. That Sun may well be dreaming the scene is further suggested by his short discussion with Moon over who is nodding their head, immediately followed by the sentence “When they woke up again they could only hear Father’s voice very loud, and Mother, laughing away” (SM 159). The party guests have left and when the parents discover the children asleep on the landing, they allow them to briefly come down and “have some pickings” of the leftovers, including the ice pudding:

And so they went back to the beautiful dining-room.
But—oh! oh! What had happened. The ribbons and the roses were all pulled untied. The little red table napkins lay on the floor, all the shining plates were dirty and all the winking glasses. The lovely food that the man had trimmed was all thrown about, and there were bones and bits and fruit peels and shells everywhere. There was even a bottle lying down with stuff coming out of it on the cloth and nobody stood it up again.
And the little pink house with the snow roof and the green windows was broken—broken—half melted away in the centre of the table. (SM 159)

15The shock that Sun feels at the sight of this ruined dinner table, and the broken little house in particular, is deepened by his father’s “smashing in some more of the roof” as well as Moon’s careless way of picking the little nut “out of the door and scrunch[ing] it up, biting hard and blinking” (SM 160). His reaction of starting to wail and cry—“I think it’s horrid—horrid—horrid!” (SM 160)—is in line with this shock but totally incomprehensible to his parents, who are ignorant of the boy’s imaginative inner life and angrily send him off to the nursery.

16Again, this story, even though allegedly based on a dream, is not presented as a dream narrative and apart from the short dining-room scene in which Sun imagines or dreams that the adults are marveling at the dinner table and the little grey man addresses him once more, indicating the nut, there are no other clearly demarcated dream scenes. And yet the emotional significance attached to the miniature house and what Sun perceives as its cruel destruction lends the story a dreamlike quality. As Hanson points out, like dreams, “Mansfield’s fictions are built on a technique of suggestion. The themes are not stated directly but conveyed obliquely through concrete images” (Short Stories 78). To Sun, the fragile little ice-pudding house is real. It does not just represent food but an ideal little world, with the nut as handle providing entry. He is not at all able, then, to tell “the difference between real things and not real ones” (SM 154) because in his dreamlike world things keep shifting and transforming: “men in black with funny tails on their coats [look] like beetles” (SM 157), while a dinner table is transformed into a landscaped garden: “Red ribbons and bunches of roses tied up the table at the corner. In the middle was a lake with rose petals floating on it. […] Two silver lions with wings had fruit on their backs, and the salt-cellars were tiny birds drinking out of basins” (SM 155). This picturesque miniature landscape is “where the ice pudding is to be” (SM 155). At the same time, the children themselves are transformed into puppets, Sun being dressed up in what Nurse calls his “Russian costume” (SM 156) and Moon being turned into “a sweet little cherub of a picture of a powder-puff” (SM 156). They are also associated with birds, when, for instance, their mother tells them to “[f]ly up to your little nest” (SM 158). They thus mirror the table decoration of “tiny birds drinking out of basins” (SM 155).

  • 4 The “little grey man” is a popular character in various fairy tales, for instance in the Grimm Brot (...)

17In this world of dreamlike transformations, the solitary little man with grey whiskers who, unlike other characters in the story, seems genuinely interested in Sun, able to mindread his wishes and sharing his particular fascination with the house and the nut, assumes a symbolic quality which is often inherent in dream and fairy tale characters.4 He seems rather out of place in the party surroundings; walking by himself, talking with no-one, he has seemingly vanished when Sun tries to find him. By emphasizing his part in the short dream scene, Mansfield casts doubt upon his overall reality status within the story. The reader begins to hesitate and wonder whether Sun has dreamed up his presence from the beginning. The little grey man provides the element of bizarreness precisely because his behaviour deviates from that of all the other grown-up characters and he seems out of place within the contours of the story world. For instance, he takes an interest in Sun rather than in Moon, and he notices the little nut that is ignored and unappreciated by the other adults. His seemingly unmotivated question—“Fond of dogs?” (SM 157)—particularly contributes to this impression. This question seems to mirror Sun’s secret longing for a dog and suggests that the little grey man is a dreamlike projection of his wish to be taken notice of. Like the house, “conceived against social pressure and adult order” (Bardolph 167), the little grey man provides an elusive glimpse of an alternative fantasy world. The ending of the story, in which the disappointed and disillusioned little boy “stumped off to the nursery” (SM 160) may well signal the loss of this fantasy world: the little house’s door and its handle have been destroyed and the little grey man with his eyes rolling “in a very nice way” may have disappeared for good. The reader, identifying with Sun, experiences the ending as the harsh awakening from a dream in which something initially beautiful and treasured has undergone a transformation into something “horrid.” According to Pamela Dunbar, “[b]eyond its apparent slightness the sketch is another rite-of-passage tale; a fable about the inevitable spoiling of perfection and of the child’s primal sense of contentment. The notion of the house’s ideal nature, here a figure of family happiness, has lasted only as long as the dream” (150). Ultimately, as Jacqueline Bardolph notes, “[b]ecause ‘Sun and Moon’ is so anchored in the little boy’s perception, it is more a nightmare than a dream; the little house is lost, its key eaten up” (168).

Daphne du Maurier, “The Pool”

18Though significantly longer and more complex than “Sun and Moon,” Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Pool,” first published in the collection Breaking Point (1959), in many ways lends itself to a comparison with Mansfield’s piece. Not only does the story focus on two children, a brother and sister, but it is characterized by a similar mixture of fairy tale and dream elements as well as the blurring of inside/outside and sleep/wake boundaries. Like “Sun and Moon,” it is, moreover, “concerned with the inevitable sadness of growing up” (Forster 300). In a letter to a friend, du Maurier explained that the stories in the collection “are all a protest at the cruelty and misunderstanding which abound in the world—beneath the surface lurk evils we do not understand, things in ourselves” (Du Maurier qtd. in Hodges 37). This sense of the self as Other finds expression in the liminal state between childhood and adolescence which is, in turn, characterized by blurred dream/wake boundaries. It is noteworthy that, in contrast to Mansfield, du Maurier rarely featured children as protagonists in her stories. In this regard “The Pool” is a remarkable exception and invites a comparison with Mansfield’s more frequent childhood depictions.

  • 5 In her memoir Growing Pains, du Maurier comments on visiting Mansfield’s grave in Paris in her earl (...)

19Mansfield’s enormous influence on du Maurier is well-documented. Margaret Forster notes that, even though not typically visible in her thematic choice and style (cf. Forster 55), du Maurier repeatedly acknowledged this influence and claimed that her first impulse to become a writer was sparked by reading Mansfield’s stories (cf. Forster 30). Likewise, Jane Dunn calls Mansfield the young du Maurier’s “muse […], whose stories she so admired and longed to emulate” (Dunn 134). She notes that du Maurier’s imagination was further stimulated by learning that Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry had actually lived close to the du Maurier family in London. In fact, long after Mansfield’s premature death, du Maurier learned that the admired writer used to watch Daphne and her sisters “playing on Hampstead Heath and longed to talk to them” (Dunn 135). It is tempting to speculate whether the sight of the du Maurier girls at play may have inspired some of Mansfield’s own childhood portrayals. To du Maurier, the anecdote seems to have signified a spiritual connection between Mansfield and herself and she indulged in the romantic notion that “something of Katherine’s creative spirit had entered her soul” (Dunn 135).5

  • 6 In a letter to Oriel Malet, dating from March 1958, du Maurier herself writes: “My own recurrent dr (...)

20While du Maurier’s story may not be based on an actual dream, according to Sally Beauman it was written during a time of psychological strain, “compounded by the onset of menopause, which brought with it recurrent dreams of drowning—an influence apparent in ‘The Pool’” (xii).6 The story is focalized mainly through Deborah, a girl in her early teens, and, to a lesser extent, her slightly younger brother Roger. It narrates the story of one of the children’s summer holidays, which the half-orphans habitually spend at their grandparents’ estate in the English countryside. Like “Sun and Moon,” the story can be classified as an initiation story or rite-of-passage tale. However, while Mansfield’s story depicts a five-year-old boy’s first disillusioning glimpse into the adult world, spoiling his vision of lasting perfection and beauty, du Maurier’s story more dramatically narrates the end of childhood, marked by the girl’s passage into puberty. Indeed, Deborah’s transition from childhood to adolescence can be read as a rite of passage in terms of the three stages defined by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner: separation, margin (or limen) and aggregation. Thus, from the beginning of the story, Deborah displays “symbolic behavior signifying detachment” (Turner 235) from the social structures of her small household community. She then passes through a transitional or liminal realm “that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state” (Turner 235). This realm is physically located near and within the pool and marked by increasingly permeable dream/wake boundaries. At the end of the story, Deborah experiences her first period and finds that entry into the “hidden world” of childhood “is out of her reach for ever” (TP 158). The young girl “is in a stable state once more […] and is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms” (Turner 235). This stable condition, however, is experienced in terms of irretrievable loss. In the following, I will retrace Deborah’s rite of passage in connection to dreamlike elements and their functions within the story.

21The in medias res beginning still presents the children as a unity: “The children ran out onto the lawn. There was space all around them, and light, and air, with the trees indeterminate beyond. […] The children said nothing. The first moment always took them by surprise” (TP 128). The spacious, seemingly carefree world of childhood is juxtaposed with that of the grandparents, or, more generally, with the adult world. Deborah, in particular, repeatedly muses on what she perceives is the old people’s wasted, routine-filled life, which, to the girl, seems “unreal” (TP 140), “remote” (TP 141) as well as devoid of “meaning” (TP 141) and “knowledge” (TP 141). On the other hand, the two children also represent opposite ways of perceiving the world. Deborah’s view is a mythical, spiritual and imaginative one, whereas Roger has a more rational, down-to-earth outlook. This becomes obvious, for instance, in their different ways of taking in the garden. Practical Roger appreciates “how Willis the gardener had mown the lawn to just the right closeness for cricket” (TP 129), worrying that his older sister is “in one of her absent moods and would not concentrate on the cricket” (TP 130). Deborah, in turn, loses herself in mystical contemplations, solitary games and imaginative rituals. To her, the garden is alive and animate and the borders between her own self and the natural world are fleeting. In a sense, she displays the self-absorption of a dreamer, projecting her own desires, fears and wishes onto her surroundings.

22In the parts focalized through Deborah, inanimate and natural objects are personified and endowed with a secret life of their own with such consistency and intensity that the boundaries between reality and dream increasingly blur, conveying “a mystical quality” (Forster 300)—threatening and enchanting at the same time. Thus, Deborah’s sense of loneliness throughout the long school year is projected onto the garden, as the girl marvels at “[t]he fact that the garden waited for them” and that it “had to endure month after month of silence, when the children were gone” (TP 128). She communicates with the garden “in the silent voice she used for her own possessions” (TP 128) and, in a sacrificial rite, she lays on the grass “like Jesus on the Cross, only face downwards […] [t]o offer herself to the earth, to the garden, the garden that had waited patiently all these months since last summer” (TP 129). The same consciousness is granted to objects such as the summer-house, “open to understanding, sharing complicity” (TP 142); everyday items like a croquet clip, which she fears might “turn malevolent, and haunt her” (TP 131); or her talisman, a stub of pencil, which she offers as a sacrifice to the pool in the woods. In seeking communion with the inanimate world and creating her own imaginative rituals, Deborah increasingly withdraws from the demands made on her by the everyday world of family obligations and social rituals.

23This initial state of separation is soon followed by the girl’s entry into a liminal state physically associated with the woods and the pool. Deborah feels that, in contrast to the cultivated garden, “[t]he woods were made for secrecy. They did not recognize her as the garden did. […] The woods would never miss her: they had their own dark, passionate life” (TP 133). The woods, and, in particular, the dark waters of the pool, then, represent the untamed natural world of primal emotions, instincts and desires: in short, the world surfacing in dreams. To Deborah, the pool is a sacred place which provides her with a ghostly reflection of her own inner self: “Her reflection wavered up at her, and it was not the face she knew, not even the looking-glass face which anyway was false, but a disturbed image, dark-skinned and ghostly” (TP 134). The continual personification of the natural world likewise creates a dreamlike atmosphere, always verging on the brink of nightmare, as the following passage illustrates: “There was a dead tree standing by the far end of the pool. He could have been fir or pine, or even larch, for time had stripped him of identity. He had no distinguishing mark upon his person, but with grotesque limbs straddled the sky. A cap of ivy crowned his raked head” (TP 134). And even more intensely: “She sensed approval as she ran the gauntlet, the tall trees watching. Any sign of turning back, of panic, and they would crowd upon her in a choking mass, smothering protest. Branches would become arms, gnarled and knotty, ready to strangle, and the leaves of the higher trees fold in and close like the sudden furling of giant umbrellas” (TP 143). The reader, who is increasingly drawn into this world, shares Deborah’s vision of the “kingdom that lay below,” patiently waiting for the initiate:

It did not become blacker as the pool was penetrated, but paler, more golden-green, and the mud that people told themselves was there was only a defence against strangers. Those who belonged, who knew, went to the source at once, and there were caverns and fountains and rainbow-coloured seas. There were shores of the whitest sand. There was soundless music. (TP 135)

24This paradisiacal vision of “soundless music” is closely associated with the comfort of the mother’s womb, suggestive of Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic chora, as opposed to the everyday world of the symbolic, the Law of the Father, in which “Time was all-important” and in which “the adult reigned supreme” (TP 136).

  • 7 The story is replete with references to Biblical stories (cf. TP 129; 133; 142; 147); the Greek myt (...)

25Accordingly, it is during nighttime that Deborah hopes to find entry into the secret world of the pool, which is why she slips out into the darkness when everyone else is asleep on the first night of her summer vacation. Reaching the pool in the dead of night, after a terrifying walk through the woods, “she had no more fear. The woods had accepted her, and the pool was the final resting place, the doorway, the key” (TP 143). Like Sun in Mansfield’s short story, Deborah, too, is attuned to a world of dreamlike transformations. Being older and well-versed in religious legends, myths and fairy tales,7 her interpretation of this world is even more imaginative and freighted with complex rituals and rites. Accordingly, her solitary night spent by the pool is indeed meant to be nothing less than a rite of passage: “‘I shan’t sleep,’ thought Deborah. ‘I shall just lie awake here all the night and wait for morning, but it will be a kind of introduction to life, like being confirmed” (TP 143). The girl feels at peace, safe and protected as if in her mother’s womb: “The trees were no longer menacing but guardians, and the pool was primeval water, the first, the last” (TP 143). It is at this point that the dream world takes over, but, as there is no perceptible break in the story, the reader can’t be sure whether Deborah has crossed the border of sleep or the border into the secret world—or both: “Then Deborah stood at the wicket-gate, the boundary, and there was a woman with outstretched hand, demanding tickets. ‘Pass through,’ she said when Deborah reached her. ‘We saw you coming.’ The wicket-gate became a turnstile. Deborah pushed against it and there was no resistance, she was through” (TP 143). The woman at the turnstile is reminiscent of Sun’s little grey man—a wise and sympathetic figure, who provides answers to Deborah’s questions, though in an ambivalent and mysterious way familiar from both dreams and fairy tales:

“What is it?” she [Deborah] asked. “Am I really here at last? Is this the bottom of the pool?”
“It could be,” smiled the woman. “There are so many ways. You just happened to choose this one.”
“Why only now, tonight?” asked Deborah. “Why not in the afternoon, when I came to the pool?”
“It’s a trick,” said the woman. “You seize on the moment in time. We were here this afternoon. We’re always here. Our life goes on around you, but nobody knows it. The trick’s easier by night, that’s all.”
“Am I dreaming, then?” asked Deborah.
“No,” said the woman. “This isn’t a dream. And it isn’t death, either. It’s the secret world.” (TP 144)

26But despite this tantalizing invitation, Deborah is not granted entry into the secret world. Even though the woman insists that “this isn’t a dream,” the reader is clearly inclined to assume that the girl has fallen asleep by the pool and is subjected to a sudden, harsh awakening just when she experiences a moment of lucidity, deep insight and happiness amidst the “beating of wings” (TP 144):

“Don’t let me go!” It was a pulse in her ear, and a cry, and she saw the woman at the turnstile put up her hands to hold her. Then there was such darkness, such dragging, terrible darkness, and the beginning of pain all over again, the leaden heart, the tears, the misunderstanding. The voice saying “No!” was her own harsh, worldly voice, and she was staring at the restless trees, black and ominous against the sky. One hand trailed in the water of the pool. (TP 145)

27The woman’s earlier words about “the secret world” seem to confirm Deborah’s formerly vague sense that she has always belonged to that otherworldly place rather than the human, daytime world. There are possible overtones here of fairy legends about changelings from the otherworld, the secret realm of the “little people.” Experiencing “joy […] a surge of feeling […] the invasion of knowledge” (TP 144), Deborah is confronted with her own two-year-old self at the moment of ultimate loss, her mother’s death in childbirth:

“I’m not myself, then, after all,” she thought. “I knew I wasn’t. It was only the task given,” and, looking down, she saw a little child who was blind trying to find her way. Pity seized her. She bent down and put her hands on the child’s eyes, and they opened, and the child was herself at two years old. The incident came back. It was when her mother died and Roger was born. (TP 144)

28The reader learns about Deborah’s deep-seated childhood trauma, the loss of her mother at her younger brother’s birth. In psychological terms, the child’s escape into an alternative secret world/self can now be understood as a coping strategy, helping her deal with the painful loss: “‘It doesn’t matter after all,’ she told the child. ‘You are not lost. You don’t have to go on crying’” (TP 144). Addressing what Jeremy Taylor calls the “wounded child within” (198) may be a first step towards healing. As Taylor elucidates, in dreams, “the decision to come to the rescue of the child-self invariably results in a release of emotional and creative energies in other areas of the dreamer’s waking life” (198). However, facing the memories of her mother’s death is more than the girl can handle on her own; Deborah is cut off from the “child within” and her terrifying dream makes her flee towards the safety of her grandparents’ house. And yet, despite this plausible psychological explanation, the reader cannot help but share Deborah’s doubts after she has reached her grandparents’ “slumbering solid house” (TP 145): “The thing was, though […] which was real? This safety of the house, or the secret world?” (TP 146). The boundaries remain deliberately blurred.

29After her nightly encounter with the secret world of the pool, Deborah seems stuck in the ordinary world. She finds temporary shelter in her grandparents’ house: “The slumbering solid house received her. […]. ‘Don’t take any notice of them,’ it seemed to say, jerking its head—Did a house have a head?—towards the wood beyond. ‘They’ve made no contribution to civilization. I’m man-made and different. This is where you belong, dear child’” (TP 145). Her experiences at the pool seem “unreal” (TP 145) and she even draws the curtains, shutting out the night, “as her grandmother might have done” (TP 145). Her mind is preoccupied with “practical difficulties” (TP 146) and her disillusioned mood lingers on throughout the next day: “Such deception everywhere. Such sour sadness. It was like Adam and Eve being locked out of paradise. The Garden of Eden was no more. Somewhere, very close, the woman at the turnstile waited to let her in, the secret world was all about her, but the key was gone” (TP 147-148). The contrast between the two worlds is reinforced by the onset of a heat-wave, whose dampening effect on the characters is dwelt on in some detail in parts two and three of the text. The heat even seems to extinguish Deborah’s thirst for knowledge: “‘Grandmama says it can’t go on,’ he [Roger] announced. ‘There’ll have to be a storm.’ But why? Why not forever? Why not breathe a spell so that all of them could stay locked and dreaming like the courtiers in the Sleeping Beauty, never knowing, never waking, cobwebs in their hair and on their hands, tendrils imprisoning the house itself?” (TP 151). Deborah even falls asleep during the day, “a thing she never did” (TP 152), which leaves her feeling unwell and heavy-headed.

30The girl’s energy only returns when, at night-time, a thunderstorm wakes her and she has yet another vision of the secret world:

Suddenly the lightning forked again, and standing there, alive yet immobile, was the woman by the turnstile. She stared up at the windows of the house, and Deborah recognized her. The turnstile was there, inviting entry, and already the phantom figures, passing through it, crowded towards the trees beyond the lawn. The secret world was waiting. Through the long day, while the storm was brewing, it had hovered there unseen beyond her reach, but now that night had come, and the thunder with it, the barriers were down. Another crack, mighty in its summons, the turnstile yawned, and the woman with her hand upon it smiled and beckoned. (TP 155)

31The story reaches its climax towards the end of part three, when Deborah follows the silent summons, reaching the pool after an ecstatic run through the woods to catch another glimpse of the woman, “who had set up her turnstile in the middle of the pool, beckoning them once more” (TP 157), and to follow her into the pool’s muddy waters. What follows is a moment of epiphany: Deborah’s eventual realization that the secret world is lost to her, that she has to remain behind in the ‘real’ world: “‘Take me, too,’ cried the child. ‘Don’t leave me behind!’ In her heart was a savage disillusionment. They had broken their promise; they had left her in the world. The pool that claimed her now was not the pool of secrecy, but dank, dark, brackish water choked with scum” (TP 157). This moment of disillusionment ends the liminal phase of Deborah’s passage into adolescence.

  • 8 Deborah’s suspended state between childhood and adolescence may well refer to du Maurier’s sense of (...)
  • 9 Tellingly, at an earlier point in the story, her wasp-slapping grandfather makes “Deborah think of (...)
  • 10 According to du Maurier’s biographer Margaret Forster, Deborah’s adventure was based on the author’ (...)

32In part four of the story, the reader learns that not only has Deborah been saved from the pool but the ‘real’ world has ultimately triumphed; the secret world is lost to Deborah for good, her “passage is consummated” (Turner 235). Roger informs his sister that his grandfather is going to have the pool fenced round: “‘A proper fence, then nothing can ever happen. But barrel-loads of shingle tipped in it first. Then it won’t be a pool, but just a dewpond. Dewponds aren’t dangerous’” (TP 157). After Deborah’s vivid descriptions of the secret world and its messengers, the reader is torn between sharing her “sorrow” (TP 158) at the loss of a magic place that may or may not have existed and relief at seeing the danger averted. The overall tone of the very short fourth section of the story, however, is kept deliberately matter-of-fact and conveys a sobering and bleak atmosphere, suggesting that “the intense transformative power of [Deborah’s] own imagination” (McGrath n. pag.) may indeed be lost.8 Her nightly excursions are given a rational explanation by the household’s male members though Deborah weakly tries to resist this approach: “‘I did not walk in my sleep,’ said Deborah. ‘Grandpapa said you must have done,’ said Roger” (TP 159). Deborah, so the story suggests, has entered the realm of patriarchal authority, in which her place will from now on be prescribed, her life as a woman mapped out for her. In contrast, the secret world suggested a matriarchal realm, as indicated by the woman at the turnstile, references to a pagan goddess (cf. TP 133) as well as to the primal waters of the pool evoking the womb and its amniotic fluid.9 Deborah has experienced her personal fall from grace, which is every young girl’s destiny, and which can’t be named. The servant Agnes’ well-meant question: “‘Have you got a pain? It’s usual, the first time’” (TP 159) is answered with a curt ‘No’ on Deborah’s part: “What had happened to her was personal. They had prepared her for it at school, but nevertheless it was a shock, not to be discussed with Agnes” (TP 158). Her first period leaves Deborah excluded from the paradisiacal secret world, the realm of childhood and imagination, which she has to exchange for “the heaviness of knowledge” and “a strange, deep sorrow” (TP 158). Du Maurier’s vision of a girl’s coming-of-age is as bleak as the “flat and dull […] empty sky” (TP 158) which Deborah can glimpse through her bedroom window. Her certain knowledge is that she has “lost the key” and that “[t]he hidden world, like ripples in the pool soon to be filled in and fenced, was out of her reach for ever” (TP 158).10

33Just like Sun, who witnesses the destruction of his perfect childhood world as symbolized by the little house, helplessly watching the nut-made door handle disappear into his sister’s mouth, Deborah experiences the loss of the key to childhood as a painful awakening. Even though her story is significantly darker and given added momentum by her rite of passage into puberty, the disillusionment of a child’s first initiation into an adult world devoid of imagination, magic and wonder is depicted in strikingly similar terms. At the heart of both stories is the child’s unique perspective that allows for, and gives credibility to, the blurring of inside/outside and dream/wake boundaries. The subjectively experienced world of imagination and dream as depicted in both stories opens up liminal spaces in which emotional concerns and social critique can be expressed by means of dreamlike images and projections. Thus, Sun dreams up a friendly, grey-haired stranger who reflects his wishes and provides him with the sense of comfort and understanding his ordinary waking environment lacks. The little grey man thus provides an example of what Mageo refers to as “counteridentities—identities that go against the grain of established hegemonies” (38). The little ice-pudding house metaphorically expresses Sun’s longing for a happy family life as well as the futility of this wish as indicated by the inevitable destruction of the house at the end of the story. Likewise, Deborah’s imaginative perception of the inanimate world, and the secret world of the pool in particular, highlights the lack of emotional and maternal sustenance provided by her social environment, be it the dreaded boarding school or the world of her grandparents’ rigid and unimaginative everyday routines. It is through images such as the little grey man or the mysterious pool, characteristic of both dreams and short stories, that these emotional states and fleeting moments of insight can be captured and metaphorically expressed. By blurring the boundaries between dreaming and waking these metaphors have an even stronger impact on our perception and potential reimagining of the waking realities reflected in the stories. Ultimately, then, both Mansfield’s “Sun and Moon” and du Maurier’s “The Pool” testify to the intricate ways in which short stories and dreams are interconnected and suited to the articulation of alternative and potentially disruptive ways of looking at the world. Both also remind us to pay attention to and take seriously a child’s inner world of imagination whose transformative power and potential insight we ignore at our own peril.

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Du Maurier, Daphne. “The Pool.” 1959. The Blue Lenses and Other Stories. London: Penguin, 1988. 128-58. Print.

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Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1997. Print.

Dunn, Jane. Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing. London: HarperPress, 2013. Print.

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1 For a more in-depth discussion of similarities between dreaming and literary genres cf. Schrage-Früh 166-205.

2 Jeffrey Myers, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (London, 1978); Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (London, 1987).

3 Interestingly, preschool children have been found to experience nightmares in which “the predominant themes were the danger of the child’s being bitten, devoured, and chased” (Mack 23).

4 The “little grey man” is a popular character in various fairy tales, for instance in the Grimm Brothers’ “The Golden Goose,” where he functions as disguised helper. An even earlier story by Sophie Albrecht, titled “Graumännchen oder die Burg Rabenbühl [The Little Grey Man or the Castle Rabenbühl]” (1799), can be considered as one of the predecessors of the more famous Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “Rumpelstilskin.”

5 In her memoir Growing Pains, du Maurier comments on visiting Mansfield’s grave in Paris in her early twenties and notes: “I knew by now that she had lived so near to us at Cannon Hall, and watched us as children, and I wondered if, now dead, she understood how much her stories meant to me, and how dearly I wished I could write as well as she had done” (147).

6 In a letter to Oriel Malet, dating from March 1958, du Maurier herself writes: “My own recurrent dreams are so often about an overwhelming high tide. Sometimes I am trying to swim and can only just keep afloat, and I do not know if this is the tide of my emotions, which threatens to drown me from time to time, or just a hint that I get overwhelmed by my own tidal C. of L. [Change of Life] which makes me unable to settle to London. It could mean both. I don’t have any other C. of L. symptoms, but just no Robert [i.e. period] now for a year. Only the high-tide dream is rather strange, don’t you think, and must mean that Something keeps recurring, and threatens to overwhelm me! Perhaps my own subconscious?” (Letters from Menabilly 107).

7 The story is replete with references to Biblical stories (cf. TP 129; 133; 142; 147); the Greek myth of Icarus (cf. TP 150) and the Titans (cf. TP 156); and fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty (cf. TP 151).

8 Deborah’s suspended state between childhood and adolescence may well refer to du Maurier’s sense of herself as harbouring multiple identities, including what she called her “disembodied self” or “boy-in-the-box.” In a letter to Ellen Doubleday, she describes her own memories of growing up to be a girl in terms that vividly echo Deborah’s experience: “And then the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever. D. du M. wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad, but when she found Menabilly and lived in it alone, she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see…” (Du Maurier qtd. in Forster 222). According to Horner and Zlosnik, du Maurier came to identify “her writing persona as having sprung from a repressed ‘No. 2’ masculine side” (6).

9 Tellingly, at an earlier point in the story, her wasp-slapping grandfather makes “Deborah think of Jehovah” (TP 153).

10 According to du Maurier’s biographer Margaret Forster, Deborah’s adventure was based on the author’s own, very similar experience. One summer du Maurier spent several nights sleeping out in the garden of Menabilly, her Cornish estate, and on one occasion woke up convinced that “someone was there—not a real person, but not a ghost. She sensed all around her another time and another world—it was thrilling but also distressing, and afterwards she went into the house and slept. When she woke up, she found she was menstruating after months of not doing so and of believing she was through the menopause. The whole atmosphere of ‘The Pool’ was an attempt to recapture what she felt had been a psychic experience” (301).

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Michaela Schrage-Früh, « Blurring the Boundaries: Dreaming Children in Katherine Mansfield's "Sun and Moon" and Daphne du Maurier's "The Pool" »Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 15-36.

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Michaela Schrage-Früh, « Blurring the Boundaries: Dreaming Children in Katherine Mansfield's "Sun and Moon" and Daphne du Maurier's "The Pool" »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL :

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Michaela Schrage-Früh

Michaela Schrage-Früh is a lecturer in English at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz (Germany). Since 2012 she has been on leave to teach German literature and culture at the University of Limerick (Ireland). She is the author of Emerging Identities: Myth, Nation and Gender in the Poetry of Eavan Boland, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian (WVT, 2004) and co-editor of Medbh McGuckian, The Unfixed Horizon: New Selected Poems (Salem-Winston: Wake Forest UP, 2015). She has published numerous articles on contemporary literature in peer-reviewed journals and essay collections.

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