Romantic Archetypes in Peppermints in the Parlor

By Brackett, Virginia | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2001 | Go to article overview

Romantic Archetypes in Peppermints in the Parlor

Brackett, Virginia, Mosaic (Winnipeg)

This analysis of romantic archetypes in Wallace's Peppermints in the Parlor draws from Carl lung, Northrop Frye, and Joseph Campbell while also reflecting upon the developmental theories of Jean Piaget, Alleen Pace Nilsen, and Kenneth L. Donelson. It argues that, although unaware of the origin of its metaphors, children enjoy mythologically based literature.

The romantic quest has long yielded figures, themes, and plots that authors may employ as literary archetypes in the construction of fiction for all ages. These archetypes serve children's literature particularly well, in that readers too young to categorize characters much beyond good and evil may easily follow plot lines containing clearly defined heroes and villains. The large majority of elementary-school-aged children would fall into this group. According to Jean Piaget's popular model, these children could be labelled "concrete operational thinkers," who can engage in classification and arrangement of a series of objects (Huck, Helper, and Hickman 65). Romantic quest archetypes may provide metaphors for such a straightforward classification of people and actions. As Northrop Frye notes, "Romance avoids the ambiguities of ordinary life, where everything is a mixture of good and bad, and where it is difficult to take sides or believe that people are consistent patterns of virtue or vice" (Secular 50). Fo r Frye, the popularity of the various incarnations of romance in literature "has much to do with its simplifying of moral facts" (50). Barbara Brooks Wallace exhibits this simplification in creating her archetype-laden mystery for children between the ages of eight and twelve, Peppermints in the Parlor. Wallace offers readers a skillfully rendered update of the romantic quest with a female as hero; a quest that is replete with prototypical imagery and metaphor and that proves the applicability to children's literature of Frye's theory of the imagination as "the constructive power of the mind, the power of building unities out of units." Those "units are metaphors, [...] images connected primarily with each other rather than separately with the outer world" (Secular 36).

Such connections within a story eliminate challenges to understanding from the exterior "real world" at a time of life crucial to the development of self-identity and acculturation on the part of a young reader. Frye's concept of literary archetypes, of course, remains grounded in the psychology of Carl G. Jung, while Jung complemented his own theories with ideas as old as Cicero and Pliny. Together, these theories explain images shared by individuals the world over that constitute myths and simultaneously appear as what seem to be the "products of unconscious origin" (qtd. in Campbell 19), often realized in the human dream state. Frye explains the individual myths constituted by such archetypes as coalescing to form a mythology revealing cultural concerns while transmitting "a legacy of shared allusion to that culture." He goes on to claim that "the characters and plots of mythical poets have the resonance of social acceptance about them, and they carry an authority that no writer can command who is merely being what we call 'creative"' (Secular 9). Mythology may call attention to social concerns in a way that non-mythologically based literature cannot. Young readers, still intent upon celebrating their knowledge of the difference between good and evil, may especially enjoy mythologically based literature with no clue about the exact origin of its metaphors.

Wallace begins her tale with the arrival by train in San Francisco of Emily, the story's heroine, from a faraway place. Replacing the rosy-coloured fingers of Ulysses's dawn are "shreds of fog, like pale fingers" that brush against windows. Those windows cast a reflection of Emily that "had a pale and unreal look, as if it were the ghost of a young girl outside the train trying to break in" (3). Thus, from its first paragraphs, Wallace's tale echoes the imagery and theme inherent to the classic romantic quest, most significantly the theme of the search for self-identity on the hero's part.

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