Friday, May 14, 2010

Mary Poppins as Subversive Mother Figure

In celebration of my PhD—to be officially finished in May—my mother is taking my daughter and me to New York City for a short vacation early in the summer. In planning out the trip, we quickly settled on Disney’s Mary Poppins as the Broadway show that would best appeal to all three of us, so we bought tickets to see the show at the New Amsterdam Theatre during our visit in June. Soon after purchasing the tickets, I decided to institute an entire Mary Poppins unit at my house in order to prepare my seven-year-old for the Broadway event. Taegan and I have therefore been working through the 1930s series by PL Travers, and we have big plans to watch the 1964 Disney movie together next weekend and subsequently download the soundtrack to her iPod. We finished the first book in the series, the 1934 Mary Poppins, yesterday evening.

Like the film of the same title, with which most of us are probably more familiar, Travers’s novel features an unconventional—even supernatural—nanny who appears out of nowhere to care for the Banks children “till the wind changes” (14). Even more than in the movie, though, in the book, Mary Poppins leads the children through one mystical adventure after another, introducing them in each chapter to new fantastical and mythical figures. In “Bad Tuesday,” for instance, Mary Poppins and the four children (the book includes a set of one-year-old twins in addition to Jane and Michael, the two Banks children whom we meet in the film) use a magical compass to journey “round the world and back in a minute” (98), meeting a polar bear, a macaw, a panda, and a mother-daughter pair of dolphins, all who seem already fully acquainted with the remarkable Mary Poppins. In “Full Moon,” Jane and Michael find themselves at the zoo in the middle of the night, in the midst of a carnivalesque scene in which human beings are imprisoned in cages and animals are walking freely about as spectators. They go on to participate in an elaborate “Great Chain” ceremony involving a giant king cobra and Mary Poppins herself—who is unveiled as the snake’s “first cousin once removed—on the mother’s side” (169)—before returning safely home to the Banks nursery.

Overall, I’m surprised to find in Travers’s extraordinary nanny not only a predecessor to the currently trendy field of animal studies and a challenge to the early-twentieth-century, British social order, but also, and most interestingly to me, a highly subversive mother figure. Mary Poppins seems to exist at the threshold between childhood and adulthood, imagination and reason, even—in Kristevan terms—the semiotic and the symbolic. Certainly, she teaches Jane and Michael to function within the paternal order—briskly warning them to stop talking “nonsense” when they inquire the next morning about their midnight jaunt with her to the zoo (177)—at the same time that she validates—and even nurtures—their childlike imaginativeness by including the children on the very same supernatural adventures that she denies having ever experienced after they are past. In this way, Mary Poppins demonstrates the possibility of retaining access to the semiotic beyond childhood, of breaking free of the restraints of the symbolic, if only periodically and while still mostly meeting the dictates of the paternal order. Instead of serving as a maternal vehicle to transport the children from the pre-lingual shores of the semiotic to the ordered banks of the paternal symbolic, then, Mary Poppins (being a nanny and therefore perhaps unhindered by the actual maternal body which literally and necessarily acts as a passageway from the pre-symbolic to a world ordered by language) teaches the children to straddle the gulf between the two, to remain in both worlds indefinitely.

Even more than access to the pre-lingual freedom of the semiotic, Mary Poppins also works to instill in the children a sense of oneness with the world—indeed, similar to the oneness that an infant experiences with his mother in the semiotic realm—that she seems to hope will last them throughout their lives. In Mary Poppins’s world, babies are born with the ability to communicate with animals and even the sun and wind and trees. The twins, John and Barbara, routinely hold lengthy conversations with the starling that perches on nursery window, until they get their first teeth—a painful process that seems to begin their initiation into the paternal order—at which time they lose their ability to speak to him and begin to make human sounds instead. As the starling points out, it seems that Mary Poppins is the “Great Exception” (142), the only adult who continues to speak the language of the earth. Although she doesn’t seem able (or willing) to stop the infants’ passage from the perfect oneness of babyhood to the individualistic development of early childhood, her adventures with the older children demonstrate her efforts to aid in their re-connection with their earthly surroundings. The children witness in “Mrs. Corry,” for example, Mary Poppins’s transformation of the wax-paper stars that came with their gingerbread treats into real stars in the night sky. Later, in a message that seems to sum up their nanny’s overriding philosophy, the children are instructed by Mary Poppin’s cousin, the cobra, “We are all made of the same stuff, remember, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us—the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star—we are all one, all moving to the same end. Remember that when you no longer remember me” (174-75). Thus, although Mary Poppins seems to accept that the children will grow up and even perhaps banish their supernatural experiences with her to the realm of fantasy, she hopes to teach them to remember their connections with all worldly and otherworldly things, animals and elements, magic and imagination.

In this way, this nanny who swoops into the Banks household and takes on the task of raising its four children—a woman who seems so effortlessly to put the house in order; who easily commands the respect of its master and mistress, the affection of its staff, and the obedience of its children; who makes the most sensible demands of Jane and Michael, such as, “And don’t bite your Bus ticket!” (47), or, “Eat your porridge, please, or you will have no buttered toast” (177)—also teaches the Banks children to see magic in everyday life and to perceive all things as connected and, therefore, deeply undermines the paternalistic hierarchy that she appears to uphold.

Taegan, being seven and well beyond the age when she could speak with the wind and birds, is sensible in her reaction to Mary Poppins. When I asked her what she thought of the zoo scene, for example, she replied with a deprecating laugh, “It’s just weird, Mom.” But I suspect that Mary Poppins continues to reach even the most reasonable of children through the pages of this book, for Taegan can’t wait to start Mary Poppins Comes Back.

Bibliographic Note: Sadly, very little has been written on the Travers version of the Mary Poppins story. For further discussion of Travers’s use of Bakhtinian carnival, see Catherine L. Elick. For a compelling reading of Mary Poppins as an unconventional mother figure—one who exists as a whole person instead of merely a source of nurturance for the children—see Lois Rauch Gibson.

Works Cited

Gibson, Lois Rauch. “Beyond the Apron: Archetypes, Stereotypes, and Alternative Portrayals of Mothers in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13.4 (1988): 177-81.

Elick, Catherine L. “Animal Carnivals: A Bakhtinian Reading of CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew and PL Travers’s Mary Poppins.” Style 35.3 (2001): 454-71.

Travers, PL. Mary Poppins. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. [1934]

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