A Picnic of Built Worlds and Sickening Conflicts

In the story “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian, two fairies, Oberon and Titania, find themselves in a different world, of having to deal with the alien situation of mortal life and medicine at the hospital. After one of their periodic arguments, Oberon gifted his wife a human child, which he stole from an apartment near their home under a hill in Buena Vista Park. As their changeling, named Boy, grew up, he developed leukemia and falls ill. As fairies, Oberon and Titania, are immortal and unaware of human mortality, and refuse to accept that their child is sick. Eventually, Titania agrees to take him to the hospital and see why he’s being acting so different. There, Dr. Blork and Dr. Beadle tells them Boy has leukemia and will have to undergo several years of procedures. Throughout their stay, the fairies decorate their child’s room, including the addition of Beastie, his blanket who acts like a “dog” companion, provide him a tiny feast when the “poison” makes him grow desperately hungry, and at one point become so helpless, Oberon suggests the cancer was brought upon by his homesickness. Each day, there’s bad news followed by good news, until Boy’s leukemia goes away, but only for a small period of time. Shortly after, his health continues to deteriorate, and with everyday that passes, the doctors become more unable to help. The boy dies, after months of struggling, leaving a hole in Titania and Oberon’s hearts, who have learned to love him as their own. When the baby first arrived to their home, Titania used to see him as a pet who’d follow her around, but as the story progressed, develops feelings for him by choice, because it’s hinted that fairies always have the final say. As Titania and Oberon request help from their other fairies to build a bier, they leave the hospital without disguise and reach their home under the hill, unaware of what to do with Boy’s body. At last, Oberon speaks and pronounces Beastie has also died, but from its own grief.

Shelby

The first element tracked is conflict. The acute conflict, that the boy has cancer, in the story is taken differently by both sides, faeries and hospital staff. The faeries on one hand, do not quite get that the boy has a critical illness that can (and will) take his life. They are not used to illnesses such as cancer because they live in an entirely different world than the real world.

“A boy should not be sick,” she said suddenly to Dr. Blork, cutting him off as he was beginning to describe some of the side effects of the treatment they were proposing. “A boy should play—that is his whole purpose.”

This paragraph shows how the faeries interpret the illness as something odd and, most importantly temporary.

[Oberon] was smiling, and crying into his lovely beard. ‘Can you cure it?’

This is another example of how the faeries can’t get a grasp on the human world where the diseases cannot be cured simply and the patients must be hurt to get better.

On the other hand, the doctors live in a world where they experience children getting life-threatening diseases like cancer often. They are experienced in how they explain the bad news to the parents. As Oberon explains,

The doctors called the good news good news, but for the bad news they always found another name. Dr. Blork would say that they had taken a little detour on the way to recovery, or that they had encountered a minor disappointment; rarely, when things really took a turn for the worse, he’d admit that the news was, if not bad, then not very good.

The doctors understand how difficult the situation is for the parents and how serious the situation is. Unlike the faeries, who don’t understand how serious the boy’s illness is, the doctors know that they boy may not stand a chance against the illness. Titania and Oberon both think for most of the story that the boy will get better and they’ll get to leave the human world and return to the faery world.

The chronic tension, that Titania is afraid that the boy’s mother will take him back, is only addressed by one set of characters, the faeries. It is addressed from when it is first explained how the faeries got the boy.

The boy had been one of those gifts, brought home to the hill, stolen from his crib in the dark of the night and presented to her by dawn.

This first sentence doesn’t fully explain Titania’s fear that the boy will be taken though. It is addressed through a flashback about the time the boy drank wine and slept underneath the cupboard. “She began to suspect that his mortal mother had stolen him back, and without even doing her the courtesy of returning the hobgoblin that had been left in his place.” This acute tension is important to the chronic tension because it shows how terrified Titania is that the boy will leave her and she will be left without him. The chronic tension almost foreshadows what will end up happening to the boy at the end of the story and how Titania will be left alone.

The difference in how the conflict is interpreted helps characterize the faeries. It helps build their world and show the differences between the human world and their world. It also shows how Titania and Oberon do not come into the human world with their changeling often. This conflict that is interpreted in different ways is an interesting choice for the author to select. Of course, this conflict allows an interesting plot to arise, about how people who are unfamiliar to a situation react differently from others. But the difficult part about the author deciding on this acute conflict in particular is that he has to write two sets of characters who have entirely different experiences. The faeries are focused on more in the story than the doctors, but the doctors are important to the story nonetheless. The author had to really dive into the characters’ mindset and establish their thought processes before writing so that he kept the character’s thoughts consistent. Before reading this story, I had never seen a conflict that ties so much into characterization, but I would love to experiment with this idea in future writings.

The next technique tracked is scene versus summary. In “A Tiny Feast,” sometimes scenes are used, giving great details into what is happening, and other times the author summarizes parts of the story instead of describing them in detail. The story starts off right with summary,

It took them both a long time to realize the boy was sick.

The author doesn’t go into detail about how Titania and Oberon realized that the boy was sick, but rather just summarizes that they did so that the story to be told can begin. Next, summary is used again to tell about the mortal lovers that the faeries had taken, but it is not described in detail, rather talked about in one sentence. Later on page one, summary is used yet again to say that they doctors were describing how the boy was sick. Only a few lines are told about what the doctors are actually saying, and the information is mostly portrayed through a few sentences summarizing the conversation and briefing. This technique is used mostly through the story until the last meeting with the doctors before the boy dies. But this point ties more into point of view, which we’ll talk about later, so let’s move on to when the scenes are told through play by play.

The first big scene that is told retells the first time that Titania was watching the boy and it is described in much detail. Another time scene is used to describe when Oberon tries the poison to tell the boy how it is to ease his nerves. This is told very straight forward, detailing every part of this experience and not summarizing much of it. The time that the faeries prepare cheese for the boy and the time that the faeries assemble the tiny feast for the boy. Most of the important exchanges with the boy are told through scene, until the end of the story once the boy had passed away.

The faeries walking down the hospital hallways is told through scene, but by the time they reach the end of their march and Oberon announces that Beastie died from grief, the writing is summarized. Why does the author make this switch? I found one line that explains this. When Titania is walking with the boy down the hospital hallways, she thinks,

…there is no past and no future, she told herself. We have been here forever and we will be here forever.

This line explains why some of the story is told through scene and some through summary. Most of Titania and Oberon’s past together without the boy is told through summary, such as

…they had been quarrelling for as long as they had been in love. She forgot the quarrels as soon as they were resolved, but the gifts her husband brought her to reconcile—even when she was at fault—she never forgot.

and

Oberon had trained previous changelings to be pages or attendants for her, and they had learned, even as young children, to brush her hair in just the way that she liked.

But once the boy enters their lives, the scenes are told in scene, such as

For a while she lay on her back, watching the stars come out upon the ceiling of her grotto, listening to the little snores.

And most of the scenes that take place in the hospital with the boy are told in scene,

Titania protested, and threatened to get the nurse, and even held the call button in her hand, almost pressing it while the boy shoved steak into his mouth and Oberon laughed.

The scenes in the hospital take place in scene because Titania and Oberon are living in a place in time where there “is no past or future” and this seems like their entire life, their past life told as just memories because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Their life is preoccupied by caring for the boy, so their past life is left in the past.

discussion questions:

  1. Why does the author choose to describe how Titania heals the other patients of the hospital through summary as opposed to scene? Does the author continue or break the pattern that he has created with summary vs. scene? How?
  2. How does the author show who the conflict is affecting?

Valentina

The first technique I tracked is the use of symbolism in Beastie and the actual tiny feast  which appear very minorly in the story, but have strong connections to it.

From the beginning of the story, at the hospital, Titania mentions a creature blanket that accompanies Boy and acts like a dog, constantly trying to protect people and stays loyal to its “owner”.

And the bedspread was no ordinary blanket but the boy’s own dear Beastie, a flat headless creature of soft fur that loved him like a dog and tried to follow him out of the room whenever they took him away for some new test or procedure.

Generally, dogs are great pets and comfort their owners when they need it, just as Beastie acts with Boy. Titania seems to have made Beastie out of a spell while remodeling the “ugly” hospital room, to help Boy through his procedures and has become part of his identity, much like a dog becomes part of its owner’s life.

Beastie represents what Titania and Oberon thought of the boy, the love they grew to have for him and the emotions they hide from Boy, while at the hospital.  At first, when Boy arrived at their home under the hill as a baby, Titania wasn’t very fond of him and acted as if he was an object or a pet, who she treated like Boy’s beastie, not needing much affection.

The child grew, and changed, and became ever more delightful to her, and she imagined that they could go on forever like that, that he would always be her favorite thing. Maybe it would have been better if he had stayed her favorite thing—a toy and not a son—because now he would just be a broken toy.

As the story continues, it can be seen that part of why she refused to accept him at the beginning was the fear of separation or that something like this would happen, and she would have to deal with a loved one’s suffering. She didn’t expect much of the boy from her refusing to accept him, but as he grows up and calls her “mama”, realizes he deserves the attention any other of her changelings have gotten.

Beastie doesn’t show up much in the story, but is an active “character” in the last lines. At the end, Oberon and Titania are in shock due to Boy’s death and don’t know what to do with his body. Oberon cries a lot while watching the boy suffer in between treatments, and his death lightens the burden, but it’s only because they choose not to express their sorrow as parents.

They were all looking to Titania to speak, but it was Oberon who finally broke the silence, announcing from the back of the room that the Beastie had died of its grief.

By saying it was Beastie who died, who represented Boy’s identity, Oberon is trying to announce the reality of Boy’s death, but not being able to because of the connections they’ve grown to have with him.

Being titled “A Tiny Feast,” I figured there’d have to be some significant meaning behind just eating a lot of tiny food. As can be seen in the story, Boy’s cancer would improve and then worsen to the point where Dr. Blork and Dr. Beadle, began injecting the boy in his thigh to make the “evil” white blood cells go away.  After these treatments, Boy grew hungry, making Oberon angry and Titania sad to see her child suffering so much, which is when they began contemplating feeding him “real” food, not thebag of honey-colored liquid the nurses connected to his IV.

“It’s a crime,” Oberon said. “Damn the triglycerides, the boy is hungry!” The nurses had hung up a bag of liquid food for him, honey-colored liquid that went directly into his veins…. He fed the boy a bun, and a steak, and a crumpled cream puff, pulling each piece of food from his pocket with a flourish.

Although Oberon wasn’t supposed to feed him, he does so out of desperation. Then, after Boy begs Titania, so much that she feels forced to help him escape his misery, she agrees to give him a “little feast.”

“Mama, please,” he said all day, “just one little feast. I won’t ask again, I promise.” Oberon was silent, and left the room eventually, once again crying his useless tears, and Titania told the boy again that he would only become sick if he ate.

“All right, love,” she said, “just one bite.”

The tiny feast, including when the fairies are sent to make Boy a grilled cheese sandwich, represent Titania and Oberon’s parental oblivion. They just want the best for their changeling, and are unaware of the consequences making Boy temporarily happy will have in the long run. As parents, it makes it very hard to watch their child suffering and want to do everything possible to help him, especially because they don’t know trying to make Boy happy will actually hurt him more. As fairies, being immortal creatures, they’ve never had to face the danger of death and have always had a very optimistic life, since everything they want can easily be done with a spell or their manipulative ways, having fellow fairies do certain things for them. Since Titania and Oberon have never been really stuck when making a decision, it can be understood that it’s part of their nature to be impulsive and not think about the consequences (because they can always be fixed!).

Another time when Titania and Oberon seem oblivious to what the future has to bring, is when Titania begins referring to the boy as a “terrible gift”.

“What a terrible gift you have given me,” she said to her husband.

As mentioned in the story, Boy was a gift of reconciliation after a fight the fairies had, from Oberon. From this pattern of oblivion, it’s emphasized how little they think of the future at moments when they do something, such a stealing a baby, and not familiar with the possibility of a mortal developing such a horrible illness. Titania doesn’t say Boy is a terrible gift because she doesn’t like the boy, but more because of the pain his cancer has brought and slight anger at the recognition that he may die from it. Oberon just wanted to make his wife happy, and clearly didn’t think a gift with good intentions could have such a catastrophic outcome.

The second technique I tracked is the world building aspect of this story, including the similarities and, mainly, the  differences portrayed between the human and fairy worlds. Chris Adrian really used worldbuilding throughout the whole story to establish his two settings and emphasize the fairies’ behavior in a very realistic, human situation. Titania and Oberon are fairies, immortal creatures who live in a home under the hill. Boy is their changeling, a human who was stolen by Oberon after a fight (as I’ve mentioned before). As we know, humans are mortals and don’t have the sort of magical power fairies in the story do, to create an alter ego and easily use spells to deceive their true appearance.

The first thing that caught my attention and something different to what humans are “used” to, is that Titania and Oberon called their child Boy because they don’t have another name for him, and he, too, responds to many names. In the human world, parents are expected to give their child a set name when they’re born and that’s what they often grow up responding to. Although, as they grow up are given more freedom to choose what they want to be called, as perhaps Titania and Oberon had in mind when not giving Boy a certain name.

They called back, “Hello, Brad!” or “Hello, Brian!” or “Hello, Billy!” since he answered to all those names. People all heard something different when they asked his name and Titania replied, “Boy.”

Fairies are used to change, from identities to settings and decorations because they have the facilitated power of spells and their size enables them to do so, but humans are usually not prone to like change, we prefer to remain with what we know. By not giving him a set name, we get to see the fairies’ fickle nature and acceptance to change.

Fairies also seem to have everything their way, by how Titania and Oberon treat the doctors and nurses and what they think of their surroundings in a human world. When they find out Boy has Leukemia, they’re very reluctant to accept this, no matter how much they tolerate change in other circumstances, because they’ve never had to deal with the thought of death (that’s never going to happen to them!) and expect the doctors to do their “mortal thing” and make Boy’s health improve.

“A boy should not be sick,” she said suddenly to Dr. Blork, cutting him off as he was beginning to describe some of the side effects of the treatment they were proposing. “A boy should play—that is his whole purpose.”

“You will do your mortal thing,” she said sadly. “I know all I need to know.”

Both Titania and Oberon have different ideas of what children are supposed to be and do, but certainly being sick and different to their other changelings is not it.  Living in another world, their society operates completely different from humans, and the morals their society raises them with. In the fairy world, children seem to be little “adults” with the same capacities as a grown fairy, and they’re unaware that with Boy, they’re going to have to change this around, for humans learn by imitating what their guardians do.

He was never a very useful changeling.

But the boy only hit her when she presented him with the brush, and instead she found herself brushing his hair.

When the story first transitions to the hospital, we learn that Titania and Oberon have a spell on themselves to make them appear as if they were normal humans, Titania a hairdresser named Trudy and Oberon the owner of an organic orchard named Bob. This makes the doctors think they’re “normal” and therefore understand how hospitals work and have at least heard of cancer, as we in the human world have. Additionally, Titania is very disappointed in how ugly the hospital room is and accommodates it to look nicer.

She saw paper stars hanging from the ceiling, and cards and posters on the wall, and a homey bedspread upon the mattress, but faeries had come to carpet the room with grass, to pave the walls with stone and set them with jewels, and to blow a cover of clouds to hide the horrible suspended ceiling.

She has a spell on the room to make it more like their home under the hill, and different perspectives of hospital medicines, such as referring to the boy’s medicine as “poison”, for it is what they’re used to when thinking of mortals and sickness. Even though fairies are very volatile beings, like I said before, there are some ways in which they are just like us and prefer to remain close to home (what they know), like remodeling the room to their taste, referring to human items as they would in their world and remembering names that are closely related to “fairy” names, such as the doctor’s names.

Even though Titania and Oberon are from another world and don’t comprehend other worlds as well, they being to feel the paternal love a “normal” human would and having the desire for the success of their child, which is something humans can certainly relate to (maybe not us yet, but it’s seen in other people).

“More than you do, and more than you’ll ever understand. You like to see him undone and ailing, but I can’t bear to look at him like that.”

 The sort of love they develop from a mortal creature brings with it the pain of the possibility of death, which ends up happening to Boy, and pain in watching the suffering of a loved one.

What can one take from this story?

Personally, what I want to take away from this story, is the incorporation of a fantastical element in a very realistic situation. This is one of my favorite things about the story and I think the way in which Chris Adrian built a fairy world and introduced a human world into it to portray the differences between each one really enhanced the story for me. I also liked the connections he used between both worlds, and how despite the many clear differences, there’s also similarities that humans can connect to and understand. He was able to build another world, one which he doesn’t know much about (i’d think), and still communicate a story that’s understandable to us.

discussion questions:

  1. How does author include the setting to add tension? how does this setting help to show the differences between the fairy and human worlds?
  2. Whose story does it seem to be? who shows a more prominent contrast between the two worlds?

Mariah

The first technique I looked at was point of view. The way Adrian writes point of view in this story is interesting because he changes it quite a bit, but makes it work by directly showing who’s speaking each time. It always starts off with a name, or a designated pronoun (example, “she” could reference to Titania) for a character to show who exactly is speaking. In my opinion, I think at least more than half of the story is shown through Titania, so I really focused on her. I understood her the most and could really interpret her feelings. For example, every time Oberon’s feelings were interpreted as sad, Titania would always have a say about his feelings afterwards, calling them pitiful or something among the lines of ugly (which is humorous in its own way). Another reason why I think the story is being interpreted mainly through Titania is because Adrian always portrayed a clear picture of how she felt or her reactions whenever they get updated on the boy’s health or other major things about the boy popped up. It’s unmistakable that her feelings are negative towards the whole time during the situation since she’s still figuring out how she feelings towards the boy.

Titania was the only one among them ever to have ridden on a roller coaster, but she didn’t offer up the experience as an analogy, because it seemed insufficient to describe a process that to her felt less like a violent unpredictable ride than like someone ripping your heart out one day and then stuffing it back in your chest the next.

Titania’s mixed feelings about the boy can definitely be understood. She’s never had a gift/changeling/page like the boy that has impacted her like this. The barrier that was supposed to be between them was broken, and instead of the boy serving him she basically took care, served, and loved him instead. She was reluctant at first, but later warmed up to him as he was growing up. So, given, when someone who she truly feels for for the first time gets sick, and no less a should-be servant, her heart is confused on how to feel and is deciding whether to just discard the boy completely or to keep feeling for him as she had done before.

Another clear representation of her feelings can be seen here, her way of looking at things has changed all because of the boy, and she’s still getting used to that:

“I like to take the long view of things,” Titania said in response, and that had been true as a rule all through her long, long life. But lately her long view had contracted. Even without looking ahead into the uncertain future, she always found something to worry about.

Adrian lets us interpret what Titania was like before the boy got sick, and even her life before she had the boy. She is defined a strong and courageous woman who doesn’t let anyone change her mind except her own intellect. She had a sturdy mindset on how to feel so that no one could change this personality of hers, and we get the feel that nothing could change that, even something major. But then the boy comes along, and she basically falls for him like he was her own son. This mindset starts to falter after learning he has cancer, and we can only guess what happens to her mindset when the boy dies completely since we only get a short glimpse of what their life will be like afterwards.

The second technique I looked at was flashbacks and clarified emotions towards the boy. As stated earlier, and as seen many times in the story, everyone is affected towards the boy’s sick and dangerous situation. They have to adjust to mortal sickness, and can only rely on other mortal doctor’s treatments (which they refer to as poisons) to make him better. We can tell that Titania just wants the boy to get better by mortal help, and Oberon wants to do anything for the boy to make him feel good in his current state since his heart has been changed on how he previously felt about the boy. I think this is the reason why Oberon feeds the boy even after being instructed by mortals to not do so. He just wants to help the boy feel happy since he can’t bare for him being sad. When the boy is sad and he cannot do anything to help it, he runs off and cries, and Titania looks down upon this.

Oberon began to cry, of course. He was always crying these days, and it seemed rather showy to Titania, who thought she suffered more deeply in her silence than he did in his sobs.

This ties in a bit with Titania’s point of view, but at the same time clearly expresses Oberon’s. The ‘these days’ in this quote implies that Oberon probably usually doesn’t cry very much. The boy’s state has affected him so much that sobbing or showing his emotions through tears or sadness has now become the norm. Titania’s reaction to this change? She doesn’t like it one bit, and thinks she suffers more from the boy’s state than him, so it’s safe to say that she thinks quiet suffering is better than Oberon’s obvious grieving.

When it was done, the boy ate the whole thing, and did not share a morsel, which was exactly as it was supposed to be. Aside from the size of it, there was nothing magical about the food. It shouldn’t have sated him any more than half a dozen peanuts, but even the aroma calmed him down as they were cooking, and by the time he had finished off the last tack-size pastry and dime-size cake he was very quiet again. He looked around the room, as if for more food, and when he opened his mouth wide Titania thought he was going to shout or cry. But he burped instead, a tiny little noise, commensurate with what he had eaten.

Oberon and Titania both want the boy to be happy, and the only thing he says in this story that answers how they can give him that is by giving them food. (The one thing they aren’t supposed to give him.) Obviously being immune to his “powers” of getting things he wants from Titania and Oberon, as demonstrated earlier in the story, he gets what he wants. Although, in the end, it only temporarily satisfies him since he just throws it all up later.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Adrian show what everyone in the room is thinking before he starts a new scene?
  2. Why does Adrian show the boy’s backstory and his relations to his new “parents”?

 

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