Don’t Be Nice To Children

A presentation on Truman Capote’s “Miriam” by Harrison Buck, Marie Bradley, and Sonya Azencott

Summary Part 1: Harrison

The story begins a widow named Mrs. H.T. Miller. We have described to us her lifestyle, appearance and her home. She lives alone in a quite nice apartment with some stylish belongings. She sees a flyer for a film being shown at the theater and decides that she’ll go watch it, since it sounds interesting. She is standing in line at the theater, preparing to buy her ticket when she sees a little girl standing by herself under the marquee. Mrs. Miller is intrigued by the girl’s appearance and her presence incites a strange feeling in Mrs. Miller. The girl walks over and they chat for a bit. Mrs. Miller ends up buying a ticket to the movie for the girl, and they go to sit together. To her surprise, Mrs. Miller learns the name of the girl, Miriam, which also happens to be Mrs. Miller’s first name. After the movie, they part ways, and Mrs. Miller goes on with her life. One day, after Mrs. Miller has eaten dinner and is preparing to sleep, the doorbell rings. At her door, is Miriam, who asks to come inside, and after being denied by Mrs. Miller because it is so late, Miriam forces her way past Mrs. Miller and walks inside. She sits on the couch and Mrs. Miller begins to question her. Miriam’s dodges almost all of her questions and begins to show an interest in Mrs. Miller’s canary. Mrs. Miller makes a deal with Miriam, if Mrs. Miller gives her food, Miriam will leave. Miriam agrees and Mrs. Miller heads into the kitchen to make her food.

Summary Part 2: Marie

Miriam dodges questions about how she found Mrs. Miller’s unlisted address and focuses on the canary, Tommy, asking if she can wake it so he’ll sing. Mrs. Miller denies her so Miriam declares she hungry, and Mrs. Miller grudgingly makes her some sandwiches in exchange for not waking Tommy. While Mrs. Miller is in the kitchen, however, she hears tommy singing and returns to find the canary singing while his cage is still covered and Miriam gone into Mrs. Miller room, looking through her jewelry. Miriam asks for a piece, and despite Mrs. Miller’s attachment to it, she is helpless to refuse Miriam. Miriam then eats the sandwiches, wishing for sweets, but agreeing to hold up her end of the bargain and leave- but only after a good night kiss on her cheek. Mrs. Miller denies her again and Miriam smashes the paper flower’s vase before leaving. The next day, she has fever like dreams, specifically one of a pretty child leading them to nowhere. The day following that, she goes out shopping, feeling much better, and smiles with recognition at a man she has never met.

Summary Part 3: Sonya

Mrs. Miller, while walking home, believes that an old man is following her. She darts into a shop and sees the old man walk by, tipping his cap when he passes the shop. She buys white roses and an ugly vase to replace the one Miriam broke, a bag of cherries and some almond cakes. At five o’clock, her doorbell rings. She hears Miriam’s voice who orders Mrs. Miller to let her in, to which Mrs. Miller replies that she’ll never allow her inside. Ten minutes later, Mrs. Miller opens the door and Miriam is sitting on a cardboard box, holding a doll. She lets her in and finds that the cardboard box contains a second doll and all of Miriam’s clothes. When Miriam tells her that she wants to live with her, Mrs. Miller escapes downstairs and asks her neighbors to chase out the girl. When the man returns, he tells her that there was no girl, no doll and no cardboard box in her apartment. Mrs. Miller goes back up, shaken, and sits in her chair. Just as she convinces herself she had made the whole incident up, she hears the rustling of silk. She opens her eyes, and sees Miriam before her, who says hello.

Analysis Part 1: Harrison

The theme of insanity fits quite nicely here. It is very likely since Mrs. Miller is in such grief and sadness, Miriam is merely a figment of her imagination and may be drifting into schizophrenia, with Miriam maybe even being Mrs. Miller in childhood.

Analysis Part 2: Marie

In Miriam, the author’s style is a large part of what makes the short story so successful. Through use of creeping word choice and often physical events to help portray the emotion a character is feeling, the author manages to set the over reaching tone of unease through descriptions. One physical event that the author used to portray an emotion was:

And why has [Miriam] come? [Mrs. Miller’s] hand shook as she held the match, fascinated, till it burned her finger.

This is an example of the style, specifically in the way the author chose to have Mrs. Miller watch the match burn herself, instead of merely having Mrs. Miller be confused or shaken. It is a stronger example of the mix of emotions inside Mrs. Miller than stating or asking questions to demonstrate her confusion. This moment gives the reader a clear moment to understand Mrs. Miller’s state of mind, in both the syntax of the sentence, having it read almost passively with the lack of reaction to being burned, and the choice of the word ‘fascinated’.

The author also uses his style to write descriptions that immediately make the readers wary of Miriam such as:

…but [Miriam’s] eyes; they were hazel, ateady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their site, seemed to consume her small face.

This is a good example of the author’s style, despite the use of fairly everyday words, ‘consume’ sets the tone of the sentence, pushing the reader to perceive hazel eyes- a normal feature on their own- as something threatening and dangerous, threatening to ‘consume’.

A third part of the author’s style that plays an important part is his use of imagery to sharply set the scene so the reader can visualize key moments like when Mrs. Miller first meets Miriam:

Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino’s. It flowed waist-length in smooth, loose lines. She was thin and fragilely constructed. There was a simple, special elegance in the way she stood with her thumbs in the pockets of a tailored plum-velvet coat.

Miriam’s description when Mrs. Miller sees her closely:

She unbuttoned her coat and folded it across her lap. Her dress underneath was prim and dark blue. A gold chain dangled about her neck, and her fingers, sensitive and musical-looking, toyed with it. Examining her more attentively, Mrs. Miller decided the truly distinctive feature was not her hair, but her eyes; they were hazel, ateady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their site, seemed to consume her small face.

And what she dreams after Miriam visits:

…yet her dreams were feverishly agitated; their unbalanced mood lingered even as she lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. One dream threaded through the others like an elusively mysterious theme in a complicated symphony, and the scenes it depicted were sharply outlined, as though sketched by a hand of gifted intensity: a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” “No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. ‘But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower … so shining and white?”

These additionally all relate to Miriam and, besides from just being examples of the author’s style, are used to characterize Miriam through her way of dress and appearance- distinctly unchildlike and very formal- along with her affect on other people, specifically, Mrs. Miller.

The author’s style pushes through the story due to its strong word choice, powerful syntax, and use of different ways to portray emotions through the tumultuous plotline.

  1. How does the author’s use of imagery strengthen the narrative?
  2. Why is the word choice for the description of Miriam very proper?
  3. What atmosphere does the author’s style help to create?

 

  1. Point of View

Point of view of view is critical within the story Miriam by Capote because the premise relies on the Mrs. Miller’s perspective of Miriam, and if she exists at all. Through the story, the primary and driving interactions are between Miriam and Mrs. Miller, and there are no mentions of Miriam interacting with any other characters, only Ms. Miller. Due to this, our entire knowledge and perspective on Miriam is through Ms. Miller’s eyes, leading to the belief that she may have imagined Miriam due to when Ms. Miller breaks down and seeks her neighbors when Miriam decides to move in with her, and they return to find no sign of Miriam or her things in the apartment.

“I looked all over,” he said, “and there just ain’t nobody there. Nobody, understand?”

“Tell me,” said Mrs. Miller, rising, “tell me, did you see a large box? Or a doll?”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

And the woman, as if delivering a verdict, said, “Well, for cryin out loud ….”

Mrs. Miller entered her apartment softly; she walked to the center of the room and stood quite still. No, in a sense it had not changed: the roses, the cakes, and the cherries were in place. But this was an empty room, emptier than if the furnishings and familiars were not present, lifeless and petrified as a funeral parlor. The sofa loomed before her with a new strangeness: its vacancy had a meaning that would have been less penetrating and terrible had Miriam been curled on it.

In contrast, once the neighbors leave, and after Mrs. Miller has closed to door and rests, she awakens to find Miriam returned, once again when she is the only person there. In only one point do we see Miriam outside of Mrs. Miller’s apartment is at the movie theatre when they first met, but there, she never directly interacts with anyone else, choosing solely to speak to Mrs. Miller.

This leads almost to the conclusion that she was imagined by Mrs. Miller for a reason, or that she is hallucinating Miriam and these lead to point of view being critical- if Miriam is little more than a hallucination, then this story would look like an old woman going mad from the perspective of an outsider. Point of view also affected the words choice and overall mood, as the ongoing fear Mrs. Miller holds because of her perception of Miriam, such as when Miriam asks for Mrs. Miller pin:

“Miriam glanced up, and in her eyes there was a look that was not ordinary. She was standing by the bureau, a jewel case opened before her. For a minute she studied Mrs. Miller, forcing their eyes to meet, and she smiled. “There’s nothing good here,” she said. “But I like this.” Her handheld a cameo brooch. “It’s charming.”

“Suppose—perhaps you’d better put it back,” said Mrs. Miller, feeling suddenly the need of some support. She leaned against the door frame; her head was unbearably heavy; a pressure weighted the rhythm of her heartbeat. The light seemed to flutter defectively. “Please, child—a gift from my husband….”

“But it’s beautiful and I want it,” said Miriam. “Give it to me.”

As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn; she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning. But here in her own room in the hushed snow city were evidences she could not ignore or, she knew with startling clarity, resist.

With a different point of view, the reader would not understand the compulsion Miriam seems to have over Mrs. Miller and the strange awareness and panic Mrs. Miller has of that compulsion.

In Miriam, point of view also influences the words used to describe Miriam, such as when Miriam has eaten her sandwiches.

…[Miriam’s] fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection of its wearer.

In this excerpt, the words ‘cobweb’ and ‘trick reflection’ stood out the most to be, the negative connotated words used to make even the action of Miriam cleaning up her plate and wearing the pin seem shadowed in malevolence or bad intentions, further contributing to Miriam’s growing character as the antagonist in the story.

Point of view is an integral component of Miriam, and, with a different point of view, the story would change completely and not be nearly as intriguing and would change our understanding of the events that truly occurred in this time period.

  1. How would the story be altered if the point of view changed?
  2. Could this story be told effectively through another character’s eyes?
  3. Do you think Miriam would be a character if this story were told from the neighbor’s point of view, or is she just an illusion?

Analysis Part 3: Sonya

The first technique I tracked was the use of foreshadowing in Capote’s Miriam. In the story, foreshadowing is used to build the tension and to create a sense of unease about the character of Miriam. As more and more odd details are revealed about the little girl, the audience becomes uneasy about her, and the end of the story, where Miriam seems to be some sort of monster, seems more reasonable. The first piece of foreshadowing we get is when Miriam asks Mrs. Miller to buy her a ticket to the movie.

‘Oh, it’s quite easy. I merely want you to buy a ticket for me; they won’t let me in otherwise. Here, I have the money.’ And gracefully she handed Mrs. Miller two dimes and a nickel. […] ‘Your mother knows where you are, dear? I mean she does, doesn’t she?’

The little girl said nothing.

This paragraph shows the reader that Miriam, the little girl, is avoiding the topic of her mother, for an unknown reason. It also shows that there is an issue between Miriam and her parents, for if she had parents or even a good relationship with them, either a parent would be there, or she would have told Mrs. Miller that her parents knew where she was. This paragraph also creates a curiosity within the reader to why Miriam was so trusting of Mrs. Miller so as to ask her to buy her a ticket. Since Miriam is very young, asking strangers for help and being unaccompanied are both very odd. As well as that, Miriam is perfectly calm, and seems to act like it’s quite normal for a ten-year-old to be alone.

“Miriam,” she said, as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar. “Why, isn’t that funny—my name’s Miriam, too. And it’s not a terribly common name either.”

This is another example of foreshadowing in the text. Miriam assumes that Mrs. Miller will know her name, establishing a slightly perturbed feeling in the reader. Why would Miriam think that Mrs. Miller knows her name? And why do they have the same name? The reader asks themselves. By using the phrase “as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar” before telling the reader that Mrs. Miller shares her name, the author creates unease in what would be an otherwise coincidental, if not amusing situation.  The passage that creates the most unease and foreshadows the clearest that Miriam is a force to be dealt with comes when Miriam first appears at Mrs. Miller’s house.

“How did you know where I lived?” Miriam frowned. “That’s no question at all. What’s your name? What’s mine?”  “But I’m not listed in the phone book.’

“Oh, let’s talk about something else.”

This passage cements in the reader’s mind that Miriam is definitely strange and even a danger. By having Miriam brush off all further questioning about how she found Mrs. Miller’s house, the reader is left with a sinister feeling of what is to come and becomes afraid of Miriam. She was able to find a woman’s house who wasn’t even listed in the phone book without knowing her last name, which is practically impossible if not given the address by the person themselves or a close friend. The reader asks themselves whether or not Miriam followed Mrs. Miller home, or whether she just knew, like some sort of magical, monstrous being.  Another scene that shows the reader that something strange is happening is the scene with the canary.

“Leave Tommy alone,” said Mrs. Miller, anxiously. “Don’t you dare wake him.” “Certainly,” said Miriam. “But I don’t see why I can’t hear him sing.” […] She saw first that the bird cage still wore its night cover. And Tommy was singing.

When Mrs. Miller tells Miriam that she can’t wake the canary, Miriam doesn’t see why that would stop her from hearing him sing. Then, Mrs. Miller hears Tommy singing even though his night cover is still on, a feat that birds do not do, since they think it’s still the night as long as the cover is on. This tells the reader that Miriam is able to do anything to get what she wants, which creates more tension and a sense of fear. Another scene of foreshadowing that also gives us some insight into what Miriam might potentially be is Mrs. Miller’s dream.

a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” “No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. ‘But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower … so shining and white?”

The reader assumes that the small girl is Miriam, and immediately is struck by fear. By showing that other people have followed Miriam before, without knowing why or where they are going, the reader assume that Miriam is taking them to die, like a yuki-onna, or snow woman from Japanese folklore. This connection is even furthered by the fact that Miriam is connected to snow, “frost flower”, as is the yuki-onna, demon that tricked men on snowy mountains into carrying her on their backs before draining out their life force and eating them. Even if one doesn’t have a basic understanding of Japanese folklore, Capote’s use of the procession’s trance like state as they follow Miriam to possible death gives a sense of unease and fear and foreshadows Mrs. Miller’s possible end. Finally, Capote uses snow as an indicator for Miriam’s coming.

Then she met Miriam. It was snowing that night. […] It snowed all week […]Tuesday morning she woke up feeling better; harsh slats of sunlight […] Soon the first flake fell.

Every time Mrs. Miller meets Miriam, it snows. The one day she feels better, there is sun out. But, as soon as the snow begins to fall, Miriam appears at her door. By using the repetition of snow falling to indicate Miriam’s coming, Capote trains the reader to associate snow with danger. So, when after a day of sun, the snow starts falling again, the reader knows that something big is going to happen, and they are right.

The second craft element that I tracked was Mrs. Miller’s characterization. Capote sprinkles through the text small tidbits that reveal more and more of Mrs. Miller’s personality. When she goes to the movie theatre, for example,

Mrs. Miller rummaged in her leather handbag till she collected exactly the correct change for admission.

This sentence shows us that Mrs. Miller is very precise in whatever she does, avoiding trouble and frustration by being exact. Next, after she buys Miriam a ticket to the movie, she says

“I feel just like a genuine criminal,” said Mrs. Miller gaily, as she sat down. “I mean that sort of thing’s against the law, isn’t it? I do hope I haven’t done the wrong thing.”

The use of the word gaily shows that Mrs. Miller, a sixty-one-year-old woman, is easily amused by quite mundane things. She enjoys helping Miriam out, and likes the thrill it gives her at her age. This paragraph also shows, though, that Mrs. Miller is quite nervous and concerned about doing the right thing. She frets about how what she just did was against the law and becomes quite anxious.

“Sit down,” said Miriam. “It makes me nervous to see people stand.” Mrs. Miller sank to a hassock.

This scene shows that Mrs. Miller is quite compliant to others’ wishes, even when her privacy is being invaded. Another example of this appears just moments later in the text.

“look – if I make some nice sandwiches will you be a good child and run along home? It’s past midnight, I’m sure.”

Instead of just chasing Miriam out of the house, she complies to her demand for sandwiches in a desperate attempt to get Miriam to leave, showing her meekness and aversion to confrontation. Later, when Miriam takes away Mrs. Miller’s brooch, a present from her deceased husband, she proves herself to be quite meek. “As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn”. Miriam is a tiny child compared to the adult Mrs. Miller, yet she is extremely meek and afraid of Miriam, for no true reason. Mrs. Miller dislikes confrontation so much that she even allows Miriam to take the brooch, even though it held great sentimental value.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why does Capote choose to include the scene when Mrs. Miller believes that she is being followed by the old man?
  2. How does Capote build a sense of uneasiness in the reader?

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