Saturday, January 29, 2011

Normal Bunnies are Normal - #8

STORY: "The Last Rabbit" by Emma Donoghue


BASICALLY: Based on a historical incident, a woman becomes involved in a hoax in which she claims to give birth to rabbits. She is examined by a series of callous doctors with little knowledge of women's bodies, but is ultimately unable to maintain the illusion.

Wow. It's so normal! The subject matter is a little unusual, to be sure, but the story itself is just…a story.

Not that I wish to damn with faint praise. When a person spends so much time reading the weird, the vile-but-fascinating, the masterful, the geeky, and the experimental, a short story that just tells you what actually happened, without any tricks, seems kind of revolutionary.

Author Emma Donoghue has chosen to present her subject with very little commentary and absolutely no—what should we call them?—literary flourishes. A poor and uneducated woman named Mary Toft is convinced by her sister-in-law to begin the hoax, but the local charlatan of a doctor soon takes charge. They pickle baby rabbits in jars, and Mary learns to make her stomach jump as though little rabbits hop within, and the doctor sends off wonderstruck letters advising the eighteenth-century medical establishment that "The woman Mary Toft has just now given birth to five praeternatural rabbits, all dead, a fact of which there is hitherto no instance in Nature." As the narrator, Mary seems only tangentially involved in her own tale. It's not meant to be ironic; Mary understands, more or less, what is happening to her, and even finally draws the conclusion that

for a month I had been nothing but a body. Though I believed that every body had a soul, as my mother taught me, I had no idea where it might reside. How could there be anything hiding in me that had not been turned inside out already?
At every opportunity in this story, Donoghue chooses the straightforward path. For example, fictional works with a historical bent frequently seek to bring the reader a sense of the enormity of time, of passing centuries, of how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. Perhaps a character reflects on the future, or refers to something—a structure, an institution—that modern eyes will recognize. But Donoghue keeps her tale in the here-and-now of her protagonist and presents its entire development with total linearity. We begin just before the hoax and end when the jig is up.

The effect of this simplicity of structure and lack of varnish is both expansive and confining. Donoghue doesn't seek to comment upon Story or Narrative or any of those other postmodern concerns—she simply wishes to make a curious historical incident a little more relatable. She uncovers the inherent humanity of a person acting outside of social norms. I have the feeling that what I will remember from this story is not what the author did with it, but the very incident that drew Donoghue's own attention: a woman who claimed she could give birth to rabbits and was almost believed.


audrey said...

With such crazy subject matter, I'd anticipate an unusual storytelling method. It sounds like an interesting tale.
PS-I both love and hate your blog. Love, because it makes me want to read most of the stories you discuss. Hate, because...well, the same reason, and the fact that I have no time to read them!

Lisa said...

Audrey, I know what you mean! I both hate and love my reader(s), but mainly because I think most of them are probably imaginary.

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