Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a contemporary depiction of loss and mourning in an urban domestic space. This short novel tells the lyrical and haunting story of the unexpected death of a wife and mother and the mourning process that follows. My analysis will move from the general domestic setting to the more specific space of the bathroom in this text. These spaces in this work contribute to a sense of desperation and suffering which underlines the alienation and exile present in conventional life.

“Dad” is the bereaved Hughes scholar in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, and, in bonafide gothic tradition, is visited by a supernatural, perfidious beast (“Crow”) in his darkest moments. Crow, Ted Hughes’s trickster, gothic creation, invades Dad’s home in the aftermath of his wife’s death in a garrulous fashion: leaving chaos in his wake while also serving as an outlet for grief. Early in the text, Dad states, somewhat wearily, “I wish I wasn’t lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway.[1]” In this dry observation, the reader is confronted by the everyday hallway, which contains the extraordinary and uncanny Crow wrestling a wretched Dad to the ground. The scene is so arresting because of its unapologetically normal, non-descript, domestic backdrop.

The flat in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is not a typical dark, gothic setting, but one which resonates with pathos nonetheless. The shades of darkness and empty spaces are there, but it is the absences, or the signaling of absences, in this short novel that really highlight a grotesque sense of horror and futility resulting from the sudden death in this household. This text thrives on the juxtaposition between generality and specificity. While “Dad” and “The Boys” remain nameless and archetypal in some respects and their domestic space is a blank canvas, (referred to variously as a “flat” and a “house”) the grief felt by these characters that permeates their dwelling space is particular and specific. While the flat itself has no overt gothic features—in that it is not in any way derived from a gothic tradition— it is the backdrop for depictions of portentous gloom and horror. The themes of death and mourning lend themselves naturally to a gothic reading. As a blank canvas, the domestic space in this text serves to amplify the sense of abject desperation that Dad and The Boys experience, and its deliberately culturally non-specific nature means that the reader may resonate with this grief in a universal manner. Sarah Crown writes, in a Guardian review, “[…] it’s the bird who’s the animating spirit here; he turns the book from a conventional, if heartbreaking, chronicle of loss into something wilder, stranger and far more potent.”[2] If Crow is the main noise in this text, and the domestic space that forms the backdrop is the almost-hollow vessel which allows this noise to be amplified to fever pitch in an aggressive but also therapeutic manner. His “animating” razzmatazz requires very specifically chosen domestic spaces as a background, beautifully and subtly rendered by Porter

Crow himself disobeys some traditional aspects of gothic convention by rejecting the idea of the wife’s ghost outright. He suggests that the gothic trope of the ghost coming back to the present is ridiculous and that any normal ghost would seek to retreat to the straightforward, less complicated sanctuary of his or her own childhood. He tells Dad:

If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, she is not mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood or the bitter pain of watching you boys live without her.[3]

Instead, Crow colonises the home himself, replacing her and filling the spaces left palpably bereft in this story. The domestic setting soaks up grief and the relationship between space and bodies is sealed by mourning. Crow describes the scene as he first attends the flat, when everyone is asleep, and all inanimate objects are steeped in grief. He states:

Two-bed upstairs flat, spit-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs, plinkety plink curled claws whisper, down to Daddy’s recently Mum-and-Dad’s bedroom.[4]

The ordinariness of the scene, the everyday objects, and domestic detritus, all intensify the sense of loss. Here, Porter fuses the real (a grieving family) with the unreal (Crow) and creates a compelling image of Crow, complete with his clipped observations and sometimes vile comments while breaking into an ordinary family home which is experiencing an extraordinary crisis. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, addresses the importance of a symbiosis between real and unreal in relation to the domestic setting. He posits that “If a house is a living value, it must integrate an element of unreality. All values must remain vulnerable, and those that do not are dead.”[5] In a sense, this domestic space is at its most vulnerable in the wake of death, and Crow can be viewed as the saviour of the domestic realm in the text; the device of unreality which facilitates the living image of the home. Crow’s function, in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, is to be that unnatural, unreal presence in an otherwise dead home, where the ‘film of grief’ suffocates and infects every object. The fusion of the very real grief felt by Dad and The Boys with the unreality of their interactions and experiences with Crow reflects Bachelard’s image of the home, keeping the idea of domesticity alive despite its vulnerability. The extraordinary shock of losing a wife and mother means that the domestic space becomes the vestibule for grief and it is only through Crow’s filling of the space that this flat can start to shed something of the “film of grief”. Dad describes this perfectly when he says, “The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away.”[6] He explains the physical difference between a domestic space which has adjusted in time to the extraordinary event of a death, as distinct from one which has had death thrust upon it suddenly.

Some of the most affecting and abject descriptions of the home in this novel emanate from the bathroom and exploring specific scenes here highlights the dichotomy between minimalism and gothic or supernatural elements in the text. Porter’s domestic backdrop conforms to Bachelard’s theory that “Over-picturesqueness in a house can conceal its intimacy,”[7] and thus it shuns ornate elaboration or description, allowing the intimacies of mourning to be starkly showcased, sometimes in a darkly gothic fashion. The bathroom is perhaps the strangest of domestic spaces, where the most intimate of everyday actions take place, as well as being a room in the home most likely to have a minimal aesthetic and to shun the “over-picturesqueness” that Bachelard describes.

Edwin Heathcote, the architectural critic, states:

These conflicting ideas of purification, evacuation, opulence, minimalism and the need for a subtly sexualised shrine to self-administered luxury and the retreat to the sanctuary of the bath waters make for one of the most symbolically loaded of modern rooms. It is a heavy burden for the bathroom to carry but perhaps it is precisely this constantly shifting kaleidoscope of meaning and fashion that makes the bathroom as brutally honest a reflection of our domestic concerns as the bathroom mirror does of our bodies.[8]

When reading the specific episodes occurring in the bathroom in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, certain depictions of the bathroom setting in popular culture come to mind. Through these images it is possible to just expose for a moment the visually conflicting ideas of these bathroom spaces and the bodies contained in them:

One Week (1920), dir. Edward F Cline, Buster Keaton

 

Psycho (1960), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

 

Fatal Attraction (1987), dir. Adrian Lyne

 

What Lies Beneath (2000), dir. Robert Zemeckis

These spaces, apart from the Buster Keaton bathroom, which is part of a comic sequence, are defined by a psychological rather than physical menace, and while these are some of the images that can be used to define bathrooms in popular culture, they serve mainly as a counterpoint to rather than a template for Porter’s bathroom in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. These images illustrate one aspect of the bathroom’s place in the domestic sphere that depicts the conflicting ideas that Heathcote describes: purification, evacuation, opulence, minimalism, and in addition, an echo chamber to amplify a gothic sense of uncanny. The body, set against the bathroom tiles, water, and whiteness, is naked, open, and often vulnerable and fearful. Physically, there are no dark corners, but a sense of the gothic is created by the blank spaces and the potential to shade and obscure as well as expose and terrify. In these films, the bathroom is a dark place, despite its whiteness, with no real offer of redemption, or any possibility of cleansing. In contrast, in Porter’s novel, the bathroom ultimately offers a resurrection of a normalcy, or perhaps just indicates a rebalancing of relations in the domestic sphere following Mum’s death.

Porter’s bathroom is the setting for one of the uncanny and disturbing encounters between Crow and Dad. Its blank canvas space is an ideal backdrop for a nakedness of emotion; an abject recognition of death and its futility. In this scene, The Boys describe a despondent Dad/Crow literally sounding out the extraordinary death of their mother:

Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He is speaking very slowly, very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s recording of Dylan Thomas. He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He says Induced… he coughs and spits and tries again, INDUCED. He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE.[9]

This poignancy of this sonic tapestry is amplified by the acoustic resonance of the bathroom space, and Dad returns after this strange and deeply haunting experience. The boys witness this from the other side of the door, listening in to this intensely private moment; their bodies crouching in their own attempt to make sense of their mourning (and their father’s mourning) of this incredible event, which is reduced to a clinical, blank description of their mother’s death, as white and sparse as the bathroom that echoes it.

Freud states in The Uncanny that:

[…] we can understand why German usage allows the familiar (das Heimliche, the ‘homely’) to switch to its opposite, the uncanny (das Unheimliche, the ‘unhomely’) for this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.[10]

What this family is enduring is the ultimate in the ‘unheimliche’ but they are experiencing it all in the domestic sphere, which is supposed to be homely and comforting. The walls and surfaces do not have to be frightening to be unhomely or create a gothic sense of terror. It is the very fact that they are so ordinary which makes the events of death and the arrival of Crow so affecting. The image of the two children hearing a Dylan Thomas-like rendition of a medical description of their mother’s death is frightening and gothic. Its backdrop could be any bathroom, and it is this everyday quality which makes the reader sense the routine hold that grief has on this household. Crow is the device in the novel which enables Dad to give voice to his incredulity at his wife’s death, as it is through Crow that he may interrogate the ‘something’ which was ‘estranged […] through being repressed.’ Dad must live a routine life in the wake of his wife’s death for the sake of his children, and his necessarily repressed grief is expressed in the uncanny echo chamber of the bathroom on this occasion.

Later in the novel, the bathroom is the source of a different and more everyday observation by the Boys:

We all used to get a lot of trouble from Mum for flecking the mirror with toothpaste.

For a few years we flecked and spat and over-brushed and our mirror was a white-speckled mess and we all took guilty pleasure in it.

One day Dad cleaned the mirror and we all agreed it was excellent.

Various other things slipped. We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.[11]

John Rennie Short states that “Home is a central element in our socialization into the world. The home is also a place of loathing and longing.”[12] The Boys’ description of the domestic realm of the bathroom after their mother’s death is as minimal and spare as the idea of the bathroom. However, in their benign vandalism of the bathroom mirror, the barely repressed process of grieving seeps out and infects the room and the text with a combination of “loathing and longing”. The loathsome, or unsociable minor acts of rebellion (dirtying the mirror while cleaning their teeth, pissing on the seat) occur in the bathroom. The loathsome behaviour directly correlates with the longing to miss their mother. A longing for longing. They did not do those things as a result of missing her or wanting her, but in order to “miss her, to keep wanting her,” [my emphasis] a subtle difference, which denotes a sense of deliberateness to their actions. When the mirror is clean, it “was excellent”, restored symbolically and additionally contributing to a sense of cleanliness and light. In this respect, the bathroom catalogues a process of change and adjustment for the Boys and for Dad, as well as highlighting an absence of Mum. Thus, the bathroom becomes a site of haunting, not of a real ghost, or of Crow even, but of the absence of Mum to get into trouble with for everyday routines of neglect. In fact, the previously unthinking misdemeanours are afforded added meaning following Mum’s death. Bachelard states of housework routines that:

The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture […] we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to most everyday actions.[13]

This idea of conscious everyday actions may be extrapolated to the Boys’ bathroom habits. The Boys then, have applied “a glimmer of consciousness” not to housework but to routine careless acts, where they now acknowledge a need to continue to miss their mother. The bathroom as a backdrop to this is appropriate because this is the room where disgust and purification, longing and loathing can sit alongside each other. The toothpaste speckled mirror and the subsequently cleaned mirror can both equally reflect the death of their mother daily through the routines which amplify her absence.

The final time the bathroom features in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is when Dad feels the time is right to ask Crow to leave following a meeting with his publisher. He says:

So I went home to talk to Crow about parting company.

I couldn’t find him. I did find that the boys had flung wet balls of toilet paper onto the bathroom ceiling, which pissed me off because I’d told them that it stained the paint, and by the time I’d cleaned it up and cooked their dinner and put them to bed I realised, of course, that Crow was gone.[14]

Crow’s previous dominance in Dad’s and the Boys’ life is now completely overshadowed by the routines and irritations of the domestic.  It is remarkable that the bathroom continues to be the site of vandalism, with toilet paper on the ceiling, like in a public toilet. The domestic realm, and the blank yet resonant backdrop of the bathroom, has become the healing salve in this family’s grief. The private grieving has given way to a more public acknowledgment of the need for Crow and his associated routine squawkings to move out. The place of purifications and ablutions continues to be vandalised, but it has also performed that cleansing or clarifying process to aid this family’s mourning process. It is the routine gestures in ordinary domestic spaces combined with the extraordinary appearance and quiet disappearance of Crow which have worked together to document and seal this grief in an implicit reinvigorating of some gothic themes in Porter’s text.

[1] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 8

[2] Sarah Crown, “Max Porter: ‘The experience of the boys in the novel is based on my dad dying when I was six’”, The Guardian, 12 September 2015.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/12/max-porter-books-interview-grief-is-a-thing-with-feathers

[3] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 68

[4] Ibid. 9

[5] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994): 59

[6] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 20

[7] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994): 12

[8] Edwin Heathcote, The Meaning of Home (Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2012): 84-5

[9] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 23

[10] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock (Penguin, 2003): 148

[11] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 49

[12] John Rennie Short, “Introduction”, At Home: An Anthropology of Domestic Space ed. Irene Cieraad, (Syracuse University Press, 2006): ix

[13] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994): 67

[14] Max Porter, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (Faber and Faber, 2015): 108

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