I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for SympathyPosted: February 6, 2013
I told him not to go near that raccoon!
We are an amalgamation of family, friends, lovers, and their affection (or lack thereof). The narrator in Louise Erdrich’s “I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy” (The Seagull Reader) agrees – “Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I’ll be is the result” (148). We truly are the product of our environment. Some of us are just luckier than others.
The narrator is pessimistic, cynical, and weathered. He’s lived a rough, neglectful life – and now he’s deeply scarred. In brief moments of revealing sensitivity, he says: “My parents. It’s not like I hate them or anything. I just can’t see them. I can close my eyes and form my sister’s face behind my eyelids, but not my parents’ faces. Where their eyes should meet mine, nothing” (150). His detached relationship with his parents suggests that even at a young age, he was fated for pain, and that emotional scars formed long ago. To Dawn, his ex-girlfriend, he says: “She will know things and I will still be the same person that I was the year before” (153). Change for him is not realistic. He’s the result of a dysfunctional environment, destined to repeat its cycle.
A stolen stuffed toucan (a Christmas gift for Dawn) causes the ripple. Though subtle, Erdrich’s inclusion of the toucan is intentional. In the pretext, we learn that Erdrich is part Chippewa, and in the tradition of many Native American groups, various totems are used as symbols. In this case, the toucan/bird totem explains the narrator’s choice to steal. According to the totem, the toucan represents communication and showmanship. Its colorful appearance and large bill indicates a strong desire to be seen and heard. The toucan may appear when you are craving attention. (http://healing.about.com/od/animaltotems/ig/Animal-Totems-Photo-Gallery/Toucan.htm)
The stolen toucan is the narrator’s desperate plea to be seen and heard; his craving for attention; his showmanship. Dysfunctional communication is his most accustomed means of expression. For him, it’s a normality to self-sabotage – automatic and natural. Without chaos, he has no means to act and react.
Mason Joseph Andrews, the baby, is also significant. He’s purity personified, a blank slate – and when juxtaposed against the narrator, analogies form: Light versus Dark, Innocence versus Corruption, Good versus Evil. “I have never seen a child this little before, so small that it is not a child yet. Its face is tiny and dark, almost reddish, or copper, and its fingers, splayed out against its cheeks, are the feet of a sparrow” (151). Again, totem symbolism is used. Sparrows instill dignity and empowerment, and aids in survival instincts by sharpening intuition to make proper choices. (http://www.starstuffs.com/animal_totems/dictionary_of_birds.html) Mason’s presence is to inspire and guide – a redeeming test. This struggle/conflict continues throughout the story.
“You little bastard you, what are you doing here” (153)! The narrator hopes to escape freely, but Mason compromises his plans, forcing him to question his action. “There is the baby. It is helpless, but does not seem so helpless” (154). Here, the narrator sees his lost potential. Though Mason is helpless alone in the car, he is not helpless in life because he’s still impressionable, and can be molded into someone great – the antithesis of the narrator. “Except, I do rip that dangle of toys off its seat and tie it on the aerial when I go out, and I do leave its blankets in there, never take any” (154). He didn’t have to do anything, but his humanity emerged – the goodness (from Mason?) that’s apparent and visible, but not fully attainable.
The conflict culminates here: “He’ll grow up, but already I am more to him than his own father because I taught him what I know about the cold. It sinks in, there to stay, doesn’t it? And people. They will leave you, no matter what you say there’s no return. There’s just the emptiness all around, and you in it, like singing up from the bottom of a well, like nothing else…” (154). The narrator’s hopeless, unable to fathom the goodness in life, in spite of Mason’s brief influence. The only way he knows how to deal with life, to get attention (or his interpretation of affection), is to become that mad dog that bites itself for sympathy. Though there’s mention of rehabilitation at the beginning of the story, the proof of his heartbreaking path is the thin ice that’s inside him: hard, cold, numbing, fragile, volatile, painful.
“I am not all that afraid. I never am and that’s my problem” (152). I love these lines! They’re very telling. On the one hand, it’s honest and vulnerable and pure. The narrator is expressing ownership – all contradictory attributes to his normal behavior. On the other hand, it’s validation of his sadness and pain and grief – and his brutal desensitization to them all. In these two lines, the struggle, the conflict, the internal battle of the narrator is beautifully and succinctly summed up.
This piece is another great, visceral read! And though I only touched on a few themes, several are mentioned: Alienation. Loneliness. Fate. Nature versus Nurture. Innocence versus Corruption. Good versus Evil. But maybe the biggest theme of all is love (or the need for love), and what lengths we’ll go to for that specific emotion, that comfort, that experience. I also have to wonder: Is the value of love truly as significant as the story believes?