Friday, November 12, 2010

This is now - Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Augustinian conception of time

Little House in the Big Woods moves through a single year, autumn to autumn, roughly.  Laura has her fifth birthday during the winter.  The seasonal cycle is an obvious, almost necessary, structure for any story like this, a story about agriculture and hunting, man (or child) in nature.  Little House on the Prairie mimics the movement through the seasons, but the pattern is shattered by the family’s abandonment of the homestead, one of several ways Prairie subtly parodies the simpler Big Woods.

The little house in both titles, that’s another.  In Little House on the Prairie, we witness every step of its construction, which takes about a third of the novel.  In Little House in the Big Woods, the house is simply there, and always has been, at least as far as a four year old can tell.  Presumably, it is also nearly new, built by Pa with the assistance of his nearby relatives, but to Laura, like the reader, the house simply is.  Pa tells stories about his childhood, which he emphasizes was different than that of his daughters.  Those stories are the sum total of history for Laura.

I didn’t really see this until the very end of the novel.  Little House in the Big Woods, despite the different circumstances, ends much like Little House on the Prairie – more parody.  Pa fiddles and sings while Laura fails to fall asleep.

The long winter evenings of fire-light and music had come again.

Pa’s fiddle wailed while Pa was singing:

  “Oh, Susi-an-na, don’t you cry for me,
   I’m going to Cal-i-for-ni-a,
   The gold dust for to see.” (236-7)

The endings of both novels even share the same song, not so ironic here, or not that I can see.  Foreshadowing, maybe.  Soon, they will be off to see the Oklahoma gold dust.

Then Pa began to play again the song about Old Grimes.  But he did not sing the words he had sung when Ma was making cheese.  These words were different.  Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing:

[And here we have the most familiar bit of Burns, from “Auld Lang Syne”]

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are the days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting in the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.

The End.  Those are the final lines.  St. Augustine, turning to the nature of time in the Confessions (397-8) writes that “it is abundantly clear that neither the future nor the past exist” (XI.20) and:

It is in my own mind, then, that I measure time.  I must not allow my mind to insist that time is something objective…  All the while the man’s attentive mind, which is present, is relegating the future to the past. (XI.27)

The ironies multiply as five year old Laura discovers the Augustinian nature of time.  The adult Laura, sixty years in the future, knows how the child is wrong – oh, it was a long time ago.  And the author knows that soon – that spring, or is it a year later? – that house and fire (but not the music) would be abandoned for another, and then another, and so on.  One more ironic turn – Laura’s memories are a bit less likely to forgotten, now, aren’t they?

“I confess to you Lord, that I still do not know what time is” (XI,25), St. Augustine laments.  Little House in the Big Woods is an altogether simpler book then Little House on the Prairie, less ambiguous, and, I suspect, written at a slightly lower reading level.  But it ends with an Augustinian meditation on the nature of time!  A simple one, just the beginning of the idea, but still!  Fine, you were expecting that.  Fine.  It surprised me.

St. Augustine quotations from the 1961 Penguin Classics edition, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, if you can believe it.


  1. Well, on the strength of your musings this week, I picked up a copy of Li'l House in the Big Woods and will continue searching for Li'l House on the Prairie. I must say, however, that the first sentence of Big Woods grates on me something dastardly.

    "Once upon a time, sixty years ago..."


    Isn't the one the other?

    Anyhow, I was always fond of the expression that time prevents everything from happening at once.

    Without time, things wouldn't change and there'd be no memory and nothing for memory to recollect and hence no identity to cobble together out of disparate experiences, like a house built in the woods, once upon a time...

    A nice link with Augustine, by the by.



  2. On the one hand the first sentence refers directly to the ending - good!

    On the other hand, it's twee and muddled - bad! So I basically agree with you.

    The problem, I think, is the mishmash - invoking fairy tales then instantly switching to historical novels.

    Which historical novel is subtitled 'Tis Sixty Years Since? That's right, Waverley (1814), the very first one! I'm playing around with St. Augustine (although it fits) but the Scott reference, that's deliberate. George Eliot does it, too, in Adam Bede.

  3. I am rereading the series at the moment and I love your observations on them. I hadn't picked up on a lot of what you say.

  4. "The problem, I think, is the mishmash - invoking fairy tales then instantly switching to historical novels."

    A very nice way of saying it.


  5. Iris - I saw that. Certainly worthwile for an adult, aren't they? I'm not going to push on to Plum Creek myself, not now, so I'll just follow you vocariously.

    Maybe you can work in Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Ha ha ha! No, I don't think I would do that, either.

  6. Finished Li'l House on the Prairie and, compared to Li'l House in the Big Woods, am disappointed.

    Not in you, but in Ingalls.

    Big Woods is filled with delightful doings and wonderful descriptions of how they get done, all in a day's work.

    Prairie strikes me as a caricature of westward expansion, without any characters, except perhaps the weird thing that is Laura's-love-for-Pa, which is bigger than anything in the book. And I grew tired of what seemed to me the same 'ole gimmick: new chapter heading, unexpected obstacle or adventure, often followed by Pa's absence, and then his heroic return, etc.

    My sister in law predicted that I'd read all of them.

    I think I'll stop at two.

    Do my reactions seem fair to you?


  7. Ah, you prefer the butter making and maple syrup. I felt that, given the tools, I could make butter after reading that passage. I could not build the Prairie house, dig the well, install the door, etc. That's a real difference between the books.

    As is the structure - you identify one simple pattern. There's another - house improvement chapter, event chapter, house, event, etc. Although if we have two simple patterns moving simultaneously, the overall pattern ain't so simple. The "house" chapters are the ones that provide forward motion. In Big Woods, it's the seasonal movement.

    "Caricature" isn't the word I would use, but it perhaps gives the same idea as "parody." Prairie is a parody of Big Woods - that's explicit at the end - but also of westward expansion narratives. This is the expansion that goes too far, that has to contract.

    I also would love to write about the book as a parody of Walden, which would be my own way of going too far.

    You're right about the lack of characters. The disappearance of Mary is especially curious. Mary does not respond to the sublimity of the prairie, and therefore ceases to exist as long as she's there. The dog is actually corrupted by the prairie!

    Fair, absolutely. Quite different than the way I read it. But I also stopped at two books!

  8. Laura's " this is now" realization floored me when I first read it, as a child. I just stopped. It still floors me. She was a yogi.

  9. Yes, a startling, even shocking, moment - I stopped, too - and one perhaps invisible to children. Or quite different for adults, at least.