Thursday, November 7, 2013

Revision 2: Jimmy and His Mom

     The graphic Novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth is complex reading and could easily be read multiple times from different perspectives. One way to read this novel is in light of Jimmy's contradictory relationships with his mother. By piecing together and observing Jimmy's relationship with his mother, the reader can get a glimpse as to why Jimmy is the way he is and use this as a lens to analyze just about the whole novel. It is the duality of pushing away and using her as a safety net that defines Jimmy.
Although this image can be easily overlooked, despite its size, it immediately conveys information about the upcoming novel. We are presented with a young Corrigan who appears to have stabbed a full grown man in the neck with a pair of scissors while a woman looks on in horror. At this point in the novel, it makes little sense, but it should tell us what to expect.
     It is important to note here that although the image is blue, the man appears to be the superman actor who took advantage of Jimmy’s mom in the first scene of the novel. The reader should also quickly note that a boy of that age would likely be with his mother so this likely foreshadows how protective Jimmy is of his mother which helps us read some of the scenes with his father and further complicates his overall avoidance of his mother in the nursing home. Jimmy's mother is also very controlling of his life and this scene seems to give us the impression that Jimmy would kill his very hero to protect her, at least early on in his life. This aids us in our understanding of why he avoids his mother's constant attempts to call him and tell him what to do but also his utter inability to function without her. It is that conundrum that will come to define Jimmy in this novel. The fact that this image appears so early in the novel, it is easy to assume that this was Jimmy's first experience with his mother's love life. However, the way this is presented, as a banner introducing the rest of the novel, it is not unexpected that this will not be the last time (14)[1].
In an article in The Oswald Review, Elizabeth Spavento goes so far as to suggest that the mother's appearance in the opening scene serves to show us that we should read Jimmy Corrigan while keeping in mind that, in an almost Oedipal sense, Jimmy is constantly fighting to be the only or, at least, most influential man in his mom's life (Spavento, 79). We can certainly see evidence of this in the big blue image as Jimmy imagines killing his hero-father-figure. Furthermore, it helps us to interpret what his upbringing and mentality might have been when he was younger. Spavento goes on to say that the fact that we do not see his mother's face in the opening scene (or here for that matter) is extremely significant as it contrasts his mother's maternal nature with that of her sexual nature and shows that maybe the two cannot coexist (80). We can also see this in the blue image as his mother is dressed sensibly here, maternal, whereas the last image we see of her in the first scene is that of her barely covered chest, sexual. This seems to be supported by psychological interpretation: “The initial recognition of the parental sexual relationship involves relinquishing the idea of sole and permanent possession of the mother… This recognition produces a sense of loss and envy, which, if not tolerated, may become a sense of grievance or self-denigration" (Britton, Feldman, and Shaughnessy, 84-85). The opening scene, and this image, leads us to believe that this probably wasn't the only guy that mom brought home and these events served to reinforce this sense of loss and led to self-denigration. However, I think Spavento falls short in not pointing out the contrasting emotions of Jimmy attempting to distance himself from his mother, but also running to her when he can't deal with his emotions.
     Indeed, Ware goes on to give us other examples of his mother's quest for love and young Jimmy's reaction. While his father is discussing the impending Thanksgiving holiday, Jimmy remembers two past Thanksgivings, one when he was young, and one more recent. In series, we see Jimmy talking to his mother on the phone about perhaps missing Thanksgiving with her and also a remembrance of something that happened over Thanksgiving dinner years ago. The scene of the recent Thanksgiving, represented only by the image of a phone and Jimmy's words, furthers the idea that although Jimmy cannot seem to function without his mother, he also has an urge to break free of her altogether, making up excuses not to spend the holiday with her but finally offering a tentative concession to please her. The other scene embedded here is one of a young Jimmy asking “who was that man...?” referring to yet another one of his mother's failed love interests. The ensuing crying keeps Jimmy awake that night. Below this scene is a picture of a photographer trying to capture Jimmy and his mother and Jimmy trying to pull his mother away. Taken separately, this may just be viewed as a child that doesn't want to have his picture taken. However, in light of the information before and surrounding it, it is clearly a very scared boy trying to keep his mother away from a man that may hurt her and cause another night of crying. The man is probably very well just trying to take a photograph at the mother's request, but at this point, the young boy cannot separate men, his mother, and crying (Ware, 116). Jimmy is quite clearly not “tolerating” the recognition of his Mother’s sexual side because he sees it causing her pain.
Moving forward in time, but actually backwards in the novel, Jimmy goes to meet his estranged father. After only seconds, he immediately imagines his father has an ulterior motive. That is, perhaps his father only contacted him as a means of getting back with his mother. Of course this causes Jimmy to imagine the scene above where Jimmy is almost literally skinning his father alive (38-39). If we read this from the perspective of Jimmy's world, all men ever try to do is get with his mother, even his own father cannot be an exception and this must be his reason for contacting him. This is the second time we see Jimmy imagining he's killing a man that wronged his mother. In fact, this is the man that started the whole string of men that hurt his mother. This possibility is not lost on Jimmy as he imagines a rather gruesome end for his old man.
     Jimmy Corrigan, because of these experiences, is a walking contradiction. On one hand, we see that he is very protective of his mother and doesn't want to see her get hurt. However, we also see evidence that he believes he has failed to protect his mother from the men who cause her to stay awake at night crying. This gives Jimmy a double dose of inferiority complex. Dose 1: He couldn't protect his mother from men and their ways and is therefore unworthy of love himself and Dose 2: He is a man and can't separate himself from the types of men his mother attracts. These two conclusions cause Jimmy to want to strike out on his own, so to speak, and push his mother away as the wellspring of these feelings. Despite all of this, she is still his safe place. We see this when Jimmy is having a minor crisis in a diner with his father and sneaks off to a pay phone to call his mom (176). So he doesn't want men to hurt his mother, and he also doesn't want to lose his safe place. However, he still pushes her away whenever possible. So let's examine how this manifests itself in the novel.
     The first woman we see Jimmy interact with other than his mother is Peggy, the mail clerk at his workplace. First, we're given a view

of Jimmy's fantasy, sitting by a fire with Peggy in pure bliss. Following it though, is the actual reality that she barely recognizes his existence and when she does, it is in an air of annoyance (13). Jimmy calls her once, before he leaves town, to get his mail which is of course silly because that is her job (21). Looking at this scene in light of his inferiority complex, it is easy to see why Jimmy makes no move and even seems to accept the harsh treatment from Peggy. He's a man after all and she is probably just protecting herself. Beyond that, he does not talk to Peggy at work, or at least that we know of, he simply day dreams about her. When he does finally strike up enough courage to talk to her, it is by phone. We see Jimmy on the phone with exactly 3 parties: The airline, Peggy, and his mother. There is no doubt he chose to call her to keep his distance, the same way he stays distant from his mother. He also prefaces the call with his mail at work, a further safety net. He is at least trying to grow beyond his dependence on his mother, but he's still doing it with his mother in mind, distance and safety.
When Jimmy decides to accept his father's invitation to come and see him, Jimmy is seated next to a chatty woman on the plane (29). This woman is exactly what Jimmy does not need. When he mentions that his mother is in a nursing home, she alludes to committing suicide if she ever finds herself in one. This obviously doesn’t sit very well with Jimmy, seeing that he probably had a hand in getting his mom to go to the home and he already feels he failed to protect her. Here we see again, the duality of Jimmy and his mother. He convinced his mother to go to a nursing home to distance himself from her but keep her close and now he is reminded just how miserable a nursing home can be. The woman then goes on to explain how she wishes her father were in a home so that he wouldn't be able to hit her mother anymore which causes Jimmy to glance over slightly wild eyed. He already has his view that men hurt women emotionally and she's adding the physical aspect to it as well. If that isn't bad enough, his wild eyed glance, from his huddled, defensive position in his chair, puts him eye level with the woman's chest. This is not lost on the woman and she shrieks that he must be staring at her breasts, ending with “well I bet your Dad's a real jerk too!” Jimmy already has an inferiority complex based around his view of men and he already knows how his father abandoned him and his mother, and now this woman is likening him to a father he isn't even sure he wants anything to do with and who abandoned him and his mother. Jimmy responds appropriately by huddling in his chair with his hands wrapped around himself.
Unfortunately, Jimmy meets his adopted sister, Amy, in the hospital where their father eventually dies. In the turmoil of the emergency room, Jimmy once again imagines his mother and how she would disapprove, not only of him bothering with his father, but of “that colored girl” (309). Through their interaction and a fantasy scene or two, it is clear that Jimmy likes his new sister. Of course his inferiority complex spikes again as, even in his fantasy, a nuclear holocaust has to take place for her to be with him (334). Defying his depiction of his mother, Jimmy does not leave the ER or his new sister. However, when their father does eventually die, he is shoved aside by his sister in her grief. Jimmy immediately runs all the way back home, back to the safe place where he can both have his lifeline and push her away. He's just been given an example of what happens when he pushes against his mother too hard, resetting all the progress he had made on his trip. The novel may well have ended differently if he had just hung around for his sister's impending apology. 
     These are just a few examples. In fact, the whole book is full of examples of how Jimmy's Mom pervades every second of his life. She is at once his lifeline and safety blanket and the bane of his existence.
Works Cited:

Britton, Ronald, Michael Feldman, and Edna Shaughnessy. The Oedipus complex today clinical implications. London: Karnac Books, 1989. eBook.

Spavento, Elizabeth "Exploring the Nature of Individual Identity in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The
     Smartest Kid on Earth," The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English:
     Vol. 9: Iss. 1, Article 5.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York City: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

[1] Page numbering by my reckoning of the paperback edition, may differ with other editions.

1 comment:

Adam said...

The idea in the first paragraph is good. For it to really be an excellent argument, though, I think there'd need to be a claim developing *from* that idea of pushing away / hiding behind.

The 2nd paragraph is good. One thing I'm noticing for the first time his how his mother turns away from the violence - how should we understand that? Is that turning away part of the fantasy itself? Or is it just really ingrained into how he understands his relationship with her?

Your extended discussion of the various thanksgivings is basically good. I would have liked a more coherent preparation for this material, ideally in the introduction. I also think that your analysis isn't even close to exhaustive (what about the car ride to the restaurant at thanksgiving as a child?) which goes to show that it has substantial merit. I'd like to have seen more discussion of Thanksgiving-as-Thanksgiving here, too - the absence of a stable romantic/sexual connection leads to an absence of the family Thanskgiving...

Re: your good analysis of his fantasy of skinning his father, one thing you're moving towards is making explicit the connection between his mother's sexuality and the ongoing themes of violent retribution through the book - but curiously Superman is both the agent of violent retribution in our cultural fantasies and the *object* of that violent retribution in your initial scene. I'd like to see you bring all of that together.

"Jimmy Corrigan, because of these experiences, is a walking contradiction." - good paragraph.

Your closing paragraphs, explaining the consequences of his inferiority complex, are perfectly good. For my part, I would have preferred a return to superman - since you're on the edge of addressing the paradox of superman as savior and object of revenge. *However*, my preferences doesn't mean that you haven't done well. This is well organized, well argued, with a good dose of research. It's also a large jump ahead of the previous drafts.