Exploring the art of prose


Daisy Johnson’s Cauldron: Realism & Fairy Tale Logic in “Albatross”

By Amelia Brown •

Daisy Johnson is quite obviously inspired by folklore in her debut collection of stories, Fen—her pages are home to sentient objects, immortal monsters, and animal transformations galore. In fact, Johnson’s stories pledge their allegiance to two narrative traditions that are usually considered to be in opposition: literary realism and the fairy tale.

Kate Bernheimer, a writer and a scholar of fairy tales, defines what she believes to be four formal signatures of the tradition in an essay titled “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”: flatness of character, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. Johnson uses each of these elements—particularly the last two—very visibly throughout Fen. But there is one story in particular, “Albatross,” which proves just how deftly Johnson walks between the traditions of literary and fairy.

Fairy tale characters are archetypical; their actions and the settings in which they’re placed leave almost everything up to the reader’s imagination beyond the most skeletal descriptions. Johnson does not rely on these tactics in “Albatross.” Her characters are round, complex, psychologically fleshed-out. Details are precise; scenes are realistic and varied. Johnson never fails to show rather than tell. Were the story in a different collection, in fact, one might mistake it for literary realism right up until the last moment.

Polly, the main character of “Albatross,” is left pregnant and alone when Reuben, her sailor boyfriend, goes missing at sea. She does not pine; she does not sit on her widow’s walk staring out at the waves, leaving us to wonder at her thoughts. She does not become an archetype. She does what any literary, realistic heroine might: she marches to the docks to interrogate sailors, has long internal recollections and monologues, and offers reasons for doing the things that she does. She works the late shift at the local pub. She derides, to herself, the sailing superstitions that Reuben had loved, the love of story that had sent him to sea.

These superstitions follow her anyway. And in their wake, they tow the intuitive logic and normalized magic of the fairy tale which Johnson does employ, to devastating effect. The story focuses on Polly’s isolation. When Polly recalls the superstition that albatrosses carry the ghosts of sailors, she begins to obsess over it, though she does not believe. The reader is aware that Rueben has almost certainly died at sea, but because the tale is told through Polly’s perspective we are led through her almost cruel insistence that she has been abandoned. Then, we have the gut-wrenching scene on the very last page:

One morning she woke and the sky was red enough it came glazed through the curtains. She felt sick through to her bones. A great, seasick nausea. Off kilter. Went down the steps one at a time, one hand on the wall. Something had happened. Sometimes it was easy to know. The hot sunrise was at her temples and filling her mouth.

The albatross was on top of the kitchen table, one foot on either side of the carved compass.

This moment with the albatross is a magical one, but it isn’t about Polly suddenly realizing that the stories are true. Nor is it about the albatross revealing itself as proof of a magical reality. It is about Polly acknowledging that Reuben is dead. The leap is one that only a fairy tale (or a part-fairy tale) can make because it is one that does not have to explain itself. And yet it is not at odds with the psychological realism of the story and of the world. It presents itself, unquestioned, because this transformation, this impossible-turned-everyday is exactly how it feels to realize your own loss. Or, as Johnson writes in this moment, “Something had happened. Sometimes it was easy to know.”

Why does Johnson choose to include normalized magic? Why include this quietly illogical logic? Johnson’s characters inhabit a landscape of realism—they live in the human, rather than fairy world. And yet the titular, ancient fairy tale setting of each of the stories in Fen lurks behind these lives. The two traditions of realism and fairy tale coexist in this place, not always peacefully, just as they coexist in the human mind. But when Johnson includes the intuitive logic of fairy tales, it is nearly always at the end of her story. This logic comes in to remind us of what we have always known and only tried to ignore. It’s a forgotten threat, a nightmare vision we keep consciously in the corner of our eye. It doesn’t fit because we have tried desperately to erase its space in the world, but it will always show up on the kitchen table, insisting on itself. And when it does, we’ll recognize it immediately as true.

AMELIA BROWN is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts. Amelia received her MFA in fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars in June 2018. She has reviewed for the Ploughshares blog, and is currently at work on her first novel.