I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself For Sympathy

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Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I will be is the result. This comes clear to me at the wrong time. I am standing in a line, almost rehabilitated.

Louise Erdrich’s short story I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy begins this way, and then jumps directly in and out of a flashback to explain how the narrator got to where he is.

It all starts out fairly harmless, he is trying to find a gift for his girlfriend, Dawn, at the local Walgreens and he picks out a purple toucan. Then he starts to daydream and wish that he had acquired it in some more romantic way. He has the money to pay for it, but instead he walks out the door with it simply to, “…see if shit happens, if do-do occurs.” Pg. 149, And occur it does. He is chased by the manager and a policewoman and several other people, until, “…my stroke of luck, good or bad is no telling, occurs.” Pg. 150

Throughout the next scene, the narrator steals a car that is left idling momentarily at the depot and takes off with it, even with a woman screaming and clinging to the car and people running after him. He doesn’t realize until later when it starts to cry that everyone was running and screaming, “b…b…baby”. Pg. 151

This is the point where his luck takes a turn for the worse. He gets chased by a cop, (though he gets away) only to get stuck in a snowdrift. Then he leaves the baby in the car and takes off on foot, heading south.

The first time I read this story, the mother in me was furious. I was with him right until the point where he realized he had kidnapped a baby and didn’t take it back. This plays upon every mothers’ worst fear. I decided that this was probably not the reaction that the author had intended, so I shut off my blinders and read it again.

Upon second reading, it becomes obvious to me that the narrator is supposed to be the knight of the story. He has this romantic idea of a relationship that is clearly long since over, but he sets out on a quest to get her back by bringing her a Christmas present (even though she lives in another town with another man). In chivalric literature, the knight goes on a quest and everything that happens to him and that stands in his way is pre-destined by the fates. This is clearly how the narrator feels about what happens to him – like he has no control over what happened. Why do you think he seems so unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions?

The narrator feels detached from the humanity of the situation, specifically with regards to this small baby who he describes as, “so small that it is not a child yet.” I interpreted this baby as a symbol of innocence. The narrator has lost his innocence and has no family to speak of, so why should he care about this small child that has suddenly been thrust into his care? He sees his girlfriend, Dawn(though probably his ex) as the only person who can save him. Did anyone else interpret her name as a symbol of sunrise, or a new day – a new start?

As the story jumps back and forth between the past and the present you realize that he is in jail, though he is about to be set free. The last thing he reflects on is the baby living, “They asked me in court why I didn’t take it along with me, bundled in my jacket, and I say, well it lived, didn’t it? Proving I did right. But I know better sometimes, now that I’ve spent time alone here in Mandan…”. Pg. 154 After a little research, I discovered that Mandan is a tribe of Indians, which makes me wonder if he was imprisoned on a reservation (they have their own courts and jails). He also says, “I know I’ll always be inside him, cold and black, about the size of a coin, maybe, something he touches against and skids. And he’ll say, what is this, and the thing is he won’t know it is a piece of thin ice I have put there, the same as I have in me”.

I interpreted this last statement as the narrator grasping for solidarity with some human anywhere, even if it is negative. He clearly felt a little something for the baby, because he left him with blankets and a toy poised above his head. He is somehow so hardened that he believes that he had no control over this, or any situation. Does anyone else get the feeling from the opening line of the story that this will not be the last time he sees the inside of a jail cell? Either way, the story offers little hope.

14 thoughts on “I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself For Sympathy

  1. Megan, you make three great points: 1) The baby represents innocence. 2) That will not be the last time he’s in jail. 3) The questioning of the name Dawn. I didn’t think about it until your blog. I do see the value in it now – and I think your comment that it’s a start of a new day, a beginning is spot-on. I think Erdrich is deliberate in that name choice – maybe as an allusion for Dawn’s new beginning after their breakup – or maybe as an inspirational theme that Erdrich wants the narrator to grasp.

    However, the mention of chivalric literature is what I want to talk about. I think it’s awesome! I read those words in the pretext and was trying to apply it to my blog somehow, but it never came through – I was just never able to equate it in there. It’s great that you’re able to parallel his mentality with that of a knight – and that his choices are, in a way, fated.

    I think in his head, his intentions aren’t as bad as people make them out to be because of his belief in this “fate,” (self-fulfilling prophecy?) when really, he’s desensitized to genuine goodness. It’s not a familiar feeling to him so even when he does bad, he tries to extract some goodness out of it, even when he knows it’s disastrous – just like when he says, “…well it lived, didn’t it? Proving I did right.”

    • Thank you Vone. I felt the chivalric aspect was really important, but it was so hard to decide how to pull it into my analysis. I’m glad you think it turned out okay.

      The only real difference between the narrator and a knight is that knights generally are good. They do great deeds meant for the greater good. The narrator continuously does things that are self-destructive and makes others lives worse. Though of course, he doesn’t believe his actions are harmful.

      • I think that is definitely an accurate portrayal. If anything, the baby is the hero of this story. He survives being kidnapped and left for dead, plus he pulls emotions out of the narrator that he didn’t realize he was capable of.

  2. I really liked how you compared him to being a night in a romantic piece, and i can certainly see that. He goes on a dangerous quest to win back her heart and steal away from the older man. You could even compare the fact that her new man is obviously more successful and has more to offer her much; like in many romance stories where she ultimately chooses the poor man instead.

  3. You ask the question why is he so unwilling to accept responsibility. I believe that he has convinced himself he is a product of his environment and circumstances. This mentality transitions to his view of the baby’s future. The narrator believes that the baby will now have coldness and blackness within him as a result of this occurrence.

    I also was wondering where Mandan was, as I thought it was a prison. Thanks for making that addition to your post!

    • I feel like he definitely believes that he has no control over his own circumstances. The very first line almost gives me the sense that he has given up, and will never take control of his own destiny. I think that he will definitely have an impact on the babies life, though I think he overestimates his effect.

      • You know, this would be a great question for tonight: Comment on differences in personal responsibility displayed by the narrator in “Mad Dog” and Lt. Cross in “The Things They Carried.” I don’t know if you’ll get this by then, since it’s in 15 minutes, but rereading this it occurred to me that it’s a connection between the stories that I hadn’t fully realized.

  4. I love that you equated this to a chivalrous quest. The actions of the main character make much more sense to me in this light. Also, if he sees himself acting out a preordained destiny, then he wouldn’t feel remorse at ending up with the baby, since this would have been part of what was “fated” to happen to him. He becomes a vessel of the quest, rather than actively taking part in his course of action. From a psychological point of view, you could say he’s justifying his detachment and impulsive behavior by placing the blame on a delusional pretext, clearing him of all guilt.

    • It is quite the visceral, psychological story isn’t it? I wanted to shake him both times I read it, because his actions and his general attitude are maddening. It definitely helps to view it as a quest, because at least there appears to be some structure to the crazy.

  5. I had to comment on this, just because of the title! Great line! What an interesting story! I was cracking up at the narrator and his actions all because he wanted to see if “do-do would happen.” Oh boy! This is a book I might need to pick-up. Nice post Megan! I love the tone and voice you add to the descriptions of the book.

  6. Hello, I really enjoyed your review and your interpretation of the story. You brought a lot of ideas to light I hadn’t thought of. What interested me is your comparison of the narrator to a knight and the journey as his quest. I find this interesting because his quest and desire to return to her, although he attempts to bear a gift, turns out to be entirely selfish and inconsiderate. First of all, he refers to her as his girlfriend and the way the story is narrated, we truly believe him. We even see him as somewhat romantic when he describes how he wished he had won the bird for her at a fair. This seems very strange, because as the story progresses we learn that in reality they are no longer involved, and haven’t been for a while. He goes from being a man who simply wants to get a Christmas present for his girlfriend, to a man in pursuit of his ex-girlfriends coerced sympathy. His misleading information interested me but the lines that struck me the most were: “The bird on the roof. It is for Dawn. You could say she got me into this, so Dawn should get me out.” and “I begin to think if I show up at Dawns, even with nothing, on a Christmas Eve, she will not throw me out. She will have to take me, let me stay there, on the couch.” This is in no way romantic. The selfish nature of his intentions seem to slowly unfold and reveal themselves. He plans on giving her no choice but to see him, and does not concern himself with the fact that it will likely put her in an uncomfortable and unfair position since she lives with a man now and it is a special occasion. Moreover, he toys with the idea that it is somehow her fault that he is in this position, and therefore her responsibility to save HIM, although she is completely unaware of his plans A knight’s quest is a selfless one that benefits the pursued love interest. This plan of his serves only to manipulate her and benefit him instead. By arriving unannounced expecting sympathy he is taking advantage of her, and he never once concerns himself with HER feelings on the matter. This, paired with his misleading and disillusioned statement that she is his “girlfriend” set off a little warning bell in my head. I am not saying that it was necessarily the authors intention, but everything I just pointed out paired with his indifference toward the baby, the baby’s mother, the policemen, the storekeeper, etc in pursuit of an idealized and selfish goal is reminiscent of an abusive ex-lover, and
    not a knight. Thoughts?

    • Sorry for the delayed response, but I was taking spring break off from writing.

      It sounds like you have done a very close reading of this story, and I can definitely see your interpretation. A little ways up in the comments, we decided that he was the anti-hero. He is on a quest, though his motives are definitely questionable at best. He is also a narcissist and a perpetual victim. He can’t even take responsibility for the life of a small child, how can he possibly be expected to consider the feelings of an old girlfriend. I definitely wouldn’t want this man showing up on my doorstep. The sad thing is that there are more people like this than I would like to admit.

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and for your interaction!

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