A Transactional Reading of Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo:
The Prophetic Art of Friendly Instruction
John Dewey (1934, 1987) felt "that poetry teaches as friends and life teach, by being, and not by express intent" (p. 349). For young readers books are friends; often the best friends they have. Books can open up worlds of possibility and satisfy needs and desires, and sustain hopes and dreams when all others, including teachers, parents, and peers, fail. Books are warm and caring friends. They can also discipline and disturb us by listening well, speaking sincerely, and giving us a different perspective on things.
I want to provide an example of a book that teaches by being a friend. The book is Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo. Some friends can be dangerous. I believe this book goes beyond the norms of conventional good and evil. It is an instance of creative, imaginative criticism; that is, the most penetrating criticism. Jackaroo is potentially prophetic to its readers. My reading of Jackaroo is my own. It is the response of one reader to a text. My approach is influenced by Louise M. Rosenblatt's widely influential "reader response" theory of literary interpretation. This choice is far from arbitrary. Consider the subtitle of one of Rosenblatt's (1978, 1994) most famous works: The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt explicitly acknowledges her debt to Dewey throughout this book; for instance, in her preface she admits that "Dewey's Art as Experience especially left its mark, perhaps more through its vision of aesthetic values woven into the texture of the daily life of human beings than its specific treatment of the literary arts" (p. xi). Our interest in Dewey is precisely his vision of moral and aesthetic values woven into the texture of the daily life of human beings. His aesthetic opinions regarding any specific art form, including literature, do not concern us.
Recall the Deweyan reminder that the organism plays an active and selective role in the transactional response to environment. As important as the interdependence of the self and the world is the potentiality of choice among alternatives, the capacity to revise and reshape our perceptions and our actions . For the individual reader, each text is a new situation, a new challenge. The literary work of art, we have seen, is an important kind of transaction with the environment precisely because it permits such self-aware acts of consciousness. The reader, bringing his own particular temperament and fund of past transactions to the text, lives thorough a process of handling new situations, new attitudes, new personalities, new conflicts in values. (p. 172).
The process of vicariously living through new situations, new conflicts in values through transactions with texts, or more exactly, the transactions between the culturally funded text of the person and the literary text at hand, requires that we reconsider and possibly revise our answer to the basic existential question of how we should live. I admit bringing my own Deweyan temperament and fund of past transactions to my reading of Jackaroo.
Jackaroo is set somewhere in the Middle Ages were the peasants, especially the women, are silenced by suspicion and fear. They often tell the old stories, especially of the legendary hero Jackaroo, although they only somewhat believe what they say. Gwyn is different because she questions, imagines, and undergoes different feelings than those around her. The book begins in the heart of a brutal winter with Gwyn in the "Doling Room," where she has gone to receive a dole of food. Gwyn's basic conflict of values and context of choice is established early:
Men didn't come to the Doling Room. The shame would be too great for a man to carry. So the women carried it, Gwyn thought. It was a hard thing to be a woman, her mother had often told her . In the spring, then, she would have to say yes to some man, or let Da announce her intention never to marry. One or the other, because service in a Lord's house was unimaginable. One or the other was her choice, and she liked neither; but she could do nothing about the hardness of that . There was no one here to recognize her, the Innkeeper's daughter from the Ram's Head, but between the bitter envy of those whom hunger held close and the danger of traveling without a man's protection, she preferred to be unknown. (p. 4)
It is not difficult to intuit the quality of this passage. Gwyn's world is a man's world. It is also hierarchically organized according to social class. There are the Lords and the peasants. Gwyn is a peasant, but a privileged one as we will learn. In Gwyn's world a woman's choices are limited. She may choose service in the Lord's house or not, and she may choose to marry or not. Either way she ultimately will be governed by men, either the Lord of the manor or her father, and after his death her bratty younger brother. The roles women may dramatically identify themselves with as potential acts and deeds are few. Women in Gwyn's world are captured by exclusive either/ors. Her choices are false choices prescripted by the social customs of the culture into which she was born. Her life is tracked by the customs of her culture. There is also irony in this passage, especially in the first and last sentences. What it means to be strong is called into question in the first sentence, and what Gwyn might in fact prefer for herself given her immediate situation is anonymity. Irony and ironic reversal prevails throughout this novel.
We soon learn that Gwyn's family is prosperous. Her father is a prudent innkeeper who has amassed considerable wealth. As one of the waiting women remarks bitterly, "The Innkeeper at the Rams' Head lives like a Lord, fattening on the lean years" (p. 8). As a matter of fact he does exploit the poor in bad times such as the Kingdom is now in. Gwyn herself wonders, "Why should she feel badly to have warm, dry feet? Or guilty -- because she felt guilty too -- that she had good fortune and did nothing to share it" (p. 13). Gwyn, as it turns out, is not in the Doling Room for herself or her family; she is there for "old Megg" because her friend is too feeble to come herself. As she leaves the Doling Room, she sees an old woman and offers to accompany her home to provide safety in numbers and help her carry the load. We can already see Gwyn's character beginning to emerge. Gwyn is reflective, has emotional sympathy, and is perceptive. We can also see that there is ambiguity and tension in her and in the world within which she lives. We wonder, what will she do?
At home we learn more of Gwyn's character. Her mother observes, "If it's not your imagination that gets you into trouble it'll be your soft heart" (p. 40). Gwyn has an unconcealing imagination that is able to see beyond the actual: "Such snow, Gwyn thought, had a way of turning the world into what it was not and making it seem safe. Such snow masked the true face of the world" (p. 41). In self reflection Gwyn recognizes the difference between her and her sister Rose, who is so eager to marry: "Whatever Rose did, whatever gesture she used, there was something dainty to it. Gwyn had never seen herself, but she felt inside herself a strength that flowed down her arms and legs, she could feel it especially in her shoulders" (p. 44-45). Gwyn feels and knows that she possesses a physical strength that defies the customary gender construction in her culture. Excellencies of character, including discriminating judgment, emotional susceptibility, and force of execution are all part of Gwyn's character. It is vital to the story that these virtues are all seen as deficiencies by her family and community. Docility, unquestioning conformity, and obedience to law are the virtues customarily associated with "good" members of her social class and her gender. To be free, to know and recreate her self, Gwyn will need to go beyond the social conventions of her culture.
Gwyn has many virtues, but she still needs to grow. Voigt's heroines frequently grow by learning through relationships with males. These relationships are almost always between equals and without romance, although with a great deal of earned respect. Voigt often displays patterns of warm helpful friendship between males and females, often with significant differences in age. The relationships are typically between those whose differences are considerable, but wherein each has something that the other needs. In Jackaroo such a relationship is established between Gwyn and a young ("Almost eleven") Lordling when they become stranded in the dead of a very hard winter in an abandoned cabin.
The young Lordling, Gadrian, is ill-prepared to care for himself in such hardship. He was also accustomed to aristocratic privilege. In the case of the Lordling's needs, Gwyn's responses are prefigured by her being accustomed to caring for her brother (who in many ways is even less able to care for himself than the Lordling, although he is older) as much as it is to the necessity of serving the needs of the Lords. Whatever his deficiencies, the young Lordling has inner strength and determination to care for himself. Further, Gwyn is forced to admit to herself, "For all that he was so much younger than she was, he had a much broader knowledge of the world" (p. 125). Gadrian, like all of the ruling class, knows how to read and write, and he teaches Gwyn. Such instruction is strictly forbidden by the customs of the Kingdom. Gadrian enlarges Gwyn's world. He and his father make maps; in fact, that is how they became stranded. Gwyn and Burl, a burly servant in the Inn, had guided the Lord and Lordling to the frontiers of the land, the Lord and his son had verified some of the topography and they were on their way back when they were separated and stranded in the snow storm. The young boy knows what is beyond the mountains; Gwyn does not. That knowledge is a metaphor for the power of knowledge the Lords use to rule the peasants, and that, for all of her intuitiveness, Gwyn lacks.
Gadrian has other needs. Most of all Gwyn is able to comfort him over the recent death of his mother. If Gwyn has unusual physical strength, Gadrian displays remarkable emotional perceptiveness. As Gwyn strives to comfort Gadrian, their conversations come to have the quality of an inquiry into the meaning of life and death for both. Together they dare for the first time to address the fundamental existential questions. She also teaches him to fight with a peasant's weapon, the staff, something she is surprisingly adept at. In turn, she learns how to use a sword. Gadrian learns the virtues of hard work and being able to take care of himself, even when he does not enjoy it. They each ask one another questions they "had no right to ask" (p. 119). These questions transcend the norms of acceptable discourse between men and women as well as Lords and peasants. They both learn a great deal about the lives of the other. Gwyn has to admit, "She enjoyed his idea of her" (p. 120).
In this long interlude suspended by bitter winter from the rest of the world, Gadrian and Gwyn becomes friends and learn a great deal from and about each other and their lives. The grand questions are addressed; what is life, how should we live, and what does it mean? The answers of a Lordling and an Innkeeper's daughter are quite different. At the end both are changed. It is important that much of this "conversation" involves learning to do what the other does and care for each other's needs. There is tension and conflict in this relationship that will never go entirely away. These two people are different, but their tensions are creative, and they bestow a great deal of value upon each other because they have the moral courage to live with the conflicts.
There are two brilliant moments of radiantly clear perception for Gwyn in the novel. Neither involves critical appraisal alone. Rather, the reality of her situation is simply disclosed to her. Both of them occur either on occasions of violent death or near death. The first occurs when, at winter thaw, Gadrian and Gwyn make their way back to the Inn, where Gadrian's father has been waiting in dread that he has lost his son. Demonstrating the skills Gwyn had taught him about covering his tracks in the snow, a lesson that had resembled playing hide and seek, Gadrian rushes ahead by a different route that Gwyn cannot follow. Gadrian is a good student. When Gwyn arrives at the Inn alone, the Lord, thinking his son dead and blaming her, immediately draws his sword and places the blade to her throat fully intending to have his revenge at the cost of her life. Her family is frozen with fear and can say or do nothing. Only Burl defends her by demanding that the Lord "hear her" because Burl avers, "I know her" (p. 129). He does. We do not know what would have happened to Gwyn next, because it is at this moment that Gadrian breaks into the room. It is also at this moment that Gwyn sees through everything. It is a moment of truth, and truth can be ugly. In the same instant she loses belief in both her family and the wisdom of those that rule the Kingdom.
The unconcealment is put into words only after Gwyn has left the room and first the Lord and then Burl follow. The dialogue begins with the Lord speaking:
"How was I to Know--" "Aye, the Lords know nothing of the people--" "--when you didn't say--" "--and care little for what they know or do not know," Gwyn finished. He warned her then "You shall not speak to me so." So Gwyn stopped speaking. She held his eyes and held her tongue. But the anger burned in her . At last the Lord broke their silence. "I would know how the Innkeeper got such a daughter, and such a servant" he said. "The irony of it is that now you will never trust me and now you can trust me for anything." (pp. 129-130)
There are many ironies and reversals in this exchange. The Lord is a little like King Lear -- he only knows what he hears stated. Gwyn knows that the Lords have power over the people, but without knowledge of those they govern (something that will turn out to be far less true than it appears at the moment -- Voigt is relentlessly ambivalent in her characterizations, and Gwyn's perception here is not perfect). She holds her tongue as she holds his eye. Her courage is tempered, as it should be, by prudence. There are no rules that govern such morally ambiguous situations as these, only wisdom. Power is real and dangerous for the perceptive and courageous as well as the inattentive and timid.
The dialogue continues with Burl after the Lord has left:
"You cannot be angry at them, Gwyn," Burl's voice said behind her. "They thought of what they would have done in the same situation. Later, when they had thought more they--" "Later would have been too late, wouldn't it?" Gwyn asked, surprising herself by her calm. "The Lords don't stand under the law." "They are the law." "It's their own law." "Aye. They will not want you to have seen," he advised her. Gwyn knew which they he meant. She knew also how they must be feeling now, to know they had betrayed her so sick at heart. She was the one betrayed and she felt a death in her heart. How would they feel, being the betrayers. Well then," she said, "I will not have seen." What had been done could not be undone. What she had understood could not be forgotten. "It will be a small lie." (pp. 130-131)
The loss of belief, expressed most clearly by her anger, in the depth of her family's love or the wisdom of the law of the Lords, is paradoxically liberating and it takes her past conventional good and evil. There is a death in her heart. Her comfortable habitual ways of responding to authority, her self, her personal identity has been destroyed. If love can be lost then anything can die. That it is ambiguous at first who "they" (Lords or family) are is itself revealing. The last sentence of the first half of the novel reads, "The lie would be pretending that everything had not changed" (p. 131). Gwyn has seen beyond the actual, but as yet she lacks any vision of the possible. The irony of the last line for the remainder of the book is that, having unmasked the actual situation, it is a mask that will open up the possibilities that lie beyond the good and evil of the law and love she has "known." The last sentence in the opening paragraph of the next section reads, "She wore her face like a mask" (p. 135). Similar passages are found throughout the second half of the novel where, indeed, masks of all kinds play a prominent role. Such dramatic recognition and reversal is quite common to quality literature. It is a part of self-discovery and creation.
Voigt divides her novel into halves (there are no chapter titles, just the titles of the two halves). The first half was titled "the Innkeeper's Daughter." At the end of the first half of the novel, Gwyn is not only no longer the Innkeeper's daughter, she is in the possession of no one, including herself. It is here that her inquiry into herself, and the social scripts that created the roles she has played, begins. Gwyn's search for her self, paradoxically, involves donning a mask: the mask of an outlaw, the Jackaroo. Gwyn had found the costume of the Jackaroo while she and the Lordling were stranded in old Megg's cottage. By dramatically identifying with the values the mask, and the deeds, feelings, and thoughts associated with it, Gwyn eventually recreates her self.
We learn early in the second section, simply titled "Jackaroo," that Gwyn has decided not to marry, even though her father is prepared to bestow his inheritance on her. When she made the announcement, "She understood herselfÉ. She would not throw her days away caring for the comfort of some man who asked for a bag of twelve gold pieces, never mind the girl who came with it" (p. 141). The reference to gold is to the gift bestowed upon Gwyn by the Lord for saving his son. The gift, in conjunction with being the Innkeeper's daughter, means that Gwyn is a highly attractive catch, and that she could have her choice of available men. Gwyn might well imagine it a source of social security and independence, but, significantly, she does not. Gwyn's loss is complete. She no longer knows herself; indeed she has lost her self identity. What she does know is that she can never return to her former self. She does not want to marry and she knows it, but she is in doubt about what to do with her life and her emotions are a conscious sign of the break:
It was not that she wanted to change her mind. Far from it, although she understood her own reasons for that no better than she understood the reasons for the many other changes she felt taking place within herself. A few years earlier, when her body had so suddenly changed, she had felt awkward and uneasy, unsure; she recognized that same feeling now, but it was not her body that caused it, it was her self. Everybody seemed a stranger to her now, even the Innkeeper's daughter, Gwyn, herself. (p. 160)
The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing. Doubt for Dewey was a living, embodied, and impassioned condition. On such a Deweyan account we can say Gwyn's unconscious habitual ways of functioning have been disrupted, but as of yet she has no idea of what to do. The analogy to profound bodily changes during an earlier life transition for Gwyn expresses well why the search for self is as much, or more, a matter of feeling and embodiment as it is of mind. Indeed, for the Deweyan, separating the mind from the body and feelings is to construct a false dualism. Understanding such profound unconscious transformations requires sustained reflective inquiry. Gwyn's feelings of tension are yet to evolve and become more specific and nameable. Gwyn's intuitions concerning the quality of her situation are acute, and at least she knows what is conventionally lauded and rewarded is no longer possible for her even if she has no vision of what is. Before she knows how to act she will have to refine her intuitions further by attending to things in her world that seem horribly obvious, but that almost no one else notices. She has learned a lot, but her vulnerabilities have placed her at great risk. In order to figure things out, Gwyn will need to take incredible risks.
The widely accepted traditional theory of emotions, traceable at least to Charles Darwin (1873, 1901), asserts emotions precede their expression; the pattern being one of stimulus, feeling, action. William James (1890, 1950, Vol. I) constructed a theory of emotion that in effect reversed this series to get one of stimulus, action, and feeling (p. 219). For example, when we flee a dangerous situation, the action gives rise to the emotion of fear. Dewey was influenced by this view, but ultimately rejected it in favor of one in which naming a feeling was simply an abstraction from a complex emergent coordination of an active response to a needful situation.
Dewey's (1894, 1971) position was that "the mode of behavior is the primary thing, and that the idea and the emotional excitation are constituted at one and the same time; they represent the tension of stimulus and response within the coordination which makes up the mode of behavior" (p. 174). So what is this review of Dewey's theory of emotions doing here in the middle of Gwyn's deliberations about herself, her world, and what she ought to do? The answer is this: one can act intelligently without reasons.
Sometimes to know who we are, we must act according to our intuitions and imaginings and without reason. Once we do something, then we have something to reflect upon and reasons for further actions may follow:
No reason, Gwyn thought later, striding through the woods. How could she know the reasons for anything when she didn't even understand the reasons for which she was where she was, dressed as she was [as Jackaroo], and for what purpose. The high boots shielded her legs from snapping branches, the mask hung close over her face and the short red cape swung with her shoulders. Her heart sang. (p. 162)
Given the political institutions and rules of policy in her world, Gwyn can only find the ideal factors of morality beyond good and evil. There is prophetic wisdom and sympathetic perception in what Gwyn is about to do. What she does is give one of her gold pieces to the poor Fiddler who had come to her father but was unable to strike a deal to save his humble holdings. In the act of giving, acting behind a mask, and as an outlaw, Gwyn begins to recognize herself. From partially precognitive origins Gwyn's outlaw emotions lead to the acts of an outlaw and eventually to wise, kind, and considerate acts that lie beyond good and evil.
The lessons learned while stranded with the Lordling provide the technical skill she requires to carry out the deception. Gwyn knows how to carry herself with aristocratic swagger and speak with authority (i.e., "the cadence of Gadrian's speech") as well as aloof assertiveness (eventually the docility of the peasants before all this will begin to disturb her). Gwyn is beginning to tell the truth of the ugliness of her world to herself and to humankind in acting out the role of the outlaw hero Jackaroo. Having acted out in the world, she can begin to see herself in the reflection of others.
The excitement of the action is liberating and intoxicating to her and so later, "Gwyn allowed the laughter that had been building up to go free. She laughed aloud. The laughter flowed out into the trees and rose up into the blue sky, like a song" (p. 164). These feelings, emotions, and sense of release repeat themselves throughout the latter stages of this novel -- although often with an ironic twist. I want to suggest that such emotions are especially important for prophetic and creative action beyond the limits of conventional good and evil. Unlike other creatures, we not only have feelings, we can also know them and in knowing them, in making conscious what we have and are, we can come to know ourselves and our motives, and the social customs that created them, better. Through feeling, action, and reflection, we may come to know and create our own mind. This is what happens to Gwyn when she dons the costume of and dramatically identifies herself with the outlaw role of the Jackaroo.
The feminist writer Alison M. Jagger holds a theory of emotion that closely resembles Dewey's. For both, raw feeling are innate neurophysiological states. They are vague and undirected. Feelings are merely passively had. Emotions, on the other hand, are intentional and goal-directed. For Jagger, as for Dewey, the meaning and value of our emotions, like everything that is human, is socially prescripted and "like all social constructs, they are historical products bearing the marks of the society that constructed them" (Jagger, 1989, p. 159). So what would happen if someone like Gwyn were to challenge the prevailing social construction? She would experience outlaw emotions and might even become an outlaw.
People who experience conventionally unacceptable, or what I call "outlaw," emotions often are subordinated individuals who pay a disproportionately high price for maintaining the status quo . When unconventional emotional responses are experienced by isolated individuals, those concerned may be confused, unable to name their experience; they may even doubt their own sanity....Outlaw emotions may be politically because epistemologically subversive . Outlaw emotions are distinguished by their incompatibility with the dominant perceptions and values . (p. 160)
Gwyn does not know the meaning of her outlaw emotions. She seems to even doubt her own sanity, until she acts on them and the world reflects back on her the mythological role of the Jackaroo. Jagger helps us understand one other thing about Dewey's theory of emotions.
Jagger writes, "The most obvious way in whichÉ outlaw emotions can help in developing alternatives to prevailing conceptions of reality is by motivating new investigationsÉ. Theoretical investigation is always purposeful and observation is always selective" (p. 161). Having outlaw emotions are part of what it means to be a prophet. Jagger continues:
As well as motivating critical research, outlaw emotions may also enable us to perceive the world differently from its portrayal in conventional descriptions. They may provide the first indications that something is wrong with the way alleged facts have been constructed with accepted understandings of how things are . We may bring to consciousness our `gut-level' awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice, or danger . [We] may make subversive observations that challenge dominant conceptions of the status quo. (p. 160)
Gwyn surely makes subversive observations as a result of her outlaw emotions, and she acts on them in ways whose consequences take her beyond conventional good and evil. In many cases it is her actions that give rise to the emotions and thoughts. What Jagger adds, though, is the idea that, "Oppressed people have a kind of epistemological privilege insofar as they have easier access to this standpoint and therefore a better chance of ascertaining the possible beginnings of a society in which all could thrive" (p. 161). I believe that Gwyn has precisely this kind of troubling, and trouble-causing, emotional perceptions. We can see it in her emotional responses at the Spring Fair, at which her sister Rose is married and the announcement that Gwyn will not marry is made.
The Fair is the second moment of radiantly clear perception for Gwyn. Again, the reality of the situation is immediately unconcealed; this time on the occasion of a violent death. In the midst of the wedding ceremony Gwyn's gaze moves up the city wall:
She caught her breath. There, at the top of the wall, a body hung from a scaffold, its head down, turning in the wind. Its hands were bound behind it, and it looked, at the distance, like a broken doll or a scarecrow . It made Gwyn uneasy. Why would the Earl leave him up there, on this day? It was as if the hanged man were on display there, to warn, to cause fear. Who had he been? What had he done? (p. 168)
A scare crow, or a scare homo sapien sapiens? The perception of the man on the scaffold is one that Gwyn returns to repeatedly during her day at the fair. It is not just that she cannot stop seeing him that disturbs her most, though; it is that no one else does. Gwyn reflects
Nobody else saw him, nobody else looked to him. Only Gwyn. And who would want such a girl for his wife, if he knew what she saw. If, Gwyn thought, there were one of these young men who also saw the hanged man, then that one she might take. But if they saw, they did not speak of it, as if by not speaking they could make it disappear, and such men Gwyn would not marry. (p. 181)
The irony, of which there are many in this book, is that there is a man she knows well that has seen, has even told her why the man was hanged because he knew she would want to know. For all of her amazing perception, Gwyn cannot see the love that is closest to her and that has given her ample evidence that he understands and cares for her.
Tad, in a successful effort to hurt Gwyn, blurts out, "You're not a proper girl at all. You might as well be wearing trousers and a beard" (p. 174). Gwyn is different. She is physically strong, strong enough to play the Jackaroo and get away with it, but not coquettish enough to pander to men and procure a husband. In a day of reflective self understanding, "Gwyn realized that much as she might long to fit in, she was also glad she did not. Tad had said it to hurt her, but it was the truth just the sameÉ. She fit into this world as the hanged man did, she thought. She could not see his form where she stood, but he dangled at the edge of the fair, and she did not forget that. Let others forget" (p. 176). Gwyn cannot help seeing, and she cannot help remembering. Having awoken from the common dream, she cannot go back to sleep. You appear strange and awkward to yourself as well as others when you can no longer see as others do. It is a conflicted, complicated, and clumsy way to be.
Gwyn continues to ride as the Jackaroo, the one who rights wrongs. She finds it "odd that dressed up as Jackaroo she felt much more like herselfÉ. she liked herself. And in the disguise, she was free to do what she really wanted to do, much freer than was Gwyn, the Innkeeper's daughterÉ. Gwyn had never been so pleased with her life" (p. 196). Gwyn is becoming her destiny, but the sense of exhilaration and freedom begins to fade before the ironies and paradoxes of her role in this culture. The laughter of the Jackaroo takes a bitter turn. Gwyn begins reflecting on the paradoxes of freedom.
Acting the script for the role of the Jackaroo draws out of Gwyn actions for which she did not even know she had the potential. What the role begins to demand of her, however, leads to a stunning perception. Riding as Jackaroo, she comes across robbers that have killed a woman and her husband. Upon her arrival they flee into the woods and disappear. Nearby she finds the couple's child in the bushes where he was hidden. What was Gwyn, or the Jackaroo, to do? The child needs a mother and Gwyn's older sister Blithe had lost her son and spent the last year in irreconcilable despair. Riding up to Blithe's cottage, Gwyn simply places the child on the table and declares, "Woman, you will raise this child." Blithe protests, "NoÉI will have none but my own son." The Jackaroo commands with the authority of a Lord, "You will take this child and he will be your sonÉ. He has need of you, woman" (p. 200). The command is obeyed and Blithe soon becomes firmly attached to the child. The Jackaroo saw the best possibility in a needful situation for the child, Blithe, and the Jackaroo and acted appropriately to actualize the good. What she did was necessary, but hear the irony?
Unable physically to confront the three robbers, the Jackaroo, who succeeds by daring, deception, and cunning and not physical prowess, contrives a successful plan for having them captured and hung. The Jackaroo also helps Am, the pig herder, and his daughter; but Am is a fool. By boasting about his windfall from the Jackaroo, he is robbed of it and all the rest he owned. His situation, bad before, is now desperate. His best hope is to find someone to take in his children. On this occasion, "Gwyn had no pity for him. It was his own loose tongue that had done this to him, and he felt only pity for himself. The man was spineless. The two coins had been wasted on himÉ. It was little use to give him gold. If she could find a fine, strong-tongued woman to drive him, that might be of use to him" (p. 225). The voice of Gwyn's father may be heard in this passage. Gwyn herself is often referred to as "Strong-tongued" in the novel. When earlier in the novel her Da offers to name her his heir instead of Tad, he nonetheless remarks, "I would want you to have a husband, to govern you" (p. 215). It becomes clear later that Tad will grow up sturdier than earlier thought, so Da asks Gwyn for her advice. She agrees that Tad could eventually learn to run the Inn well, but observes, "You must find him someone strong and steady to marry, someone who can govern him when he needs it" (p. 251). Here we start becoming trapped in the paradoxes of freedom that embroider the second half of this novel. These paradoxes are part of the fact that human beings do need each other not only to live well, but to live at all. Da and Gwyn are right, after a fashion, in what they say.
Negative freedom, freedom from constraint, obsesses us. For many it is the only kind of freedom they know. To be free for something, we must bind ourselves to it. If we answer a calling, say to teach, we are bound by the virtues of the vocation; we have no choice (although, to answer a call responsibly we must annul it). We almost never ask ourselves what it is that we wish to be free for. To be free for something, say our calling, requires that we exercise practical reason and discipline ourselves to the virtues of our vocation. Playing the socially constructed dramatic role of the Jackaroo is an exercise in positive freedom. Gwyn must become what the role demands, and one of the ironies of the master-slave dialectic is that the master must do what the slave will obey. The master has no choice. For the outlaw Jackaroo to motivate "good" slaves to do what they ought to, he or she must often exercise privileged authority and order them to obey. The narrow social narratives of the slave make it difficult to imagine alternatives, or act on them even if they do; that is one of the true horrors of oppression, the oppressed can become so accustomed to it that they often demand it. Remember how uncomfortable it has been for Gwyn to abandon her habitual forms of slavish and feminine conduct, as her cultural customs have constructed the roles. Once we enter paradoxical situations, the dialectical reversals of meaning begin to mount up. There is wisdom in Voigt's irony. Gwyn, and our, situation is quickly becoming unpleasantly complicated.
Am is a fool; nevertheless his innocent daughter is in desperate need. Gwyn ponders:
There were too many like Am among the people, too many who gave up the fight. But what could you expect, when all of life was so hard and hopeless? How could someone fight and know he never would win? And who was the enemy? Could a man fight off a long winter or a dry summer? No more than he could fight against the Lords. Aye, the people could not manage without the Lords, they were children unable to take care of themselves . Why should Jackaroo take such risks, for such people . Aye, she had no choice in the matter any more. (p. 226)
For those of you, like me, who were expecting a typical young woman's romance, things are getting surprisingly difficult. If you assume a caring social role like teaching and if you play it well, then you must do what those you care for need done. If you advance the good of a calling, say teaching, then you must accept not only that children are unable to take care of themselves, but that many adults, including your colleagues and supervisors, cannot either. You, like the Jackaroo, are often bound by the needs of others and will have no choice. We are not talking about mere negative freedom here; that is, the freedom to always do what you want. We are talking about exercising positive freedom in a resistant and imperfect world according to the virtues of your chosen vocation. Those virtues bind you to the good your vocation seeks to secure. There are no smooth hallways beyond conventional good and evil.
The reversals of self and identity begin to accelerate as this novel moves toward its conclusion. When Jackaroo next rides, it is with a double purpose: first, to disburse two more gold coins to the fool Am; and second, to free Gwyn's uncle Win. Win is a captured highwayman who had left many years before; Gwyn and the family thought he was dead. Highwaymen are "journeyed" before hanging as a warning to the people, and they had expected the highwayman at the Inn for days. It was not until he and the escort of soldiers arrived at Da's Inn that they knew who he was. Distributing funds to fools presents no problems; Win does. Upon the Jackaroo's appearance, Win begins laughing uncontrollably and with genuine joy testifies, "I thought I had laughed my lastÉ. Oh, but life always holds one more joke. I thank you, whoever you are" (p. 231). He means it. Win had ridden as the Jackaroo. It was a heavy burden upon him, so Win wonders,
"Did you know what it meant when you put on the mask?" Gwyn shook her head, no. "Aye, you'll find it out. Maybe, if we knew, we'd never dare to put it on, and maybe that's why nobody tells that hated truth. Think you?" Gwyn had nothing to say. "Except there is need now. That much, at least, is in your favor. You ride in need. It'll make no difference in the end. Things will turn out the same" . "Aye, because what changes putting on the mask had begun, I had myself finished. So farewell to you, Jackaroo. I pity you, with all that's left of my heart -- but that's not much . "I'm out of the trap that held me, and it's that same trap you're snared in Jackaroo ." So she had no choice to claim her Uncle Win. (p. 232-233)
Perhaps what one learns beyond good and evil is not so lovely. Gwyn, though, is answering the call of authentic need; hers is a prophet's vision. Both Hitler and Martin Luther King had the power to create a vision. Prophecy, false or true, is usually a fatal calling. So how do we distinguish true from false prophets? Both Gwyn and Win are outlaws. Both have ridden as the Jackaroo and performed outlawed actions. What is the difference when we are beyond good and evil? It does matter that Gwyn rides with a self-eclipsing sympathetic desire to respond to the genuine need of others and not for glory, although she certainly had felt the self-assertive exhilaration that entrapped Win. It also matters that Gwyn's acts deprive her of the twelve gold pieces given her by the Lord. Gwyn cares and is a kind, giving person who bestows her bounty upon others in need. Finally, it matters that she grows under the burden. Still, the outlaw fate of the Jackaroo begins to close in and the paradoxes do mount.
The outlaw script for the dramatic role of the Jackaroo involves real risks and places Gwyn in a vulnerable position. Embracing a social role, responding to a calling, even responding responsibly as Gwyn does, has an element of fate about it. To perform any social role correctly we must do, feel, and think what the customs of the culture require of the costume. To be a good teacher, we must embrace the virtues of the vocation and strive to become, each in our own unique way, what it is to be a good practitioner. The demands of being a good teacher can often cause value conflicts. We must make difficult, even tragic, choices. When the values of good teaching and good practice, including the ethics of caring, conflict with the rules of policy within a bureaucratic community, or the ethics of justice, then good teachers must often go beyond good and evil as "currently condemned or outlawed." Whether to break the law or people is a tragic choice that arises because the rule governed ethics of justice and the ethics of care are sometimes incommensurable. Good teachers are often outlaws that violate, at least the intent if not the letter, of laws, regulations, and rules of policy to actualize the values of their vocation. Many teachers have lied, or at least bent the truth, to do the right thing by their students. The more oppressive the law, the more imaginative must be the prophetic responses that create alternative values. On such occasions the artful teacher is being more moral than the moralities. Wisdom sometimes goes beyond an exclusively rule driven ethics of justice; that is, it sometimes goes beyond good and evil.
Win's words require Gwyn to reflect upon what she has become through her acts:
He had been telling the truth, she understood that . Knowing herself, she knew she could not hide the masquerade away forever. She would ride as she was riding now, without any joy . She would ride as she was riding now, in darkness, because she was an outlaw. Jackaroo rode outside of the law, and that was why the Lords wanted to take him. The law couldn't hold Jackaroo. He would do what he wanted and that made him an outlaw. Gwyn could never have chosen to be an outlaw. She hadn't chosen that, she and only chosen to do what good she could, for people. It was just as Mother said, she had too much imagination, too soft a heart. She had not known what she was choosing. But even if she had known, Gwyn knew that she would have chosen the same. This knowledge was not sweet, not joyful....
Before the first dawn showed at the rim of the sky, Gwyn was back in her own room with nobody -- except her -- the wiser. (pp. 234)
Gwyn has chosen to become her destiny. We each grow to the largest limit we can attain without despair. There is only so much disharmony, only so much destruction of personal identity that we can take at any one time. Gwyn's losses are accumulating with her wisdom. In losing herself she has grown wise. It is hard to move agilely in the world when you are coming out of your skin, or when you are caught between two worlds. Teachers need to remember this when they tell students they must have the right values. Those values may not be the values of family and friends, and how do we know we have the right values? If Dewey is correct, then, altering habits means altering your identity and that can be very difficult and very painful. How would you like to live without support of family or friends? We are on treacherous ground.
Part of Gwyn's fate, part of growing wise, is to understand the larger pattern and rhythms of life. The Jackaroo can do what she or he wants outside the law, but, paradoxically, with little choice. Gwyn asks Burl, "Is there any reasonÉwhy any one man should serve another? (p. 248). Burl finds no reason; he only observes that it is so. Gwyn ponders this:
"It's like a child's rhyme, Burl. The land serves the people, the people serve the Lords, the Lords serve the Earls, the Earls serve the King, and the King serves the land" . Even Jackaroo, Gwyn thought to herself, fit into that circle. He served the people. He served them outside of the law, but within the turning of the wheel. (pp. 248-249)
Even in oppressive regimes everyone needs everyone else. That is part of what makes the master-slave dialectic so vicious and corrupting for all that participate. Without the hope provided by the almost mythical Jackaroo to relieve their suffering, the people might find it unbearable. They might either rebel, or lacking the energy, just give up in despair and refuse to work. Besides, without outlaws there would be less need for soldiers; and, without soldiers it would be harder to create the fear necessary to govern as the Lords see fit. Like adolescent rebellion, simply negating oppressive laws is not real freedom. We are still bound by the laws we negate. Real freedom requires prophetic and poetic creation.
Eventually, through her own fatuous daring, an innocent person is falsely accused of being the Jackaroo. Events move quickly from here as identities begin to change so rapidly that this reader at least found it difficult to follow the action. For my part I felt a bit of the nausea that must come to the Jackaroo in his, or her, confused identity. Only an appearance by the "real" Jackaroo will save the innocent individual; but Gwyn is caught unawares by the swiftness with which the Lord will carry out the hanging. Just in time someone appears as the Jackaroo. She recognizes that it is Burl, although in a costume she does not recognize. Burl's getaway is dangerous and difficult, so Gwyn must intervene in her own masked costume. It is at this moment when she cannot reason out her course of action carefully in advance that Gwyn realizes "exactly how ill-prepared she was for the role she was playing" (p. 259). It is rather like that first day in one's own class all alone.
Nearly fatally injured, Burl rescues her. We learn that Burl's costume for the Jackaroo once belonged to Gwyn's Granda. In another complicated turn, Gadrian's father, a Lord that in the aftermath of the southern revolution had become one of the two Earls of the Kingdom, appears himself as the Jackaroo. The demand is that the Innkeeper convey to the Earl (the Lord that had become the Earl that was now riding as the Jackaroo) the Jackaroo's desire that the Innkeeper take "before his Lord [the Earl] the needs and requests of the people and any of their quarrels that the Lord must settle" (p. 271). These are glad tidings of better times.
If you find all of these rapid changes of the Jackaroo's identity a farce, then you may have some haunting sense of what Win found so frightfully funny. The tragic and comic masks are the same; one is just the other upside down. On adolescent bodies undergoing rapid growth, facial blemishes may appear suddenly minutes before a date. Understanding these rapid and jarring reversals provides us with a better idea of what it is like to be young and still growing, where your identity changes so rapidly that you cannot tell who you are, much less who those around you are. Perhaps you also understand why most people stop growing so early.
Gwyn wonders about the Lord, now the Earl of Sutherland, appearing as the Jackaroo:
She had not thought that the Lords, too, would go outside their own laws to ride as Jackaroo. What had Gadrian's father given up to ride as Jackaroo? Unless it was only the Lords who could ride outside of the law safely, and that was why any of the people who did must pay -- for their high dreams, for taking a Lord's high place . (p. 270-271)
It is significant that, according to the customary scripts of this culture, any Lord or Earl who would do good by the people would have to go beyond the law that they themselves make. What are we to make of all of these Jackaroos? Burl realizes that the costumes must be all over the Kingdom, and in any case easy to tailor to fit anyone that has the potential to answer the call. The role of the Jackaroo, the role of the outlaw that lives beyond good and evil, seems to be a character that the land needs.
The novel ends with an irony that captures well some of the paradoxes of freedom. The Lord has seen through Gwyn's mask; so too has Burl and even her younger brother Tad. In the convoluted ending of the novel, Gwyn must disappear. She is sent to the edge of her world. The people assume that she ran off with one of her suitors, Cam. That is their script for the vanishing of healthy head-strong young women possessing gold pieces. Gwyn hides behind this one last lie, and obeys the Lord's command that she live happily ever after. The Lord commands Gwyn and Burl to live in and restore, with ample funds provided, a hunting lodge at the frontiers of his lands. She starts to object, but when she looks into the Lord's eyes she reflects:
This was the man who had fled the intrigues of his father's court to put himself under the protection of the King, letting his brothers slaughter one another in their greed. Now he gathered up their inheritance for his own. He was also the man who had ridden as Jackaroo, for the sake of the people. He was a man to respect and fear and trust. (p. 284)
Gwyn obeys reluctantly like a student obeying a respected teacher. The last order the Lord gives requires that Gwyn marry Burl. This is a romance after all. You probably had already guessed it. Myself, I didn't until almost the very end. Yet I should have remembered that Burl stood up for Gwyn when her family would not because he knew her, and Gwyn overlooked the plain fact that Burl saw the hanging man. Indeed, it was Burl that volunteered to her why he was hanged without being asked because he knew she would want to know. The Lord must command this extraordinarily perceptive young woman to see what is closest and most dear to her, and the man that by her own remarkable rules of policy she had said to herself she would marry if he could be found. So Gwyn completes the rhythm of her long journey only to return to that which is most familiar to her, and to see it for the first time. She marries the man of her dreams. In disciplining her to her own greatest good, the Lord is Gwyn's friend. It is crucial of course that Gwyn see it for herself. If teachers discipline their students in any other way, then they have fallen short of realizing the best possibility in the situation. Once we see our students' best possibility, we have no choice. If we are free to do what we want, then the virtues of the practice will demand that we do our best to help our students see the possibilities for their selves and strive to actualize them.
Freedom, I want to suggest, is the freedom to grow in healthy relationship with others to the widest expanse we can obtain without despair, and that we are most free when we are bound by the greatest good that it is within our unique potential to obtain. We are free if we can perceive the best possibility for ourselves and others in any given situation, and if we act intelligently to obtain it. Freedom is right action and the greatest weight to bear. Teachers, especially language arts teachers, must have the prophetic power to intelligently perceive a student's best possibility and be willing to act poetically in a way that may carry them beyond good and evil.
But Art, wherein man speaks in no wise to man,
Only to mankind--Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the deed shall breed the thought.
The artifice of costume and theatrical masking are superficial clues to the disclosive and transformative power of the poetic art Gwyn took up, and the prophetic work Voigt has created. Good teachers must be both poets and prophets and go where their calling demands.
Jim Garrison is a professor of philosophy in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech. His recent publications include "Deweyan Prophetic Pragmatism, Poetry, and the Education of Eros" in American Journal of Education and "Teaching and Moral Perception" in Teachers College Record.