Fourth Edition, November 2011
ENL 259: Best Essays in Literary
1st Place Winner
Junior and the Beast: a psychoanalytic reading of “Tooth and Claw”
One aspect of contemporary writer T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short story, “Tooth and Claw,” that becomes painfully obvious while reading through the psychoanalytic lens, is the emotional unrest of its narrator and protagonist, Junior Turner. He has low self-esteem and an insecure sense of self, resulting in a monotonic state of depression; core issues which manifest shortly after the death of his alcoholic father. Junior acquires his negative self-definition because of their tumultuous relationship, as well as from the unwavering resentment he harbors toward the destructive lifestyle his father lead. A separation from that death, along with a fresh approach to life, must materialize for him to ever succeed in confronting the anxiety, fears, and insecurities vexing him on a daily basis. His path to self-rediscovery, rife with psychological highs and lows, requires a few extraordinary days composed of a mysterious man, the waitress of his dreams, and a lynx.
From the start of the story, one has the impression that Junior feels wholly inadequate. A fact glaringly apparent from his critical observations of even the most mundane day-to-day activities like what he eats (“breakfast out of a cardboard box …”,) what he reads (“some desultory reading …”,) and how he communicates with others (“exchanged exactly eleven words with the girl behind the counter …”) (Kelly 62). Refusing to confront his gross insecurities triggers an unconscious defense, that is, he wants to keep them repressed because he cannot knowingly handle the reality of his somber condition (Tyson 15). So he projects those unconscious feelings onto the men from his former town, thinking with full confidence: “I wasn’t stupid. And I had no intention of becoming a drunk like all the hard-assed old men in the shopping mall-blighted town I grew up in, silent men with hate in their eyes complaint eating away at their insides,” the irony being that this is exactly what he has become (Kelly 62). Obviously an alcoholic, Junior must “force” himself from drinking during the day. Also spending all his time in a bar complaining how it “[smells] of death and vomit” does not exactly paint a picture of a man with a content countenance (Kelly 62).
This bar, called Daggett’s, offers Junior more than just a hazy drunken stupor. He persistently regresses back to its vomit-stained walls, old men, and strong smell of alcohol for release from his emotional problems. Daggett’s is a safe place for him to consume bottle after bottle of self-pity. Sitting upon the stool, he is free to wallow in his depression as his pain is refreshed – one drink after another. As with projection, his regression is another defense which assists him in refusing to initiate a change and admit his fundamental issues. However, his choice of location to regress should come as no surprise. Daggett’s has traces of his father and his demise, all over it’s vile walls.
For his death has directly shaped Junior’s overall psychological experience (Tyson 21). The exact details of his death are unclear, but Junior alludes to the fact that it may have been an alcohol induced car crash, “… I’d always been averse to drinking and driving—a lesson I’d learned from my father’s hapless example— …” (Kelly 82). Six months later, the trauma associated with the tragedy still resonates with him in California. Consequently, all of the psychological scars have not healed, and he has difficulty separating the man from his death. Clearly, a trait that is demonstrative of an overall fascination with all death. Hence, he can not mention his father without also mentioning the grim fact he has died.
In his mind he preserves his father’s memory by drinking and feeling terrible about himself, but this also restrains him from actually living. Therefore, he fears death in addition to being obsessed with it. For instance, his refusal to drive the Mustang he inherited from his father; it sits in its parking spot like a dusty four-wheeled omen. Fear of driving the Mustang relates back to this overall fear of life. Paranoia preventing him from taking any risks, like going to new bars to meet new people. As a result, he becomes trapped in a dreadful routine, ultimately unable to alter it. Thankfully fate intervenes, in the form of a fresh-faced patron at the bar. From this peculiar man, Junior receives some real-life therapy.
In fact, he is the first key to Junior’s psychological transformation. The man’s name is Ludwig, whose fresh appearance and charismatic character appeal greatly to Junior the minute he strolls into the dreary bar. After Junior first meets Ludwig, he shows signs of unconsciously wishing he could become him. Ludwig possesses an interesting name, immense self-confidence, and a wealth of energy - attributes Junior wishes he had. Junior, on the other hand, is so insecure with himself that he cannot even assuredly give his own name, “‘Junior,’ I said. ‘James, Jr., Turner, I mean. James Turner, Jr. But everybody calls me Junior’” (Kelly 67). Additionally, Ludwig engages Daria, a pretty young waitress, without hesitation while Junior never had the mental mettle to even initiate a conversation with her. This fact angers him, “Daria was flirting with him, and the realization of it began to harden me against him in the most rudimentary way,” and only bolsters his unconscious desire to transform into Ludwig. Junior strives to become “a real man of the world” (Kelly 66). It is this unconscious desire that leads to him agreeing to play “the game of Horse” that Ludwig proposes (Kelly 65). He wins the cat and the attentions of Daria.
Above all else, Daria is best described as a “prime mover” in Junior’s life (Branam 4). His “untamed desire” to sleep with her forces him to push aside his self-contrived inadequacies (Branam 4). Upon her entry, he begins trying to better himself in methods he never imagined he would. Similarly, her departure only acts to reaffirm this change. After the breakup, Junior storms out of the apartment and begins unconsciously reshaping his life. First, he decides to eat at a different location for lunch. Up until that point, he had been ordering the “ham and cheese in a tortilla wrap” at the same location every day (Kelly 62). However, Daria’s sudden departure has caused him to alter that routine: “… I had a sandwich at a new place downtown where college students were rumored to hang out” (Kelly 81). Second, the real reason for moving out to California was to meet new people, but he never seemed to accomplish that goal. Daria’s desertion has provided him with the gall to seek out those new friends.
The most dramatic alteration comes in his newly empowered self assurance. It occurs after he finally gives in and seeks out Daria at Daggett’s, only to discover that she has left early for the night. He requests her number from the bartender and is denied. The old Junior, an un-assured, sack of sadness, would have quit at that point, instead, he stands up to the bartender and says: “You’re sorry? Well, fuck you—I’m sorry, too” (Kelly 82). He clearly respects himself now, for before he could not even greet the people at the bar without feeling insecure: “I nodded self-consciously at the six or seven regulars lined up at the bar…” (Kelly 63). The crescendo comes when the bartender calls him “buddy” and Junior responds with, “Junior; the name’s Junior” (Kelly 82). He firmly and confidently states his name without stumbling like he previously had. This marks the final adjustment to his self-esteem and sense of self that had been building throughout the story.
Furthermore, his new found self-confidence allows him to free his mind from death - be it his fear or obsession. He unknowingly overcomes both by deciding to drive his father’s Mustang to obtain a ladder: “I got behind the wheel and drove up to the job site with a crystalline clarity that would have scared me in any other state of mind” (Kelly 82). The importance of this action should not be understated; Junior has shown that the death is now finally in his rear-view mirror. Driving the Mustang symbolizes a reconnection with his father and a willingness to finally take a risk.
However, Junior still must face the cat; the beast who initially ignited these fires of change. He climbs the ladder unafraid of the African feline crouched above. It could maul him, yes, but he fears the beast more for what it represents, his love for Daria and the times they spent together, than what bodily harm it could do to him. When he sees the cat this time, it does not cause him to regress back to the soothing memories of him and Daria sharing muffins. He has finally gained the level of self-confidence required to move on from Daria. Junior, free from this anxiety and firmly confident in his decision, opens up his bedroom window allowing the cat and any lingering memories of her to escape. No longer stifled by her memory, he can finally think of the cat as more than just a chance to sleep with Daria: “… I began to feel something for the cat, for its bewilderment, its fear and distrust of an alien environment …” (Boyle 83).
He relates to the cat’s fears because, at one time, they were his own. The emotional wounds have healed and his newfound attitude toward life gives him the confidence to enter his bedroom without Daria to confront the cat. Junior perceives the cat as a representation of himself and does not fear it. Thereby, triumphantly conquering his core issues. The psychological shift in his character pushes him to close the door behind him and finally face them all without fear. The series of days may have been wildly outlandish, but they were just the therapy he needed to finally find himself.
In summary, Junior began an insecure young man with absolutely no self-esteem. He ended the story a mere shell of his former self. The change was able to occur because he unconsciously yearned for it. Trauma or experiences of deep emotional lows can ignite such shifts in character. The buildup to his relationship with Daria and it’s ultimate collapse is one such trauma. He had put a great deal of effort into it, and had everything riding on it’s success. When the relationship failed, he felt a release from all of that effort. In this circumstance that release actually worked in his favor, for it allowed him to reestablish his self-confidence and face the demons of his past. The death of his father, for example, was what initially caused his problems. Death floated over him like a black cloud and hindered him from living happily. We see this in his expectation for his move to California, and what actually occurred. Junior admits that he planned the move because he wanted to establish a new life for himself. One can understand the profound risk involved in moving to a new place. Though, where had that sense of appreciation for the unknown gone? He had lost it, and instead of trying to find it again, he focused on his father’s problems, effectively making them into his own. He acted like an insecure old man when, in reality, he was just the opposite— young, charming, and deeply passionate. His days of excitement helped him overcome his crippling psychological defects, essentially, opening up the opportunity for future growth. Junior needed the beast in order to slay the other beast that prowled deep within.
Kelly, Joseph, and T.Coraghessan Boyle. "Tooth and Claw." The Seagull Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 61-83. Print.
Magill, Frank N., and Harold Branam. "Tooth and Claw: And Other Stories." Magill's Literary Annual, 2006: Essay- Reviews of 200 Outstanding Books Published in the United States during 2005. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 2006. Web.
Tyson, Lois. "Psychoanalytic Criticism." Critical Theory Today: a User-friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 2-52. Print.
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