Gaston Versus the Hand that Rocks the Cradle: A Mother’s Role in Dysfunction
In “Gaston,” William Saroyan reminds us that mothers have the power to influence important aspects of their children’s lives and create mirror images of themselves. This short story quickly but effectively shows us that maternal power can be used for purposes that serve the adult but harm the child. In an important lesson about social norms, we learn that parental authority based on narrow-mindedness and personal prejudice forces children to behave against their own natural instincts and often creates a family situation that is dysfunctional.
This dysfunction is usually avoidable, as in the case of “Gaston,” where the child could have been much happier if only the mother had been more willing to let her daughter appreciate her father on his own terms. Using a third-person point of view, Saroyan tells of the six-year-old girl’s exploration of a world that is quite different from her own, as she visits an estranged father living in a Paris home far removed from her New York one. The father is a virtual stranger to the girl, who “couldn’t quite remember when they had been together before” (Saroyan ??), and the man’s casual clothing is a contrast to the formal shirts and ties worn by the men she usually sees back home. Even the father’s residence is unlike those she knows, as the narrative explains, “She was with him in his home in Paris, if you could call it a home” (Saroyan ??). That sentence is a revealing one, telling us that the girl considers the Paris home somehow inferior to hers.
Despite these cultural differences, the girl quickly forms a close bond with her father, reflecting that they had been together “for almost a hundred years now, or was it only since day before yesterday?” (Saroyan ??). She finds the man’s unfamiliar appearance to be comical but joins right in with his casualness, and we learn “He was barefoot, and so was she, of course” (Saroyan ??). When a bug crawls out of a peach the man had been eating, the girl’s reaction is quite different from her father’s. She has been raised to think of insects as disgusting things that must be killed when encountered. She asks, “Aren’t you going to squash him?” (Saroyan ??), offering as a reason for this treatment, “He is a bug. He is ugh” (Saroyan ??). The father’s attitude is a complete mystery to the girl, as he personifies the insect, calling him Gaston and attributing him with human qualities such as handsomeness and confusion. Again, the child’s natural open-mindedness allows her to accept this way of thinking and participate in it, even asking her father to find a new home for the displaced bug Gaston.
Up to this point the story serves as an example of the successful integration of one culture with another. The father has taught his daughter that there are different ways of viewing life, and that her way may not necessarily be the right way. The bug is an important symbol of the father, as the two of them represent unknown entities to the girl and live in homes that the girl finds strange. The child must learn to accept a new way of looking at both of them if she is to enjoy a good relationship with her father. This she does so completely that she wants her father to find another peach for Gaston to use as a home, and her happiness in her father’s company is apparent when she tells him, “I want to be here” (Saroyan ??).
This family harmony is disturbed when the girl receives a phone call from her mother. After hearing about peaches and people living in them, the woman says, “You haven’t been with your father two days and already you sound like him” (Saroyan ??). The fact that she considers this a bad thing is evident when she tells her daughter, “Somebody gets a peach with a bug in it, and throws it away, but not him. He makes up a lot of foolishness about it” (Saroyan ??). The mother is a no-nonsense woman who refuses to go along with the father’s creative, fanciful approach, even for a child as young as six, as she sees this kind of thinking as nothing more than utter foolishness. She further encourages her daughter to think ill of her father by asking, “Is he crazy?” (Saroyan ??), which clearly implies that she believes he is.
This is a classic case of a child who is being pulled in opposite directions by parents who have different standards and cultural norms. Each one is interested in imposing on the child a personal viewpoint, even at the expense of the other parent’s relationship with that child. Children are remarkably suggestible. When the primary caregiver teaches a child to think a certain way, that lesson carries a lot of weight. By labeling the father’s ways as foolishness, the mother in Saroyan’s story rejects those ways and passes on to the girl all her negative feelings about the man. Stuck in the middle, the girl feels pressured to take side and understandably remains loyal to the woman who shares her everyday life. Although she had been charmed by the idea of considering Gaston as simply another man searching for a new home, eventually she goes along with her mother’s thinking. She reconsiders the bug and decides “he was silly and wrong and ridiculous and useless and all sorts of other things” (Saroyan ??). By condemning the bug, the girl is also condemning her father’s way of life.
This rejection of her father in support of her mother’s disapproval goes against the girl’s natural instincts and is not voluntary. She is the victim of a mother who has taught her daughter that she is not old enough or smart enough to create her own attitude and therefore must conform to other’s wishes. This causes a great deal of upsetting conflict in the girl, and the text suggests that this is not the first time she has been unhappy. As the child inwardly cries, Saroyan reveals, “long ago she had decided she didn’t like crying because if you ever started to cry it seemed as if there was so much to cry about you almost couldn’t stop” (Saroyan ??). Obviously, in only six years the girl has already been in many similar tugs of war between her own feelings and those of her mother.
In the end, both the father and the bug suffer from the daughter’s change of attitude. The girl has squashed the insect and no longer wants another peach. She has resumed her normal life, and her chauffeur-driven ride suggests that it is a life more privileged than her father’s. Sensing his daughter’s withdrawal, the father wants to hug the girl goodbye but “decided he had better not” (Saroyan ??) and merely shakes her hand. He walks off “feeling a little, he thought, like Gaston on the white plate” (Saroyan ??). Like the insect, he too has had the validity of his existence squashed by his daughter, thanks to the mother’s r interference.
As William Ross Wallace wrote, “the hand that rocks the cradle / Is the hand that rules the world” (Wikipedia 1). In his story of Gaston, Saroyan shows us that the rocking hand is not always guided by the best intentions and sometimes rules a world of dysfunction.
“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (poem).” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Oct 2006. 13
Jan 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hand_That_Rocks_the_Cradle_(poem)>
Saroyan, William.. “Gaston.” Title of Anthology. Ed. Editor’s name. City of Publication: Publisher,
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