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.