Reading ‘The Frog,’ by John Hawkes
For many years, I had little interest in Freud’s ideas and never would have thought a novel with Freudian and Oedipal tropes could affect me profoundly. It took the work of a sly postmodernist author, John Hawkes (1925-1998), to help me reflect on how little I had explored what Nabokov saw as the terra incognita of the human mind, to be grateful for the signposts that psychology can offer, and to know just how insightful, vivid, and powerful a psychological novel can be. Hawkes did this for me through his penultimate novel, The Frog (1996).
To this day, Hawkes is a tragically underread writer, though he did get a bit of recognition in the 1990s. With the appearance of Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics editions of three Hawkes novels, The Lime Twig (1961), Second Skin (1964), and Travesty (1978), and with Viking’s publication of The Frog and An Irish Eye near the end of Hawkes’s life, the trade market got an introduction to a writer long published by New Directions for a small circle of admirers. The Frog deals with familiar Hawkes themes—death, insanity, bourgeois decadence—in a fashion reminiscent of the psychological tales of Guy de Maupassant and the satirical sketches of Edgar Allan Poe.
In his fiction, Hawkes convincingly evoked settings as dissimilar as Alaska, the South Pacific, Germany, the south of France, and the American West. In The Frog, we find ourselves in France again, in the company of a bored French family living on a sprawling farm, ironically named the Domaine Ardente, within an estate owned by a wealthy nobleman. Pascal Gâteau (another pun) is the only child of a neurotic mother and a cold and distant, not to say abusive, father.
Neglected by his parents and provided with few distractions (we’re in a pre-TV age), Pascal spends much of his time languishing by the side of a pond, where his young imagination runs wild. After swimming in the pond and falling asleep on the bank, Pascal becomes convinced that a sentient, intelligent frog named Armand has entered and taken up residence in his body. The frog becomes Pascal’s obsession and the novel’s symbolic leitmotif.
But most of the story deals with Pascal’s very real difficulties in a world in which he is comically maladjusted. Pascal is in the grip of a Lawrencian Oedipal complex stemming from his hatred of his father. “If I had my way, there would be no fathers in this world of ours, but only sons,” Pascal tells us early in the novel. His father, a gruff farmer who likes to brag about fictitious exploits, regards Pascal as a nuisance when he pays him any attention at all.
The world of France before the so-called Great War is one of sharp class divisions. In the midst of his alienation, Pascal has a friend in a poor, sickly boy named Christophe whose family also lives on the estate. Christophe is “as small as an insect, as weak as a spider, a tiny ageless boy who snivel[s] incessantly.” In contrast to most residents of the estate, he and his family live in utter squalor.
During Pascal’s outings, “the face of Christophe’s mother sometimes appeared at the edge of a slightly drawn curtain when the half-blackened farmhouse came into view.” As Christopher’s mother abuses the boy for his sickliness, Pascal’s affection for his own decent mother grows markedly. Then Pascal’s father derails the wobbly friendship, declaring that Christophe and his family are the only blight on the estate and the wealthy count who owns it should drive them off.
The coming of the war disrupts the life of the estate. “For Papa, the beginning of the Great Devastation was a matter of boyish pride,” Pascal sneers. Upon his first return from the war, the father boasts of his heroism at the front, an account soon belied by Pascal’s discovery that Marie-André’s sole function was to accompany horses on their way to the front lines. “A groom in the cavalry, that’s where my father had landed,” Pascal reflects. “Even that night he smelled faintly of oats in a bucket and the rank manure that it had been his lot to shovel.”
The father’s second homecoming is an even less happy affair, for he returns with one leg. Then, as Pascal’s obsession with the frog inside him grows, his parents send him to a lunatic asylum, though one with relatively lax regulations. It allows Pascal to go on walks outside its grounds.
Pascal at last exacts his revenge upon Papa, and thus goes far toward resolving his persistent Oedipal complex. On one of his walks, Pascal runs into his father, and in a brilliant, devastating passage, the two stare at each other for a short time before something begins to happen to Pascal. Seized by convulsions, he doubles over and wretches violently as—to hear him describe it—the frog emerges from his throat. His father quickly dies of shock.
“Armand was the killer,” Pascal relates, “but it was I who had called him forth,” and here lies the key to the frog’s significance. The frog appears to be the agent of everything Pascal has banished from his relations with the external world. Unable to satisfy in an outward form either his affection for his mother or his loathing for his father, Pascal has looked inward to an imaginary creature, the object of a Freudian transference of his emotional energy.
The repressed hasn’t exactly returned, because it was never absent. It has asserted itself with blinding, shocking urgency. As with some of Poe’s more colorful narrators, we are unsure of his much of Pascal’s account is real and how much is delusional. It may simply be that Pascal kills his father, and represents his actions in the terms his childlike mind reaches for.
After a spell at an asylum run by the gentle Monsieur and Madame Chapôte, Pascal heads off to work at a brothel run by a Madame Fromage (a rather broad pun). Running switchboard in the lobby for Madame Fromage and her four girls, Pascal is sometimes called upon to serve their needs in more direct ways. The experience represents a new attempt to fulfill Pascal’s lingering Oedipal impulses, for as Pascal himself wonders, “What were Madame Fromage and her four shadows if not variants of dear Maman?”
But like the articulate lunatic in a Poe story, Pascal comes inevitably to a sad end. In the final chapter, an unnamed narrator tells us that Pascal has died in an asylum for reasons that are not clear, though it is possible he choked on something stuck in his throat, perhaps something shaped roughly like a frog. Whether Pascal’s vivid story is the truth, or a metaphoric illustration of Nietzsche’s belief that “under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself,” is ultimately up to the reader. Regardless, this particular reader won’t soon forget Hawkes’ contribution to our understanding of the mysteries of the human psyche–or his contribution to our literature.