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September 02, 2003

Fowl Play

Being an in-depth exploration into the central mystery behind Robert McCloskey's Make Way For Ducklings, together with the intention of answering a question of supreme importance to a complete understanding of the text. To whit: Where are the other ducklings?

For purposes of this essay, it is assumed that the reader is as familiar with the central plot of MWFD as they would be with any work of classic literature, from Absalom! Absalom! to Zorro. If this is not the case, one should adopt the vague sense of nervous panic one would feel when attending a gathering of Nobel Prize winning fashion models, for those are the people who make up the rest of the Hraka readership, or so they inform me.

And not a Peace Prize winner among them. Such a motley collection of poseurs and frauds would never be allowed within the premises. Our Nobel prize-winning models are all devotees of the hard sciences.

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are looking for an home to raise their children, but they are burdened by a bloody secret, one alluded to by Mrs. Mallard's refusal to consider any home that might harbor turtles...or foxes. Foxes and the larger water turtles are of course natural predators of the family Anatidae, but Mrs. Mallard's attitude conveys an air of bitter experience rather than the wisdom of instinct. Indeed, as we find out later in the book, the instincts of this mother are particular deficient, nearly leading her and hers to death beneath the wheel not once but twice.

As any suburban commuter can attest, such a deficiency is one unseen among the ducks inhabiting the highways and byways of the modern urban environment. Why the ducks of today are nigh impossible to hit, even if one cuts the engine a quarter mile away and randomly swerves back in forth in an attempt to hide the path of final approach as long as possible.

Mrs. Mallard is not a creature of instinctual wisdom, but rather an experiential learner. Her desperate desire to find a home sans predators vulpine and terrapin is thus not wisdom carried with her from the egg, but a bitter lesson taught to her in the time since.

Further evidence for a bloody end to Mrs. Mallard's previous parenting attempts comes at the hatch of her latest brood:

"One day the ducklings hatched out. First came Jack, then Kack, and then Lack, then Mack and Nack and Ouack and Pack and Quack."

The Avian naming convention utilized here strongly indicates a previous brood or broods belonging to Mrs. Mallard, if not to her husband. The fact that Kack and Lack follow Jack suggests that Jack followed another. He is not the first duckling born to Mrs. Mallard, but rather the tenth.

The first of her offspring would have been named Ack, or (Auack), the second, Back, then Cack, Dack, Eack (Euack), Fack, Gack, Hack and Iack (Iuack). Names in parentheses are alternate pronunciations, as the only extant example of a duckling name utilizing an initial vowel sound, Ouack, suggests that when presented with the awkward placement of two soft vowel phonemes immediately prior to a hard palatal the duck tongue solves the problem by enlarging and thus elongating the diphthong. However, an indepth discussion of this linguistic practice is beyond the scope of this essay. Readers interested in such a presentation are referred to Dr. Garfield's essay on the subject.

The final, and most concrete argument for the existence of a previous brood comes from Mrs. Mallard herself. When Mr. Mallard departs for a journey of exploration, she takes her leave of him thusly:

"Don't you worry," said Mrs. Mallard. "I know all about bringing up children."

While it is undoubtedly possible that some of Mrs. Mallard's previous offspring were successfully brought to maturity, the lack of reference to them in the text argues against such a conclusion. Though given a number of openings to refer to older siblings of their current nestlings, neither of the Mallards does so, a clear indication of a conversational taboo.

But is Mrs. Mallard wholly at fault for the disappearance of her early broods? A close examination of the MWFD text reveals that Mr. Mallard seemingly knows nothing of foxes and turtles. Could this be due to his inexperience as a father? Did Mrs. Mallard's previous husband share the fate of her previous ducklings? Or is there a darker reason behind his lack of knowledge?

One day Mr. Mallard decided he'd like to take a trip to see what the rest of the river was like, further on. So off he set. "I'll meet you in a week, in the Public Garden," he quacked over his shoulder. "Take good care of the ducklings."

At a critical moment in the life of his progeny, Mr. Mallard abandons them for an entire week. Is he abandoning his present parental responsibilites in the hopes that the urban equivalent of a fox or turtle will rid him of his future ones? Is Mr. Mallard a new father, or a reluctant one? Consider his reaction at the end of the week, as his mate and children finally appear before him.

Instead of greeting his wife and brood at the waters edge, perhaps nuzzling her neck feathers as an outward display of his inward relief and joy at being reunited with his mate and numerous progeny, Mr. Mallard remains in the shadows. Does he wish to remain unseen, perhaps in the hope that Mrs. Mallard and the children will depart if he is not found?

No matter the motive, it is hardly an act of parental devotion, and it casts an entirely new light on the words Mrs. Mallard spoke to him upon his departure the week before.

"Don't you worry," said Mrs. Mallard. "I know all about bringing up children."

What earlier appeared to be words of assurance are now revealed to be instead a bitter accusation of parental failure. With a word, Mrs. Mallard places the blame for the deaths of her previous nestlings squarely at the webbed feet of Mr. Mallard.

Perhaps she is correct to do so, though the previously illustrated failures of her maternal instinct would argue against a single point of blame in the Mallard's previous parental attempts. The failure of instinct in one parent can often be overcome, but the failure of instinct in both is a recipe for disaster. It is perhaps best that the book ends before Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack come of age, for nothing in the narrative we are privy to suggests that they will do so successfully.

Posted by Bigwig at September 2, 2003 11:46 PM | TrackBack
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Posted by: Haleh at September 3, 2003 01:07 AM
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