By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Caterpillar’ is a very short story by the American writer Lydia Davis (born 1947). The story is about memory, consideration, and the small and ordinarily overlooked, focusing on someone who finds a caterpillar in her bed one morning and then drops it while trying to carry it downstairs and outside.
Below, we offer some comments about this short narrative, and discuss whether we can even call it a ‘story’ as such. Before the analysis, however, here’s a brief summary of the story.
‘The Caterpillar’: plot summary
The narrator finds a caterpillar in her bed, and cannot throw it out of the window and does not wish to kill it. She walks out of her bedroom with the caterpillar in her hand, and begins walking downstairs with it. However, when she is halfway down the stairs, the narrator realises the caterpillar has gone.
She wonders where it has gone, but cannot find it. Every time she walks up and down the stairs, she avoids that side of the stairwell where the caterpillar must have fallen, trusting that it is continuing to make its way down. Eventually, having initially rejected the idea, she fetches a torch and searches the dark stairwell, but the stairs are so dirty that it the caterpillar would be hard to spot.
She has to give up the search and go back to her work. But when she returns to the stairs, she remembers the lost caterpillar, and thinks she has found him, but then decides it’s too flat and dry and must be a pine needle or something similar. The intervals grow longer between the moments when she suddenly remembers the existence of the caterpillar somewhere on the stairs. She thinks of him only when going up and down the stairs and, finally, accepts that he is too small for her to continue thinking about him.
‘The Caterpillar’: analysis
In his speech at the 2013 Man Booker Prize awards ceremony where he presented Lydia Davis with the award for that year, the literary critic and leader of the panel of judges, Christopher Ricks, proposed the word ‘observations’ as a term for categorising Lydia Davis’s short stories, anecdotes, parables, fables, and apophthegms (these were among the other terms Ricks suggested, along with the more sui generis label, devoir).
Of course, none of them can perhaps do full justice to a writer whose originality renders her, to a large degree, uncategorisable. Nevertheless, Ricks’s ‘observations’ seems a useful jumping-off point for a consideration and analysis of a Lydia Davis piece. As Ricks observes (of course), the word ‘observations’ refers to both the things noticed and the things we say about them: both ‘the remarkings and the remarks’.
Lydia Davis’s work takes the everyday and, without sensationalising or melodramatising it, brings out the latent significance and symbolism residing in the smallest or most quotidian details. In this respect, her work bears the influence, not of postmodernism, but modernism: her work seems to call back (without being overly indebted to) Woolf’s mark on the wall and Chopin’s story of an hour.
Nevertheless, given Virginia Woolf’s attentiveness to small creepy-crawlies such as snails (‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘Kew Gardens’), moths (‘The Death of the Moth’), and various insects (‘Kew Gardens’ again), it’s tempting to approach ‘The Caterpillar’ as bearing some deliberate relation to Woolf’s impressionistic short fiction, with the small life (and death) of the caterpillar acting as a metonym or microcosm for the task of the writer seeking to capture the everyday, the ordinary, the small, and the overlooked.
The caterpillar is an especially good symbol for this because of the way they can so easily blend into the ordinary furnishings – such as that dark stairwell – and can be lost forever. Davis’ story is, then, about the search to recover or recapture those details in order to free them.
But there is something in ‘The Caterpillar’ which we don’t find in Woolf or Chopin: a more disorienting grammatical turn than even stream of consciousness can offer. ‘The Caterpillar’ is narrated in the first person and in the present tense; the story’s opening sentence, ‘I find a small caterpillar in my bed in the morning’, hovers uncertainly between the singular and the recurrent: was this a one-off caterpillar or does it happen every morning, as a matter of course?
The casual ‘in the morning’ refuses to clear up the matter, and the present-tense ‘I find’ invites both interpretations (the ambiguity would be unthinkable if the story was told in the more conventional past tense: then, only one morning would be implied).
Like much of Lydia Davis’s fiction, ‘The Caterpillar’ is full of such ingenious flickers of ambiguity, slight twists of syntax which make us do a double-take. Consider the oddness – though the oddness is easily missed if we allow ourselves to pass over it without stopping to register it – of the narrator’s statement that ‘I think I’ve forgotten him, but I haven’t.’
Can one think one’s forgotten something when one has, in fact, not forgotten it? Surely, at the moment when you ‘think’ you’ve forgotten something, it’s because you have: at least if we’re talking about cognitive activity. I can say ‘I thought I’d forgotten my keys, but here they are, in my pocket’ and the sentence makes perfect sense. But if I say ‘I think I’ve forgotten about a caterpillar on the stairs, but I haven’t’: can we class such a statement in the same way?
Lydia Davis has said, ‘I’m always thinking about grammar.’ And ‘The Caterpillar’ succeeds in the way it does partly because its present-tense mode of narration renders the description of memory into something strange, unsettling, disorienting.