We’ve explored historical context, themes, essay planning and essay topics over on our Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
‘Liz sits there helpless’
• From the beginning of the short story we can see that Liz isn’t, or doesn’t feel in control of her situation. The step by step process where she needs to ‘put the key in the ignition and turn it. Fire up the car and drive away’ showcases how the smallest details of starting the car, something that should be so simple instead requires immense mental effort on her behalf.
‘And he’s in there, alone, where she’s left him’.
• Her guilt bubbles to the surface here because it’s as though she’s the villain here, and she’s to blame for leaving him alone.
‘Abandoned him to a roomful of rampaging strangers’
• What’s really interesting here is her description of the other children. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for Daniel to befriend others and have a great time, she describes them as ‘rampaging strangers’, giving us a sense that Daniel is subject to an unfamiliar environment that is wild, frenzied, rioting.
“Guerilla warfare”, “Jungle gym”, "seasoned commanders”
• These "fighter” phrases reveal Liz’s anxious mindset, as she imagines a world where her son is almost in the wilderness, every man for himself, as though it’s the survival of the fittest - and which Liz so fearfully express, “not that there’s going to be anybody with enough time to notice that Daniel needs help”, is not an environment where Daniel belongs.
“She digs in her bag for her lipstick, her fingers searching for the small cylinder, and pulls out a crayon, then a battery, then a tampon, then a gluestick.”
• Her everyday objects are splashed with Daniel’s belongings - the crayon, the gluestick, and demonstrate how intertwined her life is now with her child. This foreshadows her return to her pre-baby life - that things will not be the same.
“The smell of the place, that’s what throws her, the scent of it all, adult perfumes, air breathed out by computers and printers and photocopiers.”
• Even her sense of smell betrays her being away from Daniel. There’s a sense of alienation, of nausea that shows readers like us that Liz doesn’t feel like she belongs. This is in contrast to later in the story when she is reunited with Daniel and is comforted by ‘inhaling[ing] the scent of him again’.
“Same computer, same shiny worn spot on the space bar…"
• The repetition of ’same’ actually heightens how much has actually changed for Liz. Her entire world is now Daniel, whereas everything in the office is as it used to be. Therefore, there’s this sense that the people’s lives in the office remain unchanged, highlighting again Liz’s alienation.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re right, of course they are.”
• This sarcastic internal monologue reflects Liz’s current state of mind, where she’s experiencing a disconnect from her coworkers, and ’the land of the living’.
"Delete, she presses. Punching the key like a bird pecking. Delete, delete, delete.”
• We can feel Liz’s exasperation at this stage. The simile ‘like a bird pecking’ automates Liz’s actions in the workplace, as though she is doing it by switching to a ‘mechanical form’ of herself. The repetition of ‘delete, delete, delete’ gives us the sense that she’s frustratingly attempting to ‘delete’ her self-acknowledged, perhaps over-the-top anxiety surrounding Daniel, or trying to delete herself out of her situation. Whichever is unclear and left up to interpretation. Perhaps both ring true.
‘Returning to work after maternity leave’
• Liz’s narrative interspersed with new mum’s pamphlet. The juxtaposition of the pamphlet’s words ‘being a stay-at-home mum can begin to seem mundane and repetitive’ is contrasted with Liz’s love of motherhood - she is at odds with what society tells her she should be feeling.
‘[Daniel]’d have his thumb in his mouth right now. Not smiling, that’s for sure.’
• There’s a self-projection of anxiety here with Liz assuming that the childcarers are unable to look after Daniel properly, and that he’s suffering.
‘God, these endless extended moments where you’re left in limbo, the time dangling like a suspended toy on a piece of elastic.’
• This simile highlights how her mindset is completely consumed with Daniel, as she likens her daily experiences with objects and things related to Daniel and childhood. She struggles to switch between her identity as a mother, and her previous identity as a colleague in the workplace.
‘Caroline, Julie and Stella had laughed dutifully enough, but their faces had shown a kind of pained disappointment, something faintly aggrieved.’
• Perhaps this is Cate Kennedy's commentary on society and motherhood. The expectations others have on you as a new mother, and how you should be feeling.
‘He doesn’t run over when he sees her’.
• The opening of this chapter is blunt and brutal. Liz has longed to see Daniel all day, her anxiety getting the best of her, and yet at the moment of their reunion, it’s not as she expects. In this sense, we can to feel that Liz is very much alone in her anxiety and despair and, not the other way around with Daniel.
’She’s fighting a terrible nausea, feeling the sweat in the small of her back.’
• Unlike other stories in this collection, her pain isn’t because the absence of love, but because of its strength. Her love for Daniel is so intense that it’s physiological, making her unwell to have been away from him.
• The symbol of cake represents her pre-baby life, a time when she was concerned with the ‘account of Henderson’s’ and ‘delete fourth Excel column’. Her priorities have now shifted, and the celebrated ‘cake’ tradition in the workplace, one that is at the centre of several conversations, is no longer to significance to Liz. Her husband, Andrew’s attempt to celebrate Liz’s first day back at work with cake is highly ironic. The societal expectation that Liz is happy to be back at work even extends to her husband, and heightens how Liz is very much alone in her experience.
If you found this close analysis helpful, then you might want to check out our Like a House on Fire Study Guide where we analyse EVERY story in the text and pinpoint key quotes and symbols!
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