Author logo Joyce Cary: Growing Up - study guide

About the author
What happens in Growing Up?
The themes of this story
The characters in the story
Joyce Cary's technique
Readers and reading
Responding to the story
Printing the guide
Introduction to prose Fiction
Poetry in the Anthology


This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains a detailed study of Michèle Roberts' Your Shoes, one of the prose texts in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.

On this page I use bold red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this

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About the author

Joyce Cary (1888-1957) was born in Londonderry. (You may think of Joyce as a feminine personal name, but in this case it is a man's name.) He studied art in Edinburgh and Paris before reading law at Oxford University. Joyce Cary was a Red Cross orderly in two Balkan wars and served with a Nigerian regiment in World War I. In 1920 he returned to England, settling in Oxford, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Cary published many novels (beginning with Aissa Saved in 1932) and stories. He is perhaps best known for the character Gulley Jimson, a painter, who appears in a trilogy: Herself Surprised (1941), To Be a Pilgrim (1942) and The Horse's Mouth (1944). The Horse's Mouth was made into a feature film (1958) as was the 1939 novel Mister Johnson (filmed in 1990). Growing Up is one of five short stories in the posthumous collection Spring Song, from 1960.

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What happens in Growing Up?

The story is very simple in outline. A man comes home from work for the weekend. He plays with his daughters, who attack him. In the struggle their pet bitch* bites him. The girls tend to his wound, and he goes out to his club for some male company. Beneath this simple narrative, lots of other things are happening.

*A note about bitch. In the UK today, "bitch" is considered a taboo word, as it is used insultingly of women to suggest ideas of male dominance and "ownership" of sexually available women. Fifty years ago it was also used insultingly, but with a different sense - then a "bitch" was a bad-tempered or wilful woman. (And in between, as in the 1984 film, The Bitch, starring Joan Collins, it suggested both independence and promiscuity.) But for a writer born in the 19th century, it has no such overtones - it is just the usual noun for a female of the dog species. (We can still see "bitch" used in this way in advertisements placed by dog-breeders.)

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The themes of this story

Like several of the authors, Joyce Cary chooses a title that suggests one of the themes of the story - that of growing up. This appears to refer mostly to the two sisters, Kate and Jenny. Later we see that it may also apply in a way to their father, Robert, who has been able to play with them for years, but now sees a time when he will be cut off from them, good only for paying the bills. The author makes this idea clear in the last sentence of the story.

Another theme might be nature - and this story looks at nature in human, animal and vegetable terms. We see

  • the way the garden grows wild,
  • the way the bitch, Snort, plays and
  • the way the girls act

In all three cases there is a contrast between ideas of cultivated and civilized nature and nature in the wild or untamed - a contrast that appears clearly as the girls go from a ferocious attack on Robert, to acting as nursemaids, and tending to his wound. (Which of these is the real nature of the girls? A trick question - their nature includes both of these.)

A last theme might be that of self-consciousness - especially Robert's concerns about his vanishing dignity and the meaning of his life, as his children become independent.

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The characters in the story

Robert | Jenny and Kate | Other characters


We see the story through Robert's eyes, and have access to his thoughts. He seems very different from his sensible wife (who does act like a grown up). He is very close to his daughters who have missed greeting him on his return home only once in several years. The fact that he recalls this incident so clearly shows the importance for him of their concern.

When the girls attack him, Robert has no means to defend himself. Here are two possible reasons.

  • He is not able to control his daughters by force of personality.
  • He wishes not to use physical force for fear of harming them.

Do you agree with either reason? Can you think of any others?

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What else can we say about Robert? The picture is a little ambiguous.

For example we cannot say whether Robert is realistic or not.

  • On the one hand we learn that he has "lost most of his illusions" and knows that children are "honest".
  • But he also wants to share in his daughters' world.
  • When he looks for some comfort he does not turn to his wife, but to male society - even though he sees it as boring.

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Jenny and Kate

The girls in the story are Jenny (twelve) and Kate (a year older). They appear sometimes as individuals, but also as a pair who act together. Here are some of the things they do.

  • Jenny reads a book and asks her father to lift her onto a wall.
  • Kate plays on a swing.
  • Jenny is alarmed by the wound whereas Kate still laughs when she sees it.
Together they
  • attack the bitch (Snort)
  • fight their father
  • tend his wounds

Can you add to either of these lists?

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We read that they adore each other "and one always came to the other's help". (We cannot be sure if this is information from the writer to the reader, or what Robert is thinking. It could be either.)

The girls have some contradictory feelings. We see that growing up does not mean becoming more sensible or like real adults. The girls' excitability and wildness makes them in some ways less responsible than when they were younger. We see this contrast in the way they speak to their father. Look at what they call him: "Paleface" and "Paleface Robbie" or "Daddy". What does each of these names tell you about the girls' feelings at the time? They know that "paleface" is a name used in Western films by "Red Indians" (the old name for Native Americans) - and they are here suggesting that they are savage, like the stereotyped view of the "Red Indians" in the cinema.

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We can see this contrast in some other "before" and "after" comments.

  • Before they attack Robert, the girls chant: "Kill him - scalp him. Torture him".
  • After they have attacked him, Jenny says, "We've got to wash your bite" while Kate, who fetches the water for the washing, says, "Daddy - sit down - how dare you get up?"

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Other characters

The story also shows us Robert's wife and her friend, Jane. Unlike the girls, these two adult women seem far removed from Robert's concerns and outlook. There is no hint of a close personal relationship. It seems (to Robert or the reader?) that they see themselves as responsible - they "run the world", while children (of all ages) amuse themselves.

"Old Wilkins" does not appear directly - but his description may serve as a grim warning of what Robert may be fated to become, as he retreats into the security of his club - it is safe but utterly boring. Yet it passes the time.

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Joyce Cary's technique

The narrative viewpoint | Language | Attitudes | The author | Comparison | Implied meaning

The narrative viewpoint

This story is presented through Robert's eyes, but not in his voice - so we can never be sure that what we read is always exactly what is in his mind. We see his ideas mostly directly but this is not the case for the girls

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Word choices | Simile | Patterns | Dialogue

The story has lots of interesting kinds of language use. In an exam, you may have limited time in which to comment on this. Here are a few examples. You may like to select those you understand and agree with, and arrange them into order, as a revision aid.

Word choices

Sometimes these are surprising. When we read that Jenny is reading we learn that she does it furiously. (Line 33). Can you see why this is both odd and yet quite appropriate?

Elsewhere Joyce Cary uses clichés or stereotyped words. Do you think he does this knowingly? Does he wholly agree with the ideas that these phrases normally suggest? For example, Robert imagines himself as an old buffer (line 149) and thinks of Wilkins (line 158) as a crashing bore.

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What effects does the writer archive with similes? Here are a few examples, for you to comment on:

  • a bamboo likened to a spear (line 71)
  • a garden rake compared to a lance (line 89)
  • the girls' bones compared to birds' legs line 95)

Explain what the image means and how it tells you more about the thing it describes. What other similes can you see, and how do they work? To help you out, here are some possible explanations of the last image. (It should be easy to find the most appropriate!)

  • The girls' bones are like birds' legs because they end in claws.
  • The girls' bones are like birds' legs because they have feathers above them.
  • The girls' bones are like birds' legs because they look thin and fragile to Robert.
  • The girls' bones are like birds' legs because they of are a similar size, shape and colour.

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The writer uses patterns of balance with repetition or antithesis. Look at this example:

"The original excuse for this neglect was that the garden was for the children...The original truth was that neither of the Quicks cared for gardening."
(Lines 11 to 13)

By using the same words initially, the writer makes clearer the contrast between the Quicks' public and private explanations, before showing how the original excuse over time became true.

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How does Joyce Cary use the exact words that people speak (shown as direct speech) to suggest their character and the situation at various points in the story. Look at these examples, and see what they tell the reader:

  • "Tiger, tiger" (line 76)
  • "Hi, Jenny - don't do that. Don't do that, Kate..." (line 83)
  • "...Kill him - scalp him. Torture him." (line 91)
  • "Sit down, Daddy - sit down - how dare you get up." (lines 127-8)
  • "No, I'll get on the wall. Put me up." (line 170)

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Attitudes in the text | Attitudes behind the text | Attitudes in the reader

Attitudes in the text

In this story the attitudes we learn about most clearly are those of Robert. He has a sense of a world where he knew his place, and could find happiness in it - but now that is all changing, and he feels alarm at what may become of him.

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Attitudes behind the text

How far does the story show (or suggest) assumptions about the world that the author makes? The characters in it may share some of the frustrations of those in other stories, but their world seems more stable in some ways - Robert can seek shelter in his club, but cannot leave. In a way he could, of course, leave (it is physically possible and not illegal) - but this is not present as an option to him, nor does it appear so to the reader.

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Attitudes in the reader

Can you find any evidence of what Joyce Cary assumes about his readers? Here are two ideas that may help you get started.

  • Robert wants to escape from the company of the women in his house. But only temporarily. The idea that he might leave home for good is not here presented as an option - marriage appears to be permanent for men like Robert, even if they find little or no pleasure in it.
  • Joyce Cary does not explain what Robert's club is. When the story was published (in 1960) this might not have been a difficulty for its readers (typically adult and educated). Is it clear to readers of the Anthology (young people, mostly) in the 21st century?

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The author

If you write (or talk) about this story, try to be aware that it has an author. Suppose that the events in it had really happened. Why would the author choose to relate the things he does, while missing out others?

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It is easy to make comparisons in the story. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:

  • the attitudes of Robert contrasted with those of his daughters or his wife;
  • gardens that are wild and those that are cultivated;
  • wild and tame behaviour in a family pet;
  • civilized and primitive or savage behaviour in people;
  • childhood and adulthood (and the bit in between).

Can you think of any others? You can also, of course, compare this story with others that have a similar theme - stories about growing up and gaining independence (like Flight or Your Shoes).

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Implied meaning

Are there any things in the story that are not what they at first seem? Are there situations that are gradually revealed to be other than what first appears?

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Readers and reading

Reading the text | Reading the author | Reading the Reading

Reading the text

Say what you think the story means in a literal sense and in terms of theme, character and setting. Look at details of imagery, language and symbolism.

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Reading the author

Try to explain what, in your view, the author wants us to think at various points. In doing this you should refer to his narrative methods. For example, are we meant to sympathize with Robert or see him as a pathetic figure, or perhaps both?

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Reading the reading

Be prepared briefly to explain your own understanding of the story, and how this changes while you are reading it for the first time, and also on subsequent readings, where you notice more details. Will your own sex and age affect the way you read the story? Would, for example, a teenage girl with a middle-aged father read the story in the same way as a middle-aged man with teenage daughters? Students taking the exam may belong to the first group; teachers (and the author of this guide) may belong to the second group.

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Responding to the story

This story invites the reader to see it from different viewpoints - how would the events here appear to the other direct participants (Jenny, Kate and Snort) or to those (Mrs. Quick and Jane Martin) who learn about it from the girls and Robert? How would Robert explain it to Old Wilkins at the Club? You could use the information here to create different kinds of text - diary entries, a script for a radio or TV drama, a monologue - showing what happens from the viewpoint, or in the words, of one or more of these other characters.

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Can I print this guide and photocopy it?

This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.

If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:

  • ZigZag Education and Computing Centre Publications
  • Greenway Business Centre
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  • Tel: +44 (0)117 950 3199

Click on the link to go to the ZigZag Education Web site:

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