|Michèle Roberts: Your Shoes - study guide|
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:
About the author
Michèle Roberts was born in 1949. Her father was English, while her mother was French and a Roman Catholic. The family lived in North London, and Michèle attended a convent school. The Catholic church influenced her work profoundly, and the young Michèle wanted to become a nun. She went on to study at Oxford University, where she rejected her religious faith and became a feminist. In an interview for the BBC, she says:
"The way that women were treated in the religion I grew up in, which was Catholicism, made me a writer - because women were seen as the source of evil in the world, the source of sin. We led men astray, we had to be forgiven for being women before we even began to try and be good, we had to get over having the bodies we had. This really pushed me to wanting to write as a way of opposing what was very constricting and actually painful in my life."
You can find a very full biography and more from the interview on the BBC World Service's guide to Women Writers. This is currently at:
Ms. Roberts' early novels are clearly autobiographical. Many of them make use of her childhood in England and France. She has published more than ten novels and collections of stories. These include:
Your Shoes comes from During Mother's Absence, published in 1993 by Little, Brown & Company.
What happens in Your Shoes?
The story is a monologue, spoken by a woman whose daughter has left home - the speaker reflects on her own past, her relations with her parents and the now-vanished daughter. At the end of the story she seems to think that her daughter has returned, but this appears to be a fantasy. In the AQA Anthology, there is an illustration of a pair of trainers - we know that the shoes in question are white trainers (line 130) with "white laces that" the narrator has tied together so that "they won't get separated or lost" and that she has "washed and ironed" (lines 31, 32). We also know that the narrator bought them without her daughter's approval or even involvement.
The themes of this story
Your Shoes is very much about the ways in which parents and children communicate, or fail to do so. Michèle Roberts considers how parents can oppress children by trying to live through them, and how we confuse material gifts with real concern for others' welfare. The story looks at ideas of self-knowledge and self-deception - but ends with an emphatic denial of what the reader sees to be true. The story also, therefore, makes us question the judgement and truthfulness or sanity of the narrator.
This story seems on the surface to have quite a lot in common with Doris Lessing's Flight, in looking at the relationships between generations and the ways in which young people become independent. But structurally it is very different - in Flight, the old man moves on and accepts his grand-daughter's growing up as necessary and healthy. In this story the mother refuses to move on - where the old man lets his favourite pigeon go, the narrator of Your Shoes shuts herself, her memories and her daughter's shoes away, locking out her husband, who might threaten her fantasy with an explanation of how things really are.
The characters in the story
This is a very short story, so it does not have fully developed characters as we might meet in a novel, play or TV soap opera. The narrator is unreliable, so we are not sure how far the characters that she presents to us are honest portraits. Of course, this is a work of fiction, so we cannot check the descriptions against biographical details of real people - but we do get a sense of people distorted by the narrator's strange and unhealthy worldview. We trust her account of what has happened much more than the interpretation that she puts on these things. So who are these characters and what can we say about them?
The missing daughter is a mystery to the reader - we know her only from her mother's account, and she (mother/narrator) is wrong about so many things, that we cannot trust her to be right about anything. So she buys her daughter new curtains of the sort that she (the mother) would have liked as a child - only to find that her daughter wants the old ones back that she has thrown away. But apart from the hint that the design is not to the daughter's taste, we suspect that the girl may resent having something she sees as a sale bargain. And we are sure that she will resent the mother's replacing the curtains without asking her. Her bedroom will be her own personal space, and she will feel uneasy at the way her mother tries to take over this space - indeed this seeming lack of privacy appears to the reader as one of the reasons why the teenage daughter may have left home.
The mother imagines that the daughter is living rough, and speculates about what "those men make [the daughter] do to get money for food" - she manages at once to see the girl as passive, a victim of "those men", yet at the same time to suspect her daughter of actively selling herself. She does not, for example, think that she might be somewhere safe, with friends or responsible adults. The reader may accept this stereotypical view of the daughter "hanging about…in London, around the railway stations" (the narrator seems to be thinking of a particular station, King's Cross, where young people of both sexes often make money through prostitution). But we also wonder if there is a more sinister explanation - is the girl alive, even? Does the mother know other things that she is not saying, or that she has concealed from herself?
The young woman appears to have an eating disorder - and this implies other things about its possible cause. We learn that she would come in from school, claim to be not hungry, but later on stuff herself with currants, biscuits and chocolate bars, rather than eating regular meals.
We learn that she does not like shopping for shoes with her mother - while the mother reckons to know her daughter's taste in footwear, and to be able to buy her shoes without her being there. Yet the girl has not taken the shoes the mother most values - suggesting what?
Can you think of any other explanation? Do you find either or both of these convincing? Give reasons.
The girl has told her parents that she has had sexual experience. We do not know what this is, or any details - though the mother suggests by a reference to looking in her bag, that she has found contraceptives there, and drawn conclusions. Check exactly what the narrator says about this.
We never learn the girl's name - she is always "you".
The narrator tells us that she did not breastfeed her daughter - yet the daughter would probably not remember this, and will know it (if she does) only because the mother has told her. So, if the daughter is resentful, it is because the mother has given her a reason - why should she tell her of something that is of so little relevance to her current situation?
The mother tries to adapt realities into more acceptable versions - so while giving details of her daughter's eating habits, she says that the change to eating "snacks" was "the fashion amongst [her] friends" and she assumes that "all day long you ate crisps and buns" - but this was when the daughter was at school, as we know from the statement that she "came in" at teatime, saying she wasn't hungry, so the remark about the "crisps and buns" appears to be guesswork. (The mother has not been at school, so does not know what she claims to.) The mother sees the binge eating, yet does not represent it to the reader as a disorder or a cry for help.
This tendency to blame the friends for her daughter's character reappears in the claim that she followed "that mob you got in with at school". Yet she makes shallow judgements from people's outward appearance, saying that "that Vanessa" has the "look" of someone "on drugs" - a vague and unspecified comment. What are these drugs? Later she refers to "pot" - a name that belongs to her era rather than the daughter's. The mother's observation seems remote from any kind of reality.
The mother sees her daughter's claimed sexual experience as some kind of injury to her and her husband: "How could you do that to us. How could you. Boasting about it even." Yet we learn that the mother was sexually experienced before her marriage - and for all we know the man who deserted her ("Pete") may be the father of her child. She allows herself to have a lower standard, or a different one from, her daughter. While she claims that the daughter wanted her to find out, this seems unconvincing, since it is only by looking into the girl's bag that she did learn.
She thinks she knows her daughter's tastes, even to the extent of buying her shoes in her absence - yet the girl has left these behind. In a similar way she removes the curtains from her daughter's room, throwing them away to ensure that she cannot put them back, then reproaches the girl for crying. The new curtains she says are "really modern" yet also "exactly what I'd have wanted as a girl" - statements which cannot both be true unless, as a girl, she had foreseen the trends in fabric design many years ahead. And if the daughter knows that the curtains are what her mother likes and thinks modern, it is not at all surprising that the girl rejects them.
The mother sees the girl's leaving of the new shoes as a sign that she will be back - identifying her own liking for them with the daughter's. Yet the reader sees the leaving of the shoes as irrelevant to the girl's return, or perhaps making a point about why she had to go.
These things and others create a sense of an insecure woman who is intrusive and controlling - her conduct might be appropriate towards an infant, but not towards a ten year-old, let alone a teenager.
The mother is full of self-pity, urging the daughter to blame her since everyone else does - but the reader may suppose this to be a case of no smoke without fire, and that people blame her with reason because they have seen what she is like.
She tells us things about her own early life that may explain or at least shed light on what she does and is like. She disapproves of her own mother - she sees her mother's social ambitions as limited, and a simple reaction against a slum childhood. She counters her mother's obvious social snobbery with a pride in learning and in a close relationship with her father. He seems to have preferred the company of the narrator, his daughter, to that of his wife - taking this brighter, younger, thinner companion with him to places like his golf club or on walks in the park. There is a sense here of the father showing off his daughter, almost flirting with her. Meanwhile the narrator complains that her mother did not love her, but preferred her son (the narrator's brother) and granddaughter, the runaway teen, whom she "spoiled". But she also has regrets about not making her peace - "and now it's too late". On the other hand she also commends not communicating - so she did not let her mother know about her sexual experiences with Pete. And she disapproves of her daughter's telling her about sex - and yet she pries into this anyway.
Sometimes the mother says things that may be mostly or partly right, but not for the reason she gives. She suggests that, in leaving home, her daughter "didn't mean to hurt" her. We suspect that hurting her mother was not the girl's main reason - which is more to escape from the tyranny and interference. But she may well have realized that it would hurt her mother and either not cared about this, or thought it a price worth paying in her desperation to get away.
As a young woman the narrator was supposedly intelligent - at least in the eyes of her father, who saw a "real future ahead of her". Yet we see no evidence that she has achieved more than her own despised mother - perhaps less, as she has married a man she does not love, and raised an ungrateful and unhappy child, only to lose her.
In conclusion, we can see that the mother never really sees her child as having an independent existence or right to any choices or freedom. Whatever she says about her, she relates to herself and her own concerns and outlook.
At the end of the story she seems to lose her already weak grip on reality - almost descending into an insane idea of herself hugging the child and willing herself into a belief that the girl has come back. But we know this is not possible. How do we know? (Click here for the answer. )
He is a most elusive person who appears only indirectly as a cause of the daughter's unhappiness - so we learn that he "lost his temper and used some unfortunate expressions…in the heat of the moment". Among these is "dirty slut" - which seems rather stronger than an "unfortunate expression". However, he is not really a character, in any developed sense - like everyone other than the narrator, he appears at second hand, and she seems to have little interest in him. She tries to explain away his harsh words, but also locks him out of the bedroom where she fantasises about her child's return.
Most tellingly, though, she reveals that she did not love him and accepted him only as a substitute for the beloved Pete. She sees that other people think her "lucky" to have him, but she does not share their enthusiasm.
The narrator's father
He appears to have been the favourite parent, who spoiled the narrator when she was a young woman - though she seems to care a lot about being rejected, as she thought, by her mother. He would take her to the golf club, to meet his friends, and once to a pub. He seems proud of his daughter whom he thinks intelligent, with "a real future ahead of her".
The narrator's mother
The narrator's mother is now dead - and we learn of the uneasy relationship between the generations. While the narrator seems angry with her mother, and tells how she preferred her father's company, yet she seems genuinely to feel hurt by her mother's rejection, and is still almost seeking her approval.
The narrator criticises her mother for looking like a "tart", for wearing "a girdle to hold herself in", for her hair and make-up. She is shocked by the way her mother's shoes, too small for her, became "moulded to the shape of her poor feet", showing where she'd had bunions and worn corn-plasters. Yet this had led her to buy new shoes for her own daughter who really does have small feet - as if there is any more sense in embellishing the small and pretty feet of a young woman than in squeezing an old woman's foot into shoes that are too small for them.
The setting - time and place
The story has no indications of historical time, other than some references to material products (freezer, microwave, Styrofoam cup, trainers and a telephone that unplugs) that place it sometime after 1970. (The story was published in 1993, and seems mostly to fit this era.) There are hints of more immediate time - though the narrator looks back to her own childhood, the monologue appears as a stream of speech or unspoken thoughts that go through the narrator's head one afternoon and evening, while she sits in her daughter's room, before her husband returns (from work, apparently).
Michèle Roberts' technique
The story does not have a conventional story structure - for example while it may have a beginning, middle and end, it does not have them in an obvious sense or even clearly in this order (there's a lot of middle, something of a beginning and not much of an end).
If there is a structure it does not come from the account of the runaway daughter's disappearance, so much as from the mother's life story.
The final part of the (printed) story is certainly not an ending of the daughter's (life) story, but does represent something both conclusive and inconclusive for the mother. She comes to some kind of idea about the girl but it is a delusive fantasy, in which the teenager becomes an infant, while her shoelaces are no longer sweet in a metaphorical sense, but become like liquorice as they "taste sweet" - it seems as if the mother is sucking the laces to bring back the scent or taste of the child. And in doing this, she thinks that the girl has come back, while she repeats, like a mantra, her cry of love. We might use a modern expression and say that she is in denial.
This is a very obvious technical device - one that appears in many of the poems in the Anthology, too. (Can you think of any?). The whole story appears as the words of the mother. We can perhaps more readily believe that she would think these, rather than say them aloud (though this is not impossible). But in reading them, you may wish to imagine the tone of voice in which she might say them. The monologue is directed towards an absent hearer, the runaway daughter or "you" of the story. This is quite normal in situations where the listener is really present, or the "you" is meant to be a reader or person in an audience in a theatre. But it is also common in love poems or songs, and in prayers to God.
The grammar reflects the sense of this as spoken language - so we find many things set out as sentences that would not be normal in a more formal literary style: "Like hers." or "Moan whine…"
Pronoun use is very important - the story contains no names at all, but very frequent use of the pronouns I, me, you and pronominal possessive adjective your.
Michèle Roberts uses euphemism to show the mother's evasiveness, as when she calls her husband's words "unfortunate expressions".
We note how a simple adverb phrase (here a preposition and pronoun) shows the way that the mother relates everything to herself, as in "How could you do that to us". She sees the girl's sexual activity as something done, not so much by the girl (and with someone else) as done to her (the mother) and her husband.
The title of the story points out the most obvious symbol in it. The girl's shoes stand, perhaps, for several things. Among these may be:
But we are also made to think of the expression about putting oneself into another's shoes - to see the world as he or she does, rather than force our own view on someone else. In this respect, the mother fails wholly.
What do the shoes mean to you as you read the story? Do you think any of the suggestions above are convincing or not? Say why?
Attitudes in the text
In this story the attitudes we learn about most clearly are those of the narrator
Attitudes behind the text
How far does the story show (or suggest) assumptions about the world that the author makes?
Attitudes in the reader
Can you find any evidence of what Michèle Roberts assumes about her readers? One way to check this is to make a list of things you did not at first understand, or which you had to ask about.
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 she does, while missing out others?
It is easy to make comparisons in the story. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:
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, gaining independence and leaving home.
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?
Readers and 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.
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 her narrative methods.
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.
© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me