Out in the Garden

Story Background
“Out in the Garden” was originally published in Fantasy Fiction in August 1953. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 321–328.

cover3

Plot Summary
Robert Nye, a middle class man with a new wife, is talking with his friend Tommy Lindquist during a small intimate get together. They discuss the garden and Peggy Nye’s favorite pet duck, name Sir Francis. Lindquist, who met Peggy earlier but only briefly, is instantly attracted to his friend’s new wife. The fascination with the duck is the topic of conversation. Robert has little interest in the animal, but Peggy is clearly enamored. Lindquist, in good humor, retells the story of Zeus coming into the form of a swan to seduce Leda, fathering Helen of Troy. The story shocks Peggy, who out of the blue confesses that she is pregnant. She suggests that Tommy know and told the story to insult her. Sir Francis hisses at Robert.

A son is born, named Stephen. Tension in the Nye household has been high since the small garden get-together with Tommy Lindquist. Strangely, the tension existed also between Robert and the duck, Sir Francis. Robert ponders Tommy’s story, his wife’s fascination with the duck, and his own animosity toward it. Although it is all rather silly, Robert takes comfort in the fact that the burdens of child-rearing will ensure that end the time spent between Peggy and Sir Francis. When Robert sees Sir Francis digging for worms, he abruptly throws that animal into the car and drives him into the countryside.

With Sir Francis gone, Peggy is spending time with young Stephen. To Robert’s chagrin, much of that time is spend in the same garden that Peggy used to spend with Sir Francis. Robert fells he has little to share with his son, who enjoys the outdoors, flowers, and Peggy’s stories.

Robert sees Stephen drawing with crayons and feels momentary pride and a chance to bond with his son who he seems to be quite aloof from. Robert talks about his own time as an artist in his youth and encourages his son to work on art. Stephen, addressing Robert by his first name, asks about Sir Francis. The knowledge is apparently intuitive because neither Robert nor Peggy had told him about it. Stephen asks is Sir Francis looked like the sun in his drawing. Robert, horrified, begins to again think that Stephen’s birth was supernatural.

Stephen, still calling Robert by his first name, invites him to a secret garden party. The party goes well and again provides a chance for Robert to feel he can bind with his son. However, when he comes upon the table Stephen has prepared, he finds it full of worms and spiders. Robert says he does not like that type of food and departs, apparently convinced that Stephen’s real father is Sir Francis.

Leda with Swan Zeus

Leda with Swan Zeus

Analysis
The troubled marriage is one of Philip K. Dick’s most consistent themes. From the first lines of this story to the end, the marriage between Robert and Peggy Nye is aloof and troubled. Not only does the shadow of adultery hang over the entire marriage, but they seem to share little in common. At one point, Robert is vocally annoyed that his wife returned home a few minutes earlier than expected, apparently interfering with Robert’s time alone. Peggy spends most of her time with other people. The only sign of sexual attraction to Peggy comes from others (Tommy Lindquist or Sir Francis). Neither is Robert able to bond with Stephen. Much of the tension comes from doubts over who is his father, but the relationships between these three people are awkward. This is not atypical of how Dick describes the middle class family in his stories and novels. Robert’s quest to understand Stephen is the emotional core of the story, making the final confirmation that Stephen is likely half-duck more tragic.

One way to read this is as a critique of the paranoia middle class families expressed over paternity certainty. The true cause of his distance from Peggy and Stephen is his own inability to appreciate or take part in their interests. Robert tries to bridge his gap with Stephen through drawing, but this only possible by bringing the conversation to his own artistic pursuits. In the end, Robert seems himself as the patriarch of the family and refuses the subjectivity of others. Robert’s has only himself to blame for his turmoil. Peggy’s adultery, although certainly odd, is not a big crime and merely an extension of the emotional separation between the two.

Dick is openly influenced by the Greek mythology of bestiality. The Greeks were fascinated by the potential of human-animal couples, human-god couplings, and grotesque creatures taking on the attributes of different animals. For them, the line between human and animal was blurred. Interspecies relationships is also a common theme in much science-fiction writing. In “Out in the Garden” this motif is used largely to interrogate the tensions in the middle class family.

Resources
Wikipedia entry for “Out in the Garden”

The book Dearest Pet, a nice look at the cultural history of bestiality.

Some of Zeus’ lovers.

On the rise of paranoid paternity certainty.

Always a good time for Maury DNA Tests.

*Note: Only slightly stranger than “Out in the Garden”

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Animals, Childhood, Family, Philip K. Dick, Sexuality, Suburbia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Out in the Garden

  1. Pingback: Human Is | Philip K. Dick Review

  2. Children,if they did appear in his fictional reality,were usually dangerous.They were an important motif or theme in his novels of the early 1960s,”Martian Time-Slip” and “Dr. Bloodmoney”.Like the boy in this short piece,they have what appear to be divine powers.Dick seemed to have an irrational fear that what was small and innocent,was in fact,powerful and disruptive.

    Marriage and divorce formed an integral pattern within the multiplcity of his metaphysical,political,social and technilogical themes,that gave them a human poignancy.He also seemed to think that the future of couples and familes in modern society,would never change without spiritual enlightenment.

  3. Vivi says:

    How old is Stephen during the garden party scene? Pretend-tea-parties and crayon drawing are generally something only very young children do (especially boys), so I get the impression that the kid is maybe 6 or 8. Honestly, trying to gross out his father with worms and spiders seems like perfectly normal and harmless behaviour to me, for any boy below perhaps 10 years of age. Even trying to eat a worm or two wouldn’t be abnormal below age 4 or 5. Or perhaps he was clumsily trying to share his fascination with nature and all the creepy crawlies in the garden with his so far emotionally neglectful father, just like he was used to bonding with his mother while working in the garden, and the father, who doesn’t understand why anyone would want to watch earthworms up close, just misinterprets the scene. (Kids delightedly picking up worms or bugs and running to share the experience with their parents is also perfectly normal and natural behaviour – the “ew” reaction only sets in once they’ve been taught by society that all things related to “dirt” are supposedly bad.) And he could have heard about Sir Francis from the neighbors or Lindquist or anyone. Imagining Sir Francis like the sun is fanciful daydreaming similar to imaginary friends, possibly caused by the boy instinctively knowing that the way his father treats him – distant, emotionally neglectful, resentful because of the infidelity suspicions – is not okay, and so he has fantasies about really being someone else’s child. Someone kinder, but who can’t be there for him for some good reason. Depending on the age of the kid, his level of social isolation (i.e. pre-school or home-schooled), and his exposure to fantasy literature (even just traditional fairytales or Greco-Roman mythology, or, hell, even dumbed-down-for-kids Bible stories about Mary and Jesus) this could show up as imagining himself as the child of a sun god. This would be even more fitting if the boy already feels “different” and alienated for being “too sensitive” (as his not typically masculine hobbies and strong attachment to his mother imply – see also my last paragraph) and especially if he realizes that he’s not what his father expects him to be. These days, kids like that daydream of getting a letter from Hogwarts.

    So from this summary, this story sounds more like one man’s descent into paranoid delusions about his wife’s possible infidelity and his repressed jealousy over the attention she gives to the duck. (He doesn’t really want her, but a 1950s wife is basically property / an unpaid housekeeper, and therefore has a duty be devoted and attentive to him without any effort or emotional investment from his side, dammit! How dare she have a life of her own?!) He ends up stewing so much in his own resentment and he demonizes her so much that he thinks her perverse and morally bancrupt enough to have sex with an animal. Just because his son, whom he basically does not know as a person, shows himself to be slightly weird. Or possibly a bit developmentally disabled, if the kid is older than I assume here.

    I’m reminded of the kind of old-school patriarchal family father who, after finding out that his son is gay or even just effeminate, claims that this means the boy cannot possibly be “really” his, thus blaming the supposed “defect” on the mother and some other guy’s “bad genes”.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      Wish I would have had your comments before I did the podcast episode on this story. I will definitely keep your “Father_Thing” comments in mind when I review that story in a few months.

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