Down, Down, Down: Leonora Carrington’s “White Rabbits”

An appreciation of a Carrington story first published in the 1940s...

The story that is the focus of this essay appears in The Weird compendium and can also be found in the out-of-print collection The Seventh Horse. This essay contains some spoilers. - The Editors

Usually, I don’t advocate transposing the writer’s biography onto the writer’s work, especially since I am not going to dwell on it here, but in the case of Carrington (1917 – 2011), her biography is part of her lexicon and it warrants noting. Just to summarize an extraordinary life that could fill volumes, Leonora Carrington was a prominent surrealist, and came onto that scene at the tender age of 19, when she fell in love with the movement, and one of its prophets Max Ernst, after attending the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. She met Ernst a year later, and they ran away together to the South of France, until the German Occupation split the couple and she fled to Spain.  After a short stint in an Institution, she came to New York around 1941 awaiting clearance to migrate to Mexico, where she would finally settle for her long life of painting.

It is unfortunate that most people only know of Leonora Carrington the painter, and not the writer, as the two are one-in-the-same.  Both image and word serves as an inner bestiary (her language is spoken with animals) in which Carrington explores her most pivotal autobiographical moments through symbolism and Jungian analysis, creating bizarre and unusual narrative that can be read without her biographical transparency laid upon the story or tableau, but is more jarring and stirring when done so. “White Rabbits” is a prime example of this visual and textual exchange.  Carrington wrote this story in 1941. She was twenty-four and just arrived in New York in a pretty intense state of transition.  The war had brought a lot of friendly Surrealist faces to New York, including Ernst with his savior, patroness, and new lover Peggy Guggenheim).  I can’t help but wonder if the later two were models for the diseased neighbors that appear later in the story. Nonetheless, surrounded by these friends tainted with painful memories probably left her feeling alienated and alone.

Similarly, the narrator in “White Rabbits” has undergone a very adult transition — moving away from home sans friends and family – and is completely alone in a decaying and alienating city.  She grows bored, which when combined with curiosity is an alchemical formula for Weird experiences.  It was true for Alice in Alice in Wonderland, and it is also true for the narrator in “White Rabbits.”

For the bored and curious Alice, a bit of the weird hops into her life in the form of a talking and dapper white rabbit who she follows down a rabbit hole and into a surreal and fantastic adventure. For Carrington’s protagonist, the same formula applies, but her situation is far removed from the idyllic childhood Alice flees. You don’t know why the narrator has fled London for New York, but she finds New York disappointing – “I had not imagined New York like this.”– Nothing at all like a Wonderland.

Rather than looking through a rabbit hole, she looks through windows and onto her balcony. But for this young lady there is no giant, tardy, talking rabbit (no, those eponymous symbols come later I am afraid), but curious neighbors: a beautiful woman who empties bones into the street. When the strange lady asks the narrator to come over, and bring some rancid meat, the lonely femme, buys meat to rot on her balcony so she’d have an excuse to go down the rabbit hole.

Just as an aside, Carrington adored Lewis Carroll as a child, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch that in responding to her personal life and ambivalent future in New York City, to her friends and former lovers, that she fractured Carroll’s famous coming-of-age tale to serve this transitional autobiographical fragment.

When the narrator comes out at the end, she is before a decrepit house filled with ravenous rabbits that devour her rancid meat like land-walking piranhas. You can take the symbolism of the rabbits as far as you want, but their appearance is so brief that the obvious inferences are probably the more correct ones in this case.  They eat meat. They are carnivorous. It is said that people who keep rabbits, typically herbivores, are often vegetarians themelseves, making an implicit statement that they are animal friendly.  In the case of the neighbors, their rabbits eat meat, and in turn their owners eat them. It is a jarring image, as well as another painterly technique translated into a writer tool.  Foreshadowing in this story is the equivalent of a visual composition, where the position of the rabbits is the guide for the eye into the narrative.

In fact, the moment the narrator enters the house the entire story seems to transmute from words on a page to images on a canvas. Or, you realize, perhaps it was a canvas all along. The narrator’s stark loneliness imbues the story implicitly like the faint yellow ochre contour lines of an underpainting.  But as she begins to indulge her curiosity and visit her neighbors, colors and costumes begin to flood the reader’s mind, and what begins as a modern story in New York City begins to morph into something that seems varnished with age.

While the narrator moves through the story, the other characters are posed and described in solid-color robes that connote costuming from any Florentine Renaissance painting chosen at random. The story itself is full of chiaroscuro – the opening scene describes the building as burnt out relics of London, a place where the narrator tries to escape, and seems to have returned to a decayed version of itself. The images that make up the final scenes are revealed to the narrator and reader through light – the neighbor carries a torch that dictates where the eye is to fall, what the eye is to see.  It introduces us into the tableau by alighting on the rabbits. 

To me, this achievement of a verbal painting is weirder to me than the weird within it. Despite the disturbing images conjured, the technique makes me curious…it is stimulating…it appears to be opening up a rabbit hole into Carrington’s world that I, and other readers, feel compelled to slide down, regardless of the consequences.

S. J. Chambers is the co-author with Jeff VanderMeer of The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image). Her work has appeared at Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Tor.com, and Bookslut. She is a devout Poepathist, whose principles she lectured on at the Library of Congress last May. She waxes and wanes on her blog at www.sjchambers.org and her Twitter: @selena_jo.

3 replies to “Down, Down, Down: Leonora Carrington’s “White Rabbits”

  1. Pingback: Articles, Reviews, Readings, and Changes « S. J. Chambers

  2. Pingback: Cealată jumătate. Cîteva lămuriri. | Bookaholic

  3. Julio Cortázar, who also wrote a “weird tale” about a collection of rabbits (in his case, rabbits spontaneously vomited up by the narrator), considered this a key story. He wrote to a friend in 1949: “I remember a stupendous story, ‘White Rabbits,’ and you know that I’m a bit of an amateur of rabbits.” He may have been alluding to his own “Carta a una señorita en Paris,” which was published in book form in 1951 but which may have circulated privately earlier.

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