Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny, Smiling Daddy”

Please address one or more of the following questions in your response.  Remember to keep these brief–about a paragraph or so in length.

1)  Pay close attention to this story’s structure and use of flashback and memory.  Why do you think Gaitskill made the choices she did?  In particular, why dos the very last memory appear at the end of the story?

2) Why are we never shown the father and Kitty interacting during the story’s present action?

3) How do you feel toward the father character, and how does Gaitskill achieve that effect?

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30 responses to “Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny, Smiling Daddy”

  1. I think the flashbacks were the fathers’ consciousness taking hold of him. The flash backs got more and more intense as the story went on, ending with the last flashback where the father tells Kitty to leave. I think that when somebody says “i wrote something about you” that automatically throws you into a trance of flashbacks and memories you have shared with that person; the father had wronged Kitty and i feel like that finally caught on to him. I think the last flashback in the story is really intense and is placed at the end because it is the moment that ended the relationship between Kitty and her father.

    I don’t even know how to word the way i feel about the father. i think that most people would be inclined to say he’s a bad man, but i can’t. Kitty wrote in a magazine that she was frustrated, yet i felt like he was more frustrated then her. I sympathize with the father a little more because Kitty moved on and got a life and became “beautiful” again, but I feel like he will always be stuck in this circle of longing for his daughter and perhaps even guilt for pushing her away.

    Still, i have a hard time deciding who’s more at fault, this story beautifully captures this insanely confusing thing we call life.

    • Thanks, Amina. Very nuanced view of the father character. It might be interesting to consider how your view of him would have been different if the final flashback were placed earlier in the story.

  2. 1.I think the flashbacks and memories were meant to intensify the separation of father and daughter. the fact that he is unable to converse with her through the whole story and tries to figure out why she wrote the article with only his memories shows the distance between them.
    2.they are never shown interacting in the story other than flashbacks because it represents their separation. If they were to talk about the article she wrote their problems would seem less dire and more trivial.
    3.Im not very fond of him, which is achieved showing his resentfulness towards his daughter and the flashbacks only solidify this characteristic. he is not written to be a likable person.

  3. Thanks, Dan. Very good point that the flashbacks and memories “intensify the separation” of the characters. True, the father isn’t written to be a likable person, necessarily–but does Gaitskill have any sympathy for him? Others, feel free to address this in your responses, with evidence from the text.

  4. I think Gaitskill uses the flashbacks to, somewhat paradoxically, move the story forward. Each flashback to his memories of Kitty adds new layers of depth to the present story, to who he and Kitty are, to how they have become who they are. I thought it was a really intelligent way to present the character of the father, because unlike the previous posts, I liked him in the beginning. I had sympathy for him. I felt like I could understand his struggle, his desire to be close with his daughter, his frustration at the loss of the child he once knew. He really loved her, and he wanted her to be something that she had no interest in being, that perhaps she couldn’t be, and without the flashbacks, I don’t think we would necessarily see that as a reader.

    Which makes the final flashback all the more significant, because of course, by the end, I don’t find him likeable. That last scene seems to undo all of the sympathy that has been previously built up for him. There were hints throughout the story that he wasn’t “right” about a lot of what had happened between him and Kitty, but there were also all of these complexities to his character that made him so painstakingly human. I wanted to be sympathetic towards him, but by the end, I couldn’t and I felt like that was such a pivotal commentary on the importance of perspective, both in the story, and in the experience of being human.

    I think that there’s no interaction between him and Kitty in the present for the same reason this story only works in the specific way that it does being more about the father than about Kitty. I think that if Kitty were the focal character, the story would sound very different, and very (and perhaps this is only through my own experience and perspective) ordinary. There already exist so many stories about the misunderstood child and their evil parents who refuse to accept them as they are. I felt like getting to see the parent side of this paradigm was something new, something unexpected. And it helped to make an important point that we’re all trying the best that we can. Even in the moments of anger, and the moments when I completely disagreed with the father, there was real tenderness to this story. There was real significance and truth to how our own experiences and perspectives shape who we are, who we become, how we see the world around us, and how we treat those we love because of it.

    • Thanks, Frankie. Great point re. the importance of perspective. One of the best things about this story is the way in which Gaitskill rejects the impulse to make the father an “evil” character, while at the same time being very clear and upfront to the reader about his flaws–flaws which the character himself would most likely not recognize as such.

  5. The flashbacks purpose was to give the reader a sense of the type of relationship the father and daughter had. To make the reader understand that the father loved his daughter, he hated the decisions she made, rather the lifestyle she chose. During the story kitty and the father never interact in person only in flashbacks because it shows the relationship they have. Kitty coming home once a year, barely calling her parents.

    Throughout the story the flashbacks showed how the relationship drifted apart. When kitty announced she was lesbian it tore the dad apart emotionally. He only saw her as his little girl, not as an independent young women. From the beginning I hated the father. The way he became so angry at the fact his daughter wrote a article about him. How he was angry at her for not setting the table. Small things that shouldn’t allow you to resent you child. As I got closer to the ending of the story I sort of became sympathetic for the father. He was a father and like most wanted the best for his daughter. But I think his selfishness is what caused their relationship to deteriorate. He resented what kitty wanted for her life and refused to accept it. As the father thought about all the memories of his daughter he came to a realization that he pushed his little girl away. He allowed his anger to get the best of him and lost something that was truly dear to him; his daughter.

    • Thanks, Deborah! You bring up something very important in the father’s anger at Kitty for not setting the table. Others, why do you think Gaitskill chose to illustrate the particular moments of Kitty’s childhood that she did? And why do you think she brought the father’s childhood into the story, through his memories of his own father?

  6. 1) The purpose of the flashbacks is to highlight the relationship between the father and Kitty. The author also showed how the relationship evolved from being very good to very good. As the story progressed, the resentment and animosity between each other grew. The last memory involved the father yelling at Kitty for being a lesbian. He said that he would spit on her face even on his death bed. The last scene is an imperative part of the story because it ended the relationship between the father and Kitty.

    2) They never talk during present because of the clash in lifestyle. The father is a conservative and selfish person who wants his daughter to possess certain qualities. Unfortunately, Kitty did not meet the dad’s expectations of an ideal daughter. Being a lesbian did break his father’s heart more than anything else.

    3) I do not like the father character at all. The author wanted the reader to dislike the father character. In the beginning, he came across as a guy who wants the best for his daughter, Kitty. He was heart broken with his daughter’s sexual preference. He could not accept Kitty’s lifestyle and it was sad. Eventually, the father’s personality degenerated into a paranoid jerk. One of the last things we read about is the heated arguement between the father and Kitty. In the scene, the father is tormenting Kitty about being a lesbian which results in Kitty crying.

    • Thanks, Klaus. You’re correct in that the heated argument between the father and Kitty that is revealed at the end is a very important part of the story. Others, it might be interesting to talk about how Gaitskill reveals throughout the piece the ways in which that argument both did and didn’t end the relationship between Kitty and her father.

  7. Ryan MacGillivray

    The flashbacks are useful because there is no actual interaction between the father and daughter and they give the reader insight into the relationship between them. I think the final flashback at fits well because it is the last time he and his daughter were together and it ended terribly also it’s the final piece of information the reader gets and a powerful way to end to story.
    The absence of an interaction between the father and daughter shows the separation and distance they have with one another, the two do not have a good relationship because of personal differences and they do not talk anymore so the flashbacks serve well to fill in the missing pieces.
    I do not like the father at all and I think the author did a very good job at making him appear selfish and ignorant. The father is not understanding of his daughter’s lifestyle and sexual preference and seems to put a lot of blame criticism on his daughter for the way that she is and not accepting any responsibility of his own.

    • Thanks, Ryan–absolutely, the flashbacks give insight into why Kitty and her father’s relationship is strained. Others, does the father share this insight or not? And if not, does that make him a more or a less sympathetic character?

  8. I think that both the flashbacks and the fact that Kitty and her father never had a conversation in the present made their separation stronger for the story. The flashbacks were the only way the reader had to get to know the relationship between Kitty and her father. And the last flashback was very purposely placed at the end of the story. Throughout the story he talked about his daughter growing up and becoming less beautiful in his eyes. He would only see glimpses of her beauty and he also felt like he didn’t know her. Once she told him she was a lesbian, be felt upset and betrayed. I think we finally see why this was so important to him with the last flashback. He never got a chance to know his dad when he was older and I think he wanted that with his daughter. This flashback makes him realize his relationship with his father could have been different. He also kept hoping Kitty would walk in and they could just get along, that it would just be a phase and they could have a father daughter relationship again. He was really looking for the relationship with his dad that he never got.

  9. I think Gaitskill structured the story in a way that lets us see inside Stew’s mind; the story’s progression seems to follow his thought processes. At first, when he finds out Kitty has written about him in Self magazine, we begin to learn about his daughter through flashbacks. The first flashback is a nice memory of Kitty as a little girl but quickly morphs into a memory of a defiant and scornful fourteen year-old. The rest of the flashbacks describe a rebellious, angry and vicious Kitty. We don’t see Kitty and her father interacting in the story, save for flashbacks. We only see her through Stew’s memories which are cynical and one-sided. The final flashback is the memory Stew has of Kitty telling him she is a lesbian. The memory of that moment—Stew’s response and Kitty’s reaction—gives new depth and understanding to the story as well as the other flashbacks. Gaitskill reveals this memory at the end to show us how long it takes the father to sift through the anger and bitterness he feels towards his daughter and realize that he is responsible for it all.

    Gaitskill does a good job of portraying the father as the victim throughout the story—or rather, lets us see how the father portrays himself as the victim. While I was reading the story I guess I was on the father’s side. I saw him as a tired, old man who did the best he could raising a rebellious daughter. But at the end when I saw the final flashback of Stew rejecting Kitty as a lesbian, my ideas of him changed. Instead, I saw a hard, bitter, old man who gave up on his daughter and withheld love from her because he was unhappy with whom she was. I don’t hate him, though. Stew is a very real character whose flaws and weaknesses are apparent and I’m left feeling sorry for him.

  10. I think that Gaitskill uses flashback and memory because, as she’s giving us the main character, Stew, in the third person close, she can give us a background, etc., without just telling it to us. The past is coming to us from his perspective so it’s subjective and we can expect it to be skewed. Kitty is only the Kitty that Stew imagines, for better or for worse. The last memory tells the reader that the perspective that we’ve been following so closely is not as kind as we might have originally imagined it. It’s only natural to try to identify with the speaker and we are given reason not to with the second to the last paragraph. “You mean nothing to me” is pretty heavily loaded against the main character.

    Leaving out any actual interaction between the daughter and the main character supports the disconnect that Kitty writes about and Stew expresses through the narrative voice. Everything that he remembers about his daughter is based on his memory…an unreliable source. Both father and daughter become, for me, unreliable sources of information about their relationship. Too enveloped in their own perceptions of reality, I find them both too selfish to expand their understanding outside of their expectations of one another. Kitty is at least trying to figure it all out.

    • Thanks, Kris! Absolutely correct that we’re getting the flashbacks from the father’s skewed perspective. Gaitskill makes use of dramatic irony by allowing the reader to realize that Stew’s perspective is skewed, but never allowing the character to come to that realization himself.

  11. The problem being, she never tried to figure out her father who tells us towards the end that he, too, had problems with his own father. That’s pretty significant and explains why he might have trouble being one. (I inherited the afterthought from my grandmother…I can’t have a conversation with her without her calling me back moments later with a follow-up thought.)

  12. First of all, I think that Kitty and the father never interact during the story as a way to symbolize their relationship. They were never close and never connected with each other. Their relationship and viewpoint of each other was and has been for the longest time just through actions and stories, rather than direct communication with one another.

    The flashbacks are a way to show us depth to the characters and other situations that have led to the way things are during the present time. I think that they are a very creative way to give the reader more information. The final flashback is used to give the reader the final piece of information that is relevant to a possible, very probable, cause as to why the father acts the way he does.

    I have mixed feelings towards the father character. I feel somewhat bad for him because I can feel his frustration as a father dealing with a daughter that is disconnected from him. However, I think that he disapproves of his daughters sexual orientation. I think that this is a horrible trait and he needs to learn to accept her for the way she is, regardless of what he thinks is the right way.

    • Thanks, Elyse. Very perceptive reading–I like your point that the relationship between Kitty and her dad has been conducted through “actions and stories,” rather than “direct communication,” and that this is nicely illustrated through Gaitskill’s use of flashbacks.

  13. I agree with Dan that the flashback’s were used to signify the distance between Kitty and her father Stewart. Gaitskill portrayed the distance and the hatred that stewart had for his daughter by giving us Stewarts point of view, or his feelings of his daughter. Gaitskill gives us a tiny sampling of Kitty’s feeling toward her father through the article that she wrote, but ultimately, stewarts feelings and emotions of hatred and disgust are felt the most throughtout the story. I liked the description of Stewarts father in the end, as it helps to explain perhaps where stewart learned his parental skills from. Stew is a cold and angry man, resentful toward the world, and his own daughter. I really enjoyed the way Gaitskill timelined the progression of hatred that Stewart had toward his daughter from her young age through her teens years, and to the present day. I felt that Stewart did love his daughter, but just could not accept her for her lifestyle and the choices that she had made for herself. I felt compassion toward Stew because it seemed that he was a bitter and resentful person, who guarded himself from the present world, instead of embracing it.

  14. 1. I think one of the reasons Gaitskill chose the very last memory to appear at the end of the story because it was a building up type of plot. The author described how the relationship between Stew and Kitty was, but never really mentions how it came to be. The kicker at the end of the story made everything else make sense. The father’s response to Kitty’s lesbianism reveals their disconnected relationship and how it elevated. In a way, I could sympathize with the father who only wants what his best for his daughter.

    2. The fact that the story was based on flashbacks is why I think the father and Kitty never interacted during the story’s present action. The author used the father’s memories to tell the story, which added a unique structure rather than telling it straightforward.

    3. I feel that the father character is stubborn and old-fashioned. He obviously wants his daughter, Kitty, to grow up a certain way and she refutes that beginning in her teenage years. Gaitskill achieves this effect by describing Kitty’s dislike of her father. Also, the fact that the father had to find out Kitty wrote an article about him shows that their relationship is not the greatest.

  15. 1) I think she chose to use the flashbacks she did to convey the father’s feelings for his daughter throughout the story. At first he’s just a little nervous and realizes he misses his daughter, so he has a happy memory of when she was little. Then he remembers how she disliked him and brought up memories of her as a teenager, and when he thinks the article might not be so bad, he remembers the amicable time they had when she had come home for Christmas. The last memory I suppose is probably to show the real reason the daughter doesn’t like the father much, because at this point the father had remembered him and his wife simply saying it was fine for the daughter to leave, when in reality she was kicked out.

    2) She probably avoided having the father talk to the daughter so that the divide between them could seem wider. If he talked to her throughout the story the ending where it is revealed that she was essentially kicked out would seem like less of a sudden shock probably.

    3) I feel that the father is kind of a dick, especially after learning what he said to the daughter in the end. It also seems like the author used the father’s memories and flashbacks to make him seem like he might not totally be in the wrong by using his version of the stories, but then it’s revealed that he was pretty much a jerk to his daughter the entire time.

    • Thanks, Andrew. I wonder if Kitty and the dad aren’t shown talking because their conversations wouldn’t be very revealing–they clearly don’t talk to each other about some very important things.

  16. I think Gaitskill used the flashbacks in order to give the reader a deeper understanding of the relationship between Kitty and her father. The events reveal intricacies of their relationship that could not be seen as clearly if it were not told through past interaction. The final flashback is significant because it shows some of then tension that was created when Kitty left. It also revealed one of the father’s more aggressive sides and added more reason for Kitty’s anger towards her father.

    I think the author never shows Kitty and her father interacting present day because it would take away from the story. The tension the father feels is that he is unsure of his daughter’s feelings towards him. In the beginning of the story he states that they had raised her well and loved her as a child but then he is portrayed being hostile towards her sexuality at the end. I think this, again, is done in order to capture the complexity of their relationship. Also it builds suspense. The reader is told that Kitty wrote a story about her father and he is unsure of what could be said, which works to move the story forward and keep the reader thinking.

    Towards the beginning I was sympathetic towards the father characters but uncertain about his treatment of Kitty. As the story progressed I became more indifferent to the character because he acted even more hostile towards Kitty. The flashback to his father was important in establishing sympathy for Kitty’s father and explaining his later actions. I think Gaitskill wanted to show that he wasn’t an all bad person but certainly failed as a parent on several occasions. At the same time she gives us the example of his father’s own detachment and absurdity to explain Kitty’s fathers feelings.

  17. Thanks, Seth. Great point that Stew is unsure of Kitty’s feelings toward him. I’d argue that he is also unsure of his feelings toward Kitty, which adds to the tension in the story.

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