Commentary by Robert Louis Abrahamson
Author of Aesop in the Fog, with the full set of Stevenson Fables and Moral Tales, along with commentary
The Young Man and the Therapist
‘The Young Man and the Therapist’ follows Stevenson’s fable style in many ways.
It works primarily through dialogue, with only minimal narrative to set the scene and
describe the basic action. The characters are unnamed and undescribed. All we are told
is that the man is ‘young’ and the other person is a therapist. Like several of
Stevenson’s fables, this story progresses through a series short, parallel sections,
building up to a surprising and violent climax – and then leaving us to ponder the
climax. At first we may laugh, then perhaps we stop, a little ashamed at laughing at
such an action, and then we smile, appreciating the fine irony and insight about the
absurdity of formulaic answers to life’s problems.
The story draws upon the modern concern with mindfulness, living in the present
moment. When understood properly, living in the now is the wisest and most satisfying
and productive way to live, so what is wrong with this therapist’s advice? The therapist,
it seems, merely offers formulaic advice. In fact, the therapist is not really living in the
present moment himself. Living in the present moment would mean being connected to
the young man’s pains, maybe even being silent for a while instead of rushing in with
those overworked statements that can apply to anyone’s situation at any time. The
therapist is as unhelpfully smug as the doctor in Stevenson’s fable ‘The Yellow Paint’.
Yet we can turn the story around for a minute and consider the young man’s final
sentence. He is in a bad position, and he goes to a therapist for ‘advice’. What kind of
advice does he expect? Should the therapist tell him to write a letter to his abandoned
lover, or suggest a way not to be so distracted at work? Should the therapist advise the
young man to go back to town and have something to eat in a warm café? Is this the job
of a therapist? The young man says he has no other human contact. What he is asking
for is not a therapist, but simply a fellow human being, someone who will sympathise
and do what little can be done to ease the young man’s pains. This therapist is
obviously not the one to do this, though. And perhaps the young man, so caught up in
self-pity, is not someone who will be open to even the kindest person’s advice. This
gives us a very bleak picture of human life.
Where does this leave us? We can still laugh at the exposure and rejection of the
clichés about living in the moment, and then recoil at the horror of the young man’s
desperate and lonely depression that results in suicide and murder. But this is only a
fiction, with the fable’s licence to take situations to the extreme in order to shock us
into seeing things in a new way. The new way here might be a greater awareness of our
own sorrows and our unrealistic reliance on the wrong people to help us, and the
encouragement to engage in true mindfulness when helping others who, like the young
man, need ‘human contact’.
This fable has the feel of a Stevenson fable. It offers us a minimal narrative,
conducted almost entirely through dialogue. All but the essential details are omitted.
We do not know the characters’ names. We do not know what the daughter is thinking,
except the basic facts that she is ‘very upset’, ‘very distressed’ and ‘very cheerful’. We
do not know how old the ‘little’ girl is or what she looks like. All we know about the
mother is that she performs the very basic household chores: dusting, folding laundry,
The fable draws on the conventional three-part structure, the two earlier scenes
leading to the climactic final scene. The climax, as in many of Stevenson’s fables, is
shocking; we laugh first because it is unexpected, and then because we see the point.
We recognise the situation of the bullied girl, judged, it seems, only by the colours
she is wearing. We know (as she also apparently knows) that blue-for-boys and pink-
for-girls are just social conventions, not essentials of identity. She side-steps these
conventions by not wearing any clothes whatever. How can the others judge her now if
she is not wearing anything they can judge her by?
In our body-sensitive culture, we may feel some discomfort at the idea of a girl
going out in public naked, no matter what age she is, since then she might be judged for
her body. Here, however, far from objectifying or judging, everyone else (even the
teacher!) does not even notice her. Being naked seems the best way to be free, a cloak
of invisibility. She is free now to be alone. No one bothers her, and she is able now to
focus on what she wants to do – learning in school.
On a deeper level, becoming naked, giving up one’s possessions can reveal her true
identity, free from social constraints. Like King Lear in his moment of crisis, she is
now ‘unaccommodated’. No wonder that now she can truly say, ‘I got to … enjoy
myself.’ She does not need the others to confirm who she is; she can just get on with
The mother, on the other hand, seems to spend her time doing conventional
women’s work around the house. She is alert to her daughter’s distress and offers
helpful suggestions. She is talking with her daughter, but not really attending to her; she
is, we are told, ‘busy dusting the furniture’, ‘busy folding laundry’, ‘busy doing the
dishes’. Like the others, she does not seem really to see the girl for who she is. The girl
is as isolated at home as, it seems, she is everywhere else. She has to find her self all by
Stomach or Soul?
We were at first a little reluctant to award this fable as one of the winners because it
is so short, but Stevenson has several short fables in his collection; in fact ‘The Tadpole
and the Frog’ is even shorter than this. Besides pithiness is one of the essential qualities
of a fable in Stevenson’s style.
The fable follows a typical Stevensonian pattern of a very brief opening sentence,
setting the scene at a critical moment, followed by a dialogue (in this case just the man
thinking to himself) and concluding with a sentence describing the action arising out of
the dialogue. The character is anonymous; it could be any of us, at any time.
The man considers the two essentials of life: physical nourishment and spiritual
nourishment. Both options are desirable. We are left in suspense for a moment, waiting
to discover how the man will resolve this unresolvable dilemma. This makes the final
line so strong. He chooses neither, but goes instead for cheap entertainment, or, shall
we say, for the long shot, which might, sometime down the line, nourish him, if he wins
the lottery, but it does nothing for him now, in his time of crisis.
This ironic ending would make for a good fable, but what raises it to a higher level is
the final comment that he is feeding the system. Here is a different kind of nourishment,
which is not really a nourishment at all.
We worldly readers know about feeding the system. We understand the way
government, corporations and other large, inhuman entities do all they can to persuade
the populace to give them money, even when – or especially when – the people have
very little to spare. They offer us the hard-to-resist allure of winning huge sums, even
though our right minds know the likelihood is very slim, and winning will not really
solve our deeper problems.
Stevenson would not have understood the phrase ‘feed the system’, but he well
understood human frailty, which lies at the heart of this fable. As if we were not frail
enough, with our hungry imaginations overruling the needs of the immediate moment,
we now have the ‘system’ working against us, feeding our imaginations, not our hunger
or our soul.