Turning cheeks and turning tables

bargain 1The little badger invented by Russell Hoban and brought charmingly to life in the illustrations of Lillian Hoban, has been my favorite badger for a long time. [1] I have liked all the Frances books, but I have had reason to use this particular one—A Bargain for Frances—because it is a finely drawn instance of a situation I have to deal with a lot. The situation is the conflation of strategy and tactics.

I know that sounds obscure, but it really isn’t, and I propose to use the rest of this essay to convince you that it is not.

In A Bargain for Frances, Frances’ “friend” Thelma cheats her out of a tea set and Frances, having given the matter some thought, cheats Thelma out of a tea set. Her actions, as I see them are not only moral, but, ultimately, transformative.

That is why I juxtaposed the two turnings in the title. There is a good deal of debate about what, exactly, Jesus meant  (Matthew 5) when he taught that his disciples should “turn the other cheek” when struck. The meaning of “turn the tables on” is a good deal clearer. [2] Are these opposing and contradictory actions, as some say, or potentially complementary actions?

Here is the way the story goes. One morning, Frances is getting ready to go play with Thelma and her mother warns her to be careful on the grounds that playing with Thelma has often turned out badly in the past. Mother says, “Be careful.”

Then Thelma cheats Frances out of her tea set and when Frances realizes that she hasbargain 4 been played for a sucker, she ends a little song she is singing to herself, “…Mother told me to be careful. but Thelma better be bewareful.” This is a different matter entirely. Mother’s advice is good, but it is general, and, being parental, easy to ignore. Frances’ threat “better be bewareful” is not only specific, but Frances is saying the she, herself, needs to be taken account of. She is, herself, capable of wreaking vengeance. This is a transformation of Frances’ character [3]

It is it a good transformation?

In this story, it is. “Turning the other cheek” is what Frances has been doing during her whole history with Thelma. It is why Mother told her to be careful. Thelma and Frances have a stable relationship; Thelma is the predator and Frances is the prey. [4] That is where turning the other cheek has gotten both of these little badgers.

Turning the tables is Frances’ declaration that a new kind of relationship is in the offing. It might be “former friends.” It might be “enemies.” Turning the tables establishes the end of predation, but it doesn’t specify what the new form of the relationship, if any, will be. It is, in fact, friendship

“Careful” is a word that comes back when Thelma realized that she has been deceived by a playmate who has been only a sucker previously.

“Well,” said Thelma, “from now on I will have to be careful when I play with you.”

And Thelma is not wrong. The person Frances realized she could be—the person of whom Thelma had better be bewareful—could, in fact, be the kind of playmate of whom Thelma would want to be careful. We can picture Thelma’s mother reminding her of all the recent tricks Frances has played on her, just as Frances’ mother did in the opening scene.

But that is not what Frances has in mind.

Being careful is not as much fun as being friends,” said Frances. “Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?”

Having established a relationship of parity, there is the question of how to shape it. “Friends,” of whom one must be bewareful in one of the possibilities, certainly. But being friends rather than being careful is much more attractive. [5]

bargain 6This same transformation is caught in the substitution of “halfsies” for “backsies” Backsies is crucial to the con game. You make the deal and when you find out you have been defrauded, “no backsies” is a crucial part of the deal. That is why the sucker is required to accept those terms first. So Frances and Thelma take the pathetic dime that Thelma has given Frances as part of being cheated in return, and they go together to the candy store and each spends half of the dime on candy. “Halfsies” is a perfectly appropriate deal among peers who are friends and “backsies” are completely unnecessary.

I call the style of thinking that identifies “what you are supposed to do” (regardless of the outcome) the Servant style. [6] Those people would have counseled Frances to continue “being nice to” Thelma and would, thereby, have prevented the development of their friendship. I call the other style—the style oriented toward producing a good outcome— the Steward style. “Cheating Thelma back”–if it is a move in a larger game– would be fine with the Stewards, depending, of course, on what the larger game is. But Stewards would have been satisfied with a number of good outcomes that are not nearly as good as the one Frances produced—sustained mutual wariness, for instance—provided that they dealt with the predator problem.

Frances’ solution is in the Steward stream of thinking, but it is at the very high, at the “redemptive,” end.

[1] Apologies to Russell Wilson, who was an outstanding quarterback at Wisconsin before he became an outstanding quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.
[2] According to the OED, it originated with the playing of board games in the 17th century and it means turning a disadvantage into an advantage.
[3] And unique in the whole corpus of Francescan literature. My apologies for the “Franciscan” pun; I was momentarily overcome.
[4] In another essay, it would be possible to consider whether Frances’ behavior did not induce Thelma’s, that Thelma was drawn into predation by Frances’ unwillingness to stand up for herself. This is not that essay.
[5] I am reminded that “free” and friend” are derived from a common source, which fits Frances’ turn of phrase very nicely.
[6] For good biblical reasons that don’t really bear on this essay. The same goes for the Steward style, which I see as the alternative.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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