David Mitchell's 'The January Man' - an interpretation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1. Interpretation
2.1.1. More Aspects of Interpretation
2.2. Is 'The January Man' a typical Contemporary British Short Story?

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

David Mitchell was born in January 1969 in Southport, England; he studied English and American Literature in Kent. Mitchell was living eight years in Hiroshima, where he began writing and moved back to Ireland with his Japanese wife in 2003.

In 1999 he published his debut novel 'Ghostwritten', his second novel 'number9dream' from 2001 was short listed for the 'Man Booker Prize for Fiction' in 2002 - it's probable that he will receive this award on October 19th 2004 for his latest novel 'Cloud Atlas'. David Mitchell's Short Story 'The January Man' was published in 2003 in a collection of Short Stories called 'Granta volume 81. Best of Young British Novelists 3', in which young authors from Britain get the opportunity to introduce readers to their work. One can find stories from this collection, but also stories from older ones and from Nick Hornby’s collection 'Speaking with the Angel' in our seminar-reader – the authors rank from Salman Rushdie to Colin Firth or Zadie Smith.

So why did I choose Mitchell's story?

Superficially because it's very easy to get into the story and entertaining to go on, not only because of the colloquial style but also because of the exciting plot, which casts a spell over the reader – but in the final analysis, it was because there hides a complex story under the trivial appearing surface in David Mitchell's 'The January Man'.

In this assignment I try to release the view on the hidden characteristics and special qualities of this story by first interpreting it within the individual paragraphs, then by examining the aspects relevant for the whole story to categorize David Mitchell's story on the basis of my insights and in relation to Modernist, Postmodernist and Contemporary Short Stories.

2. Main Part

2.1. Interpretation

In Pittsburgh City Paper the journalist B. O'Driscoll wrote "(The Short Story

'The January Man') has a winning voice but a 'shock' gothic ending"[1] – a sentence which exactly describes the special quality of 'The January Man'. The story starts colloquially and seems to be the entertaining description of an 80s boyhood, but in the end it turns out to be a really exciting thriller. The reader almost forgets how the story started and remains in the strained mood of the last sentences.

David Mitchell's Short Story can be divided into nine paragraphs:

- As in many other Short Stories the first sentences turn out to be very important and a hint at the development and the end of the story. "The worst thing ever just happened, all cause my mum made me take down the Christmas tree[2] " pushes the reader right into the scene without any introduction, it makes the reader grin quietly and he expects a profane, funny story about a nearly unimportant incident in the life of a young boy.

The first paragraph introduces the first person narrator Jason, who is at the same time the protagonist, and parts of his family. One gets to know that the story takes place at an undefined date after Christmas and before January the 12th ("My birthday on January the twelfth will be cancelled, definitely"[3]) and that it takes place in an undefined year in the 1980s. David Mitchell was born in 1969, he also was a young boy in the 1980s and perhaps he remembered his own situation, the bands he listened to (Human League[4]) and the films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers[5], The Day After[6], Superman II[7]) and shows on TV (Top of the Pops[8], That’s life[9]) he or his parents watched when he tried to develop the social background of the protagonist and the setting of the story.

"The worst thing ever just happened" for Jason is the crash of the antique angel from Venice, which is always on top of the Christmas tree and which he destroyed, because it fell down and he stepped onto it. The whole first paragraph deals with Jason's thoughts about how to repair or replace the broken angel and how to keep it a secret from his parents. Jason appears to be a very intelligent and reflecting boy for his age ("When adults ask a question…"[10], "Writing thank-you letters is worse than double maths. I'd rather just sent all the presents back"[11]) and he’s in a good mood – otherwise he wouldn't think so much about small problems like a broken Christmas tree decoration.

- In the second paragraph Jason tries to distract himself from the Angel- accident by reading, but a phone call disturbs him in his father's office. The reader gets to know that Jason's father is often not at home, because he's an Area Representative for a supermarket and that Jason is not allowed to go into the office. This is the first time things start to feel a little mysterious. Jason's father forgot to switch on the answering machine, so the telephone rings for long minutes and Jason can't help, but answering it. The person at the other end of the line only takes a deep breath and Jason can hear a baby cry, but the person (a woman - "…like she'd cut herself"[12], "…her baby cried…"[13]) doesn't say anything and hangs up. Jason is not really irritated, but the reader might assume that this is the secret of Jason's father, that he perhaps has an affair with a woman and maybe also a baby with her. This might be the reason for the strict prohibition to go into the office and not what Jason believes – the computer. After he hang up the telephone Jason plays with the cannon of his father and while doing this he expresses a thought that in view of the whole story sounds like a premonition: "Nobody'd notice that Precious Angel was missing if something even worse happened..."[14].
- In the next paragraph Jason's friend Moron fetches him to visit the frozen pond in the wood. Jason goes with Moron, but he doesn't tell his mother, because he knows very well that she wouldn't allow him to go. The rest of the paragraph is told like a stream of consciousness, it gives the reader a very detailed view on Jason's world of thought, his problems and the things, which are on the mind of a young boy at his age. Jason believes that "if you wear black it's like you think you're hard or a biker or something"[15] and thinks about the names of his schoolmates ("…names aren't simple"[16]) and what significance names have in a group of young boys. The reader, no matter if male or female, is able to identify with Jason, because his problems are the common problems everyone at puberty suffers from (e.g. Jason doesn't like his older sister Julia[17], he is not yet sure about his sexuality or identity[18], he is a 'poet', but conventions force him to keep this as a secret[19], he believes that older people are happier[20]).
- The first part of paragraph four can be summed up very shortly – Jason, Moron and the other boys play games on the ice, everyone behaves like his rank forces him to and Jason seems to be a little in love with the only girl in the group, Dawn Madden. This might also be a scene where Mitchell uses his own experiences: "I wasn't one of the leaders, and I wasn't one of the victims. I was one of the in-between kids, always having to keep an eye on relegation, never being quite ignorant."[21]

The broken angel from paragraph one reappears – "Something in my pocket went crunch under McKay's knee. It was the Precious Angel bits grinding to powder."[22]

After the game Jason has to pee and walks through the hedges to find a place where no other boys are ("I like being were there aren't any boys."[23]) - he seems to know the area, he walks straight to "the deserted cottage"[24]. It also seems that Jason often visits the deserted cottage, he can describe it very well and is absolutely sure that it is deserted ("…there's never any smoke."[25] ; "…the deserted cottage doesn't give anything away."[26]).


[1] www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/prev/bk1.html

[2] p. 137, l. 1

[3] p. 137, l. 21f

[4] p. 137, l. 30

[5] p. 141, l. 23

[6] p. 142, l. 10

[7] p. 145, l. 20

[8] p. 137, l. 34

[9] p. 139, l. 38

[10] p. 137, l. 6ff

[11] p. 138, l. 3f

[12] p. 138, l. 24

[13] p. 138, l. 25

[14] p. 138, l. 32ff

[15] p. 139, l. 8f

[16] p. 139, l. 13f

[17] p. 139, l. 18

[18] p. 139, l. 24 and p. 140, l. 4ff "...liking books is a bit gay..."

[19] p. 139, l. 26f

[20] p. 139, l. 28ff

[21] David Mitchell in an interview with John Walsh at http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/interviews/story.jsp?story=568871

[22] p. 141, l. 33f

[23] p. 142, l. 25f

[24] p. 142, l. 21

[25] p. 142, l. 34f

[26] p. 142, l. 36

Excerpt out of 19 pages


David Mitchell's 'The January Man' - an interpretation
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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David, Mitchell, January
Quote paper
Anne Fuchs (Author), 2004, David Mitchell's 'The January Man' - an interpretation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/35714


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