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Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, is a complicated novel, revolving around the story of a six year old boy named PS and his search for personal identity amidst the conflicts of his closest relatives. The narration of these conflicts, as well as the history behind their origins, forms the basis of the novel, and while the different types of relationships between the characters are not the main focus of the novel, the author links them with each of the characters’ sense of identity and their personal desires. Careful He Might Hear You is a book about people finding their true identities, and the truth or imbalance of the relationships that result from this. Through comparison and contrast, Sumner Locke Elliot highlights the flaws in each of the relationships presented, and the ramifications these have on the individuals involved; their present lives and their probable futures.
The first significant relationship presented in the novel is that between PS and his Aunt Lila and Uncle George. PS sees himself solely as Lila and George’s child and this perception that he has on himself directly influences the nature of his relationship with them. Being a six year old child yet to develop his own personal sense of identity, PS trusts implicitly in Lila and George and believes, in his innocent naive way, that they will always do what is best for him. This is not so much carelessness on PS’s part, as an ignorance of any other type of upbringing and love than that administered to him by Lila and George. His unawareness of the outside world and any other style of life but his own causes the power of their relationship to be solely in the hands of Lila.
PS’s innocence and trust in Lila becomes one of the major contributors to the clash which develops between Vanessa and Lila once Vanessa takes partial custody of PS. The nature of the relationship Vanessa demands from PS is so entirely different to that of Lila that PS finds himself torn between two women who, with their secrets, lies and constant quests for the upper hand, disrupt his own sense of personal well-being and security. This inner disquiet and uncertainty causes PS to change, and the nature of the relationships he hold with both his Aunts changes with this. These changes run parallel to PS’s emerging sense of identity, and the highlight, in the end, how important it is to be sure of who one is and what one wants in order for one’s relationship with other people to work.
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Both Lila and Vanessa want the power to be in their hands in their relationships with PS and this, ultimately, is why neither relationship lasts unscathed. Lila’s habit, developed over time, of expecting immediate compliance from PS and Vanessa’s expectations for PS to conform to her own stringent guidelines clash with PS’s emerging sense of who he, as an individual wants to be, and both sisters’ inability to perceive this eliminates any chances they each may have had for a successful relationship with PS. In a sense both sisters wanted the same things from PS but for different reasons, Lila wanted PS’s trust in order to protect him; Vanessa wanted him to protect herself.
The unsuccessfulness of Vanessa’s many relationships with others lies in her lack of surety in who she is and what she wants. Raised by a father who demanded the highest social standards from her, Vanessa learnt to listen to her head over her heart, and let the scruples her father had taught her influence her everyday life. Vanessa took her father’s instructions to heart and even believed that the person that her father shaped of her was who she wanted to be.
Vanessa only ever lived out the life her father wanted her to lead; never finding out (in her heart) her own wishes and desires. This lack of self knowledge - denying her true self to become what her father wanted - directly affected the relationship she had with others, and made her internal conflicts seem, to all intents and purposes, to be double standards. This was the main problem behind Vanessa’s relationship with Logan: there was no truth in their relationship and Vanessa’s happiness lay solely in her infatuation with love itself. She never accepted Logan for who he was and blinded herself to the truth of Logan as a person, never seeing him, in the end, as much more than "the bakers boy".
Vanessa was not in love with Logan as he was but Logan as he could be; sensitive, understanding man aware of her inner turmoils, and she fails to realise that her inner conflicts- and the outward appearance of them- are affecting her relationship with Logan. The personal uncertainty she has of herself deprives her of the sincerity needed to make their relationship work, and the scruples that she has been taught lead her to except those same scruples in other people. Vanessa’s relationship with Logan ultimately dissolved because she is unable to accept him for who he really is.
This failure of acceptance becomes a characteristic trait in all the relationships Vanessa has with other people in the future. Acceptance is a vital part of any relationship and where it is important to inspire and encourage the other’s good points, Vanessa did not. Her motivation was one of conformity and dominance- excepting Logan (and later PS) to be what she wanted them to be- and expecting them to satisfy her own needs without really knowing what they actually were. Perhaps with PS, Vanessa thought she would succeed where she had failed with Logan- perhaps his child would fill the gap inside her that she always thought to be Logan’s fault- and Vanessa embarks on her quest to possess PS without realising that she hasn’t changed. Vanessa still has the desire to conform and dominate, and unseeingly does to the young PS what her father did to her as a child.
Just as Vanessa’s personal attitude and outlook on life were important factors in the demise of her relationship with other people, so too was Lila’s attitude important in the formation of her relationship with George. When George first met Lila she offered George the guidance he had been looking for. George was in need of guidance, and Lila offered it to him, believing that love would accomplish everything in the end and persuades George to trust in the same way.
Over time Lila’s influence begins to penetrate their relationship, and gradually George’s dreams and aspirations fall to the constant demands of Lila’s family to be helped and sheltered. Lila’s initial guidance soon turns into a pessimistic dominance, and her fatalististic attitude to life begins to affect not only her own successes but George’s as well, "doubt is very catching and finally George started doubting himself".
Lila cannot recognise how much she has contributed to the demise of George’s dreams- in the end it wasn’t just a hymn and a few crayon lines that broke his spirit, but rather the physical representation of the breakdown of his life and the continual sacrifice of his dreams until there was nothing left. The nature of his relationship with Lila and the dreams that he entrusted in her care ultimately see his demise, and, in a way, the blame for most of his failures can be attributed to Lila’s influence, "He was a positive, self confident man until you got at him with all your cries and omens…"
The significance of George’s relationship with Lila is that it illustrates the potential destructiveness of compromise within a relationship. George’s good naturedness and pacifism ultimately seem to be his curse when he realises where they have led him, and coupled with this are Lila’s constant requests of George- she took his time, his patience, his confidence and his dreams without giving anything in return, and abused these gifts by letting her own pessimism penetrate his personal hopes. Love is not the only means of accomplishing everything- this must go hand in hand with giving as well as taking, and the failures that seem to follow George and Lila through life can all be attributed to the nature of their relationship and the dominance of Lila’s constant pessimism.
In the midst of all the unsuccessful relationships presented within the novel comes that between PS’s late mother, Sinden. And her five minute husband, Logan. Sinden had found the key to having happy relationships with people- evident in the way everybody loved and admired her- and was completely without precedents, being open, happy, accepting, honest and so sure of her own dreams and desires that other people saw this in her and were attracted to her as a result. Sinden understood in her own natural way what it took for a relationship to work and the end result is that she is one of the few characters in the novel who can truly be described as happy in her chosen relationship with Logan.
The one thing that lacked in Sinden’s relationship with Logan was the ability to compromise. Both had very few desires- the publishing of a book and finding gold- but Logan’s dreams were so central to his personal happiness that he was unwilling to give them up. Sinden, in her accepting way, understood this desire, and let her husband pursue his dreams, perhaps aware that they may never come true. But the happiness Sinden experienced in her relationship with Logan- however brief- was directly related to the mutual understanding that one had of the other, and love, acceptance and trust, coupled with the balance Sinden and Logan found within their relationship, created the crux of their happiness and gave them a true sincerity in their relationship that all others in the book lack.
Essentially, each of the relationships presented in Elliot’s Careful, He Might Hear You is flawed in some way, and through the comparison and contrast of each of the relationships presented in the novel, Sumner Locke Elliot details to the reader both the causes and effects of a good relationship, and demonstrates how crucial it is to know one’s inner self before attempting to know other people’s. The main theme of the novel- the search for personal identity- is directly related to the success or demise of the relationships arise between the various characters, and ultimately, to encourage and enhance the other, and find the balance in ones relationships which eventually leads to happiness as well as success. Sumner Locke Elliot explores all these issues and more, providing the reader with a powerful insight into the complexities of human relationships, but at the same time clearly detailing the basic ingredients which, in the end, are all needed to make these relationships work.