Growing Up: Joyce Cary

About the author

Joyce Cary (1888-1957) was born in Londonderry. (You may think of Joyce as a feminine personal name, but in this case it is a man's name.) He studied art in Edinburgh and Paris before reading law at Oxford University. Joyce Cary was a Red Cross orderly in two Balkan wars and served with a Nigerian regiment in World War I. In 1920 he returned to England, settling in Oxford, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Cary published many novels (beginning with Aissa Saved in 1932) and stories. He is perhaps best known for the character Gulley Jimson, a painter, who appears in a trilogy: Herself Surprised (1941), To Be a Pilgrim (1942) and The Horse's Mouth(1944). The Horse's Mouth was made into a feature film (1958) as was the 1939 novel Mister Johnson (filmed in 1990). Growing Up is one of five short stories in the posthumous collection Spring Song, from 1960.

What happens in Growing Up?

The story is very simple in outline. A man comes home from work for the weekend. He plays with his daughters, who attack him. In the struggle their pet bitch* bites him. The girls tend to his wound, and he goes out to his club for some male company. Beneath this simple narrative, lots of other things are happening.

*A note about bitch. In the UK today, "bitch" is considered a taboo word, as it is used insultingly of women to suggest ideas of male dominance and "ownership" of sexually available women. Fifty years ago it was also used insultingly, but with a different sense - then a "bitch" was a bad-tempered or wilful woman. (And in between, as in the 1984 film, The Bitch, starring Joan Collins, it suggested both independence and promiscuity.) But for a writer born in the 19th century, it has no such overtones - it is just the usual noun for a female of the dog species. (We can still see "bitch" used in this way in advertisements placed by dog-breeders.)

The themes of this story

Like several of the authors, Joyce Cary chooses a title that suggests one of the themes of the story - that of growing up. This appears to refer mostly to the two sisters, Kate and Jenny. Later we see that it may also apply in a way to their father, Robert, who has been able to play with them for years, but now sees a time when he will be cut off from them, good only for paying the bills. The author makes this idea clear in the last sentence of the story.

Another theme might be nature - and this story looks at nature in human, animal and vegetable terms. We see

  • the way the garden grows wild,
  • the way the bitch, Snort, plays and
  • the way the girls act

In all three cases there is a contrast between ideas of cultivated and civilized nature and nature in the wild or untamed - a contrast that appears clearly as the girls go from a ferocious attack on Robert, to acting as nursemaids, and tending to his wound. (Which of these is the real nature of the girls? A trick question - their nature includes both of these.)

A last theme might be that of self-consciousness - especially Robert's concerns about his vanishing dignity and the meaning of his life, as his children become independent.

The characters in the story


We see the story through Robert's eyes, and have access to his thoughts. He seems very different from his sensible wife (who does act like a grown up). He is very close to his daughters who have missed greeting him on his return home only once in several years. The fact that he recalls this incident so clearly shows the importance for him of their concern.

When the girls attack him, Robert has no means to defend himself. Here are two possible reasons.

  • He is not able to control his daughters by force of personality.
  • He wishes not to use physical force for fear of harming them.

Do you agree with either reason? Can you think of any others?

What else can we say about Robert? The picture is a little ambiguous.

For example we cannot say whether Robert is realistic or not.

  • On the one hand we learn that he has "lost most of his illusions" and knows that children are "honest".
  • But he also wants to share in his daughters' world.
  • When he looks for some comfort he does not turn to his wife, but to male society - even though he sees it as boring.

Jenny and Kate

The girls in the story are Jenny (twelve) and Kate (a year older). They appear sometimes as individuals, but also as a pair who act together. Here are some of the things they do.

  • Jenny reads a book and asks her father to lift her onto a wall.
  • Kate plays on a swing.
  • Jenny is alarmed by the wound whereas Kate still laughs when she sees it.
Together they
  • attack the bitch (Snort)
  • fight their father
  • tend his wounds

Can you add to either of these lists?

We read that they adore each other "and one always came to the other's help". (We cannot be sure if this is information from the writer to the reader, or what Robert is thinking. It could be either.)

The girls have some contradictory feelings. We see that growing up does not mean becoming more sensible or like real adults. The girls' excitability and wildness makes them in some ways less responsible than when they were younger. We see this contrast in the way they speak to their father. Look at what they call him: "Paleface" and "Paleface Robbie" or "Daddy". What does each of these names tell you about the girls' feelings at the time? They know that "paleface" is a name used in Western films by "Red Indians" (the old name for Native Americans) - and they are here suggesting that they are savage, like the stereotyped view of the "Red Indians" in the cinema.

We can see this contrast in some other "before" and "after" comments.

  • Before they attack Robert, the girls chant: "Kill him - scalp him. Torture him".
  • After they have attacked him, Jenny says, "We've got to wash your bite" while Kate, who fetches the water for the washing, says, "Daddy - sit down - how dare you get up?"

Other characters

The story also shows us Robert's wife and her friend, Jane. Unlike the girls, these two adult women seem far removed from Robert's concerns and outlook. There is no hint of a close personal relationship. It seems (to Robert or the reader?) that they see themselves as responsible - they "run the world", while children (of all ages) amuse themselves.

"Old Wilkins" does not appear directly - but his description may serve as a grim warning of what Robert may be fated to become, as he retreats into the security of his club - it is safe but utterly boring. Yet it passes the time.

Joyce Cary's technique

The narrative viewpoint

This story is presented through Robert's eyes, but not in his voice - so we can never be sure that what we read is always exactly what is in his mind. We see his ideas mostly directly but this is not the case for the girls


The story has lots of interesting kinds of language use. In an exam, you may have limited time in which to comment on this. Here are a few examples. You may like to select those you understand and agree with, and arrange them into order, as a revision aid.

Word choices

Sometimes these are surprising. When we read that Jenny is reading we learn that she does it furiously. (Line 33). Can you see why this is both odd and yet quite appropriate?

Elsewhere Joyce Cary uses clich├ęs or stereotyped words. Do you think he does this knowingly? Does he wholly agree with the ideas that these phrases normally suggest? For example, Robert imagines himself as an old buffer (line 149) and thinks of Wilkins (line 158) as a crashing bore.


What effects does the writer archive with similes? Here are a few examples, for you to comment on:

  • a bamboo likened to a spear (line 71)
  • a garden rake compared to a lance (line 89)
  • the girls' bones compared to birds' legs line 95)


  1. If you (the author of this post) are planning on doing more of these "help" posts, I suggest you please stop being so vague. Please don't ask us questions, we're only refering to your post because we don't have the answers. Students who don't pay attention in class depend on posts like these to pass their exams. Asking questions only confuses us further.
    But, there are some pretty good points in here too. There are some which i hadn't noticed myself, so thanks for mentioning them.
    Please take the above criticism in a good way. It's for the benefit of mankind.

    1. Aakarshita, taking the liberty to assuming that you're in the 12th (or maybe 11th), I personally feel that you SHOULD pay attention in class. As far as my common sense guides me, I think that these posts are meant for revision and are not to be used as a the ultimate guide to the story for people who have no clue about the text. Asking questions is important to stimulate your reasoning and analysing skills so that you do not have to refer to such posts at 6:01 am. And if you are asking to be spoon-fed and want the "answers" to questions, I suggest that you take whatever you are getting gratefully because the author has also spent some effort writing this post for general benefit. Some people actually want to be intellectually stimulated. I am sure you have heard of the concepts of plagiarism, citation, editing and proof-reading. If you haven't, google them. They will definately help you write your "answers".
      With all due respect.

    2. Apply cold water to burnt area.

  2. To the author: I don't know under what circumstances you wrote this(I could follow whom the above posts where attacking) but still you should've thought before copying from here:

  3. Wrong grammer, a whole paragraph explaining the word "bitch" is all this going to help us? At least put up proper notes for ALL the chapters! such a pointless website this is.. you're just copy-pasting stuff from other might as well post links to those websites instead.

    1. Hahah I agree! And they have copy pasted all of this from some other website :P


      this is the link these guys have copy-pasted all this stuff from :P