What Has Happened to Lulu? by Charles Causley is a six-stanza poem with an ABCB rhyme scheme that is told from the perspective of a child asking questions about another female’s disappearance—Lulu. Though rational answers are never given to the child by her mother, details of Lulu’s disappearance still come to the surface, and they reveal that Lulu has apparently run away from home after a verbal (perhaps physical) altercation to find somewhere less limiting to her mindset.
More than the aspects of Lulu’s departure, the mother’s insistence to lie and deflect the young speaker’s concerns reveal the very genuine possibility that she’s making the same mistakes with a younger child as she did with Lulu, ones that could lead to similar trouble in the future. These details are hard to say for certain since Causley tends to hold relevant ideas in vague territory that keep the reader questioning, much like the young speaker. Like that speaker, though, readers want to have their questions validated with answers, and that freedom to wonder is a theme of What Has Happened to Lulu? — and possibly the reason for Lulu’s leaving. You can read the full poem What Has Happened to Lulu? here.
What Has Happened to Lulu? Analysis
What has happened to Lulu, mother?
And by its side a shoe.
In this stanza, readers are not introduced to the narrator by name, but a sense of who that speaker is can be garnered from the lines. One obvious detail within the text is that, whoever Lulu is, this speaker is close enough to Lulu to use a shortened form of her name—“Lu.” This word choice shows familiarity between the person who seems to be missing and the one who is questioning her whereabouts. Given that the questions are directed toward “mother,” assuming that the speaker is a sibling to Lulu is also reasonable since that would provide more likelihood that “mother” would be involved enough in Lulu’s disappearance to know specific information.
Not only can the reader discern that the speaker is close to Lulu and probably a sibling, but the odd details that the speaker chooses to first present are also insignificant enough to provide the feeling that a child is speaking. The presence of “an old rag-doll” and “a shoe” are so trivial that it would be hard to picture a rational adult pointing out these kinds of factors so early in the conversation.
Without expressly saying so, Causley gives enough evidence about the speaker for readers to be comfortable thinking she’s a young sibling to Lulu who is questioning her mother about Lulu’s whereabouts.
Why is her window wide, mother,
Where her money-box used to be?
In the second stanza of What Has Happened to Lulu? , again, readers can find clues that a child is posing these questions because an adult likely would not have to wonder “[w]hy…her window [is] wide.” Since Lulu is missing, a sensible adult would conclude that wherever Lulu went, the “window” was her avenue of departure, the place she fled through once she had “her money-box” from her “dusty shelf.” As no other detail shows disarray in her room, said adult would also likely have determined that Lulu has run away.
Although the speaker is not mature enough to make these inferences, there is still data in the text that gives this running away notion merit. For instance, recall that the “old rag-doll” is still in the room, and in the latest stanza, “[t]he curtain [is] flapping free” from near the “window” through which Lulu escaped. What’s left behind is something tarnished and worn in the “doll,” but the path Lulu has taken to leave is littered with liberty. From this, the reader can infer that Lulu has left for a life of fewer limitations and more possibilities.
Why do you turn your head, mother,
And say it is nothing at all?
The questions in this stanza, once again, reflect the innocent ponderings of a child, so the youth of the speaker is further cemented. Beyond this detail, Causley provides more information about Lulu’s departure and the parent’s reaction. For one thing, Lulu has left a “note” in her wake, one that troubles the mother enough that she throws it “on the fire.” Since the mother also “turn[s her] head” from her younger child in an effort to hide the “tear drops,” she is clearly struggling with Lulu’s departure.
It is worth considering, though, that the mother seems to be shutting out the speaker by not having an open discussion about Lulu. That notion hints a pattern in her parental nature, one that could be a reason for Lulu deciding to leave. Perhaps the mother has always been so closed off and distant, and if so, she could be heading for a similar route of trouble with this curious child.
I woke to voices late last night,
Were a dream and nothing more?
In this stanza of What Has Happened to Lulu? , further information supports the notion that the mother might be repeating parenting mistakes on her younger child because she has decided to do something worse than ignore the child’s questions. Rather, she chooses to lie in a way that could have serious ramifications by causing the child to question reality. If the child knows, after all, that she “woke to voices late last night” and “heard an engine roar,” trying to convince her otherwise will only cause her confusion as she tries to separate fact from fiction in her own mind.
Still, the mother delivers the rationalization that it was “a dream and nothing more” to the child, possibly to keep from answering questions she herself does not feel ready to discuss. Whether she does so out of a selfish desire to neglect the topic or an inability to confront the pain of Lulu’s departure, the effects on the child are still very real.
In addition to a strained parenting method that might have influenced Lulu’s decision to depart, the reader is also introduced to further information regarding Lulu’s running away. Apparently, there was a confrontation of some sort, one with “voices” loud enough to wake the sleeping child, and once Lulu left through her window, the sound of “an engine” indicates that she drove away.
I heard somebody cry, mother,
You say it was a gust of rain.
Bit by bit, Causley is revealing the finer details of the night Lulu left, and more and more the situation seems hectic and confrontational. This stanza pushes these notions to their fullest since it brings in the idea of a “cry” that does not have a definite reason—it could have been “in anger or in pain”—and the mother once again lies to the child to tell her that “it was a gust of rain.” Once more, the mother has chosen to toy with the child’s notion of reality, but past that aspect of the situation is the haunting question of why the “cry” happened. Was it the mother weeping, or was it Lulu crying out her frustration? Worse, did the confrontation become physical between Lulu and her mother?
It would be simple to assume Lulu’s mother is the one weeping since the prior stanza includes the method in which Lulu left, but remember a child is asking these questions. Chronology might not be so easy to follow with that in mind, so this “cry” could have happened before Lulu left. With such vagueness, the scenario can cause a series of questions to surface in the reader’s mind, much like the young speaker’s—which could have been the point of What Has Happened to Lulu? . Causley could have wanted to present this story in a way that is as blurred as the child’s understanding, and if so, he has so far succeeded.
Why do you wander about as though
What has happened to Lu?
Little is added to this story through this stanza. In truth, the main purposes of this section seem to be to further prove that “mother” is troubled by the circumstances, to the point of mindlessly “wandering about,” and to cement the innocent pondering of the small child with that simple, haunting question: “What has happened to Lulu, mother?”
That haunting quality is something that follows readers through What Has Happened to Lulu? since the story has a discomfited feel in two ways. One, the ghost of how “mother” treated Lulu can be seen surfacing in her reactions with the speaker, dooming her in an eerie way for further parental troubles. What “mother” was with Lulu lives again in her dealings with her other child since she does not so much as give her child the liberty of knowing that her own thoughts and memories are real.
Secondly, the child speaker is desperately searching for answers she cannot uncover, like a mystery that refuses to come out of the shadows. In the same way, the reader finds that concrete facts for the story are also evasive, creating a veiled atmosphere for the reader that is mirrored in the speaker’s pressing concerns. As it happens, though, uncovering those answers might not be as important as having the freedom to ponder them, which is something that has been denied the speaker since “mother” continues to brush aside her questions with silence and lies.
Perhaps this is exactly the reason why Lulu left—to be “free” to pursue more than the limited details her mother was willing to hand her.
About Charles Causley
Charles Causley is a 20th-century poet from Cornwall. He earned the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967 and has been heralded as one of the most important poets of his time period. With strong themes and a unique approach to his poetry, his work has stood the test of time.