When an atrium appears in a story it’s likely there is a symbolic meaning. For example, the glass ceiling makes a character closer to god.
The Atrium As A Functional Room In Architecture
In architecture, an atrium is a large open air or skylight covered space surrounded by a building. Modern atria, as developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, are often several stories high and having a glazed roof or large windows, and often located immediately beyond the main entrance doors (in the lobby).
Atria were a common feature in Ancient Roman dwellings, providing light and ventilation to the interior. The Latin word atrium referred to the open central court, from which the enclosed rooms led off, in the type of large ancient Roman house known as a domus.
The impluvium was the shallow pool sunken into the floor to catch the rainwater. As the centrepiece of the house, the atrium was the most lavishly furnished room. Also, it contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.
It’s clear looking at the original function of the atrium what it might mean symbolically in stories:
a direct link between home and the heavens, where a character might go to look up at the sky and contemplate freedom, journeys or death.
luxury and riches — you’ll find an atrium in a house with unbound riches.
water, light and cleanliness — purity of spirit and soul
The human heart is also divided into ‘atria’. The atrium is the ‘heart’ of a large house, connecting various parts of the house to other parts. It is where various things meet, symbolically.
The inverse of an atrium is a cloister, or perhaps a basement.
Beauty and the Beast
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The gardener’s glasshouse is a form of atrium.
I made use of the glasshouse atrium in Midnight Feast, in which the child character wishes she were more connected the outside world (but not really, now that she knows what’s out there).
An aquarium is related to an atrium… and below we have an atrium as it commonly appears in modern architecture.
Hilda Bewildered by Slap Happy Larry
Here is the background to page one of our third storybook app Hilda Bewildered, where the princess looks up and into the sky, wanting to escape.
The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book film poster depicts the jungle version of an atrium as first envisioned by the Romans in their architecture — a home in the jungle whose canopy of trees overhead lets in light. The forest is often seen as nature’s ‘cathedral’ but I think atrium is a better fit.
In this version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:
the return home
The main differences:
In the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.
The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author
Wrote the tale for adults, not children
Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.
Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”
With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.
It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.
Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.
Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.
Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.
The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally.
When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.
It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.
The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.
The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?
It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.
As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.
Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.
Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […]
Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
high desert landscapes
buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.
There are many orphans in American and British children’s literature, but also in literature from around the world. Some communities have always been set up with strong social networks. Even if parents die, there are no true orphans because the extended family will care for them.
There are no orphans in traditional Hopi society. It would be culturally impossible for a child to fall right through their densely failsafe weave of family, no matter who died. If there was no father or mother, there would be an aunt; if there were no aunts or uncles, there would be a cousin; if there were no cousins, there would still be someone. But even for Hopis, the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of a story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness.The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.
— The Child That Books Built
Yet stories of abandonment seem to be a universal, no matter the culture.