The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

The Train To Timbuctoo

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? Well, first of all they get your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Trains are found in literature more than trains are ridden in real life.

First up, trains are an example of a heterotopia.  For more on that see this post.

French philosopher Michael Foucault had a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.

Foucault

When it comes to writers and picking things to function as symbolic, that which is multi-layered is ripe for the picking. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

TRAINS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatization of spriritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphoriacal as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is of course the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform.

You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations.

Another, for an adult audience (inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret), is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

Other memorable bus station scenes for me happen in Mr Holland’s Opus and in Hud, where there is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

TRAINS AND JAPAN

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Trains afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

In Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

TRAINS IN KATHERINE MANSFIELD

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape”, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidently meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

TRAINS IN ALICE MUNRO

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, my favourite being “Chance”.

 

 

 

The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield

The Woman At The Store text

“The Woman At The Store” is one of Mansfield’s earliest stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work. Continue reading “The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield”

At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield

Wellington 1893 Lithograph

“At the Bay” (1921) is considered one of Mansfield’s best short stories, by a writer at the height of her powers. This is one of the three about the Burnell family, who also star in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House”.

Read “At The Bay” at the Katherine Mansfield Society website.

“At The Bay” is an interesting case study for writers, for so many reasons. Notably:

  • The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.
  • This is an example of a story in which no one has any big self-revelation. Like Mad Men famously achieved, the characters go about their own lives, continuing to make mistakes, learning little, and that is how life really is. This is the ultimate realism, though it can feel to the reader like ‘nothing happens’. We tend to say of these stories, ‘It’s not got any plot’. Or, it’s an ‘anti-plot’.
  • But apart from the lack of growth, “At The Bay” does conform to classic story structure, and even the lack of Self-revelation is replaced by characters who suddenly change their emotional valence, either because they are practising ‘opposite action’ or because they suddenly become scared or whatever.
  • Mansfield’s scenes each feel complete in their own right because the emotional valence changes from beginning to end. Linda starts off with no emotional affect, but ends the scene beaming at her baby boy. Beryl starts off scared with Mrs Kembers than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first and is immediately irritated to find he is not first after all. Mansfield’s emotions swing from one extreme to the other. If we find our own scenes emotionally flat, a read of “At The Bay” should set us back on the right track.
  • Mansfield also has a real affinity for children. She recreates play scenes and child interactions so authentically, without glossing over the fact that the hierarchy between children can be brutal. There’s nothing mawkish about these children.

Continue reading “At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield”

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Prelude Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.

Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.

Plotwise, “Prelude“, stars the Burnell family, who is moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)

Mansfield originally called “Prelude” “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story, as a beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.

The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

In this story it has been said to symbolise:

  1. Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
  2. Linda’s sexual fears
  3. Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household.
  4. Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)

In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaned more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.

What Happens In “Prelude”

Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”

The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield

The Tiredness of Rosabel Katherine Mansfield

Outside school magazines, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was Katherine Mansfield’s first published story (1908, when Mansfield was 20 years old).

Already we can see features that the author became known for:

  • The ability of a character to impersonate another
  • Daydreams/fantasy used to reveal deeper desires
  • Three time levels are used simultaneously (past, present, future)
  • A central theme throughout Mansfield’s work: ‘fastidious feminine recoil from the arrogant male, conflicting with a romantic idealism and resulting in disillusionment’ (Alpers).

Continue reading “The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield”

The Escape by Katherine Mansfield

The Escape Katherine Mansfield

It’s almost impossible to read Katherine Mansfield’s “The Escape” without linking back to the author’s own biography. How happy was she within her marriage? Did she write this story because she was desperately lonely, ill and alone without her husband?

Download “The Escape” by Katherine Mansfield (PDF with line numbers)

“THE ESCAPE” AS ‘PLOT-LESS’ SHORT STORY

Continue reading “The Escape by Katherine Mansfield”

New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield

NEW DRESSES

It is thought that “New Dresses” is nowhere near as accomplished as Katherine Mansfield’s later short stories as it lacks focus and appears contrived. “New Dresses” is a different sort of story altogether from the Prelude trilogy, and we need a different yardstick. That said, The Carsfield family is said to be the prototype of the Burnells who we meet later in Prelude, At the Bay and The Doll’s House.

Read “New Dresses” at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

I’m interested in why “New Dresses” is considered ‘contrived’. What makes one story feel contrived and another natural, given that both are made from scratch, technically making one as contrived as the other? Continue reading “New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield”

The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield

“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. For young readers, this is a good introduction to Mansfield’s work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature and are readily accessible in this work for adults. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps. We are able to know exactly what happens. Continue reading “The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield”

Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield

SUN AND MOON

“Sun and Moon” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1918.

The story opens with a description of gold chairs, which reminds me of a totally unrelated Colin Carpenter (Comedy Company) skit:

And while I’m being random, I read recently in a Marcus Chown science book that tides are caused by both the moon and the sun, with tides of the moon being twice as big as tides of the sun, because the moon is closer.  I had never really implicated the sun into my understanding of how tides work.

Read the story at The Katherine Mansfield Society website.

LISTEN to Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield AUDIO BOOK

What Happens In “Sun and Moon”

  • As the story opens the whole house is involved in preparing for an ostentatious party. (Party preparation also forms the bulk of “The Garden Party”.)
  • Nothing feels norma to the children, named Sun and Moon: Cook is nicer than usual, there is a man come to tune the piano, Nurse is too busy to look after them (when presumably that is her entire job).
  • Cook takes the children by the hand and shows them the marvellous food in the fridge. Sun is taken by the nut which serves as a door handle on the little green house.
  • The children are dressed up to greet the guests. Then they are sent to bed.
  • Their sleep is disturbed by the excitement of the party downstairs.
  • When the guests have gone, Father finds the children on the stairs and brings them down to have some of the leftover food.
  • But when Sun sees the food has all been destroyed he is upset, lets out a loud wail and is sent back to bed.

Continue reading “Sun and Moon by Katherine Mansfield”