Buildings As Characters In Fiction

Sometimes in literature you’ll hear a setting interpreted in the same way as a character. What does this mean? When should you do this?

See: How can setting be a character?

This article focuses specifically on buildings as character.

Most stories: Storyworld affects character. 

In some stories: Storyworld interacts with the characters.


Related: Symbolism of the Dream House, from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.

In that book, Bachelard questions whether the personified building in literature truly counts as ‘metaphor’. He wonders if it should be simply referred to as ‘linguistic imagery’, since ‘house as person’ seems like a bit of a stretch.



Atonement house

However elegant the old Adam-style building had been, however beautifully it once commanded the parkland, the walls could not have been as sturdy as those of the baronical structure that replaced it, and its rooms could never have possessed the same quality of stubborn silence that occasionally smothered the Tallis home. Emily felt its squat presence now as she closed the front door on the search parties and turned to cross the hallway.

Atonement, Ian McEwan


The House In Norham Gardens cover

Belbroughton Road. Linton Road. Bardwell Road. The houses there are quite normal. They are ordinary sizes and have ordinary chimneys and roofs and gardens with labournum and flowering cherry. Park Town. As you go south they are growing. Getting higher and odder. By the time you get to Norham Gardens they have tottered over the edge into madness: these are not houses but flights of fancy. They are three stories high and disguise themselves as churches. They have ecclesiastical porches instead of front doors and round norman windows or printed gothic ones, neatly grouped in threes with flaring brick to set them off. They reek of hymns and the Empire, Mafeking and the Khyber Pass, Mr Gladstone and Our Dear Queen. They have nineteen rooms and half a dozen chimneys and iron fire escapes. A bomb couldn’t blow them up, and the privet in their gardens has survived two World Wars.

The House In Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively

Another example is Emily from “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner.


he Shipping News house

She ran with Sunshine up and down the curve or rock. The house threw their voices back at them, hollow and unfamiliar.

The gaunt building stood on rock. The distinctive feature was a window flanked by two smaller ones, as an adult might stand with protective arms around children’s shoulders. Fan lights over the door. Quoyle noticed half the panes were gone. Paint flaked from wood. Holes in the roof. The bay rolled and rolled.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

In “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield, different characters have a different relationship with their new house in the country. The children see the house as a ‘sleeping beast’ but Beryl feels it is ‘very far away from everything’ (meaning visitors, suitors and men). Beryl writes to her friend that she feels ‘buried’ in the house Stanley has bought ‘lock, stock and barrel’. Stanely rattles and raises Venetian blinds before his wife Linda is awake. Beryl thinks she will ‘rot’ here. Linda has a headache and the garden is a ‘tangle’. To Kezia, the tree roots make designs like the tracks of fowls’ feet. In this house, even fashion and interior design repeat the association between appearance and social control.

For more on that, see Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New.


A common trope in storytelling is the fat woman confined by her house, taking up too much space in relation to the man, who is centred. There are major ideological issues with this trope. See it at work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and even in children’s fiction. I discuss it further in my analysis of Monster House.


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