These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.
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).
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
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.
Header painting: Joseph Nash – The Opening of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, by Queen Victoria on 10th June 1854
The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.
THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH
“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”
In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.
DEFINITION FOR WRITERS
A theme is a sentence, not a single word.
Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.
WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.
LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)
TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.
THEME AND SCREENWRITING
Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)
Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:
The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause
Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.
Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.
e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).
Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby, theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”
THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES
The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).
The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored (CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).
The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).
The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).
The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE) that she learns (CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).
Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.
The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.
Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.
Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.
Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.
Hilda Bewildered is an illustrated short story book app published by Slap Happy Larry. Here are some other stories to compare and contrast.
Non-fiction: Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All
Both boys and girls are highly rewarded for conforming to — and exaggerating — our own masculinities and femininities. For women that means: curvaceous but small, hairless, large-eyed, soft-haired. For men this means different things, including (increasingly) muscular and (always) tall.
Fairytale: Sleeping Beauty
The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her. But, before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.
Though Hilda Bewildered is not a magical tale — rather, a tale of realism set in a parallel universe — Princess Hilda is likewise ‘beloved by all who know her’ (and especially by those who don’t). Like the princess of the fairytale, she has ‘indeed grown in grace and beauty’. Beauty, in fact, is mandatory for a princess. ‘Aurora’ is named so because of the light she seems to emanate. Though Princess Hilda does not prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday, we can treat the death at the onset of adulthood in a metaphorical way, in which case Hilda is right to be afraid.
The forest is significant in Sleeping Beauty as it is in Hilda Bewildered: The good fairies “planned to raise Aurora in the deep forest until the age of sixteen, when the curse finished, and then to take the princess to the castle again, with her parents.” Likewise, Princess Hilda wishes to escape to the forest, but has only her imagination.
For Adults: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Like Hilda Bewildered, this modern fairytale is:
- set in a castle somewhere in Europe
- is about a girl coming of age, this time prompted by marriage
- makes use of the juxtaposition between warmth and cold: I stealthily sat up, raised the blind a little and huddled against the cold window that misted over with the warmth of my breathing, gazing out at the dark platform towards those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master
- is about the loneliness of the wealthy: Into marriage, into exile; I sensed it, I knew it–that, henceforth, I would always be lonely….my new rank forbade overtures of friendship to the staff. The sun is described as ‘cold‘ and another time as ‘black‘.
- includes a heavy, expensive ring with a starring role: My husband liked me to wear my opal over my kid glove, a showy, theatrical trick–but the moment the ironic chauffeur glimpsed its simmering flash he smiled, as though it was proof positive I was his master’s wife.
- Hilda of Hilda Bewildered practises ‘doubling‘ to get through a minor ordeal, including the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in her fantasy. The narrator of The Bloody Chamber represents two sides of wealth in poverty without having to imagine an alter ego. She has grown up in poverty but is now surrounded by immense wealth. ‘…I, the little music student whose mother had sold all her jewellery, even her wedding ring, to pay the fees at the Conservatoire.‘
- Reflections, everywhere: Our bed. And surrounded by so many mirrors! Mirrors on all the walls, in stately frames of contorted gold, that reflected more white lilies than I’d ever seen in my life before. He’d filled the room with them, to greet the bride, the young bride. The young bride, who had become that multitude of girls I saw in the mirrors, identical in their chic navy blue tailor-mades, for travelling, madame, or walking.
- The themes of innocence/guilt: And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption.
- Both stories feature a protagonist uncomfortable wearing finery: I sprang out of bed and pulled on my old serge skirt and flannel blouse, costume of a student, in which I felt far more at ease with myself than in any of my fine new clothes.
- Duplicity everywhere: waiting there to see if indeed I had obeyed him; that he had sent a moving figure of himself to New York, the enigmatic, self-sustaining carapace of his public person, while the real man, whose face I had glimpsed in the storm of orgasm, occupied himself with pressing private business in the study at the foot of the west tower, behind the still-room.
- Silhouettes as strangers who can’t help you out: The faceless housekeeper trudged along with a great basket
Short Story: Louisa, Please Come Home
Novella: Sugar And Spice by Vera Caspary (1943)
Sugar and Spice is another story from the Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives collection. It is an ordinary but well-told story of life-long mutual jealousy (leading to murder) involving a rich woman of plain appearance (repeatedly described as a “vipress”) and the poor but beautiful woman who lives in her shadow.
Whose story is this? It’s narrated by someone other than the protagonist. This is a female narrator who knows a guy that they knew back in the old days — a very baroque way of telling a story. In her introduction, Weinman describes this as an ‘inverted detective story’. What is the reason for filtering the story through this fringe character? That’s something to think about.
This is about two cousins growing up in a small town then moving to NY. One isn’t so pretty, the other is very pretty. The one who isn’t so pretty has everything and gets away with a lot. This is a story about class and opulence.
Although “Sugar and Spice” might easily be categorized as a mystery, the story still focuses on the psychology of two women and their desire to be independent and find happiness–unfortunately a man gets in the way of things. In this case it is two women, cousins, who have something of a rivalry going on growing up. One is beautiful but poor and the other plainer but rich. Caspary turns the story on its ear so to speak in several regards. The story is told by a third party just as the crime has happened and is being investigated, the reader’s perceptions of what each woman is like and capable of is questioned time and again.
Another standout is 1943’s “Sugar and Spice” by Caspary, who wrote fiction, stage plays and screenplays. The story of two cousins who are lifelong rivals for familial and male affections, “Sugar and Spice” is effectively told through flashbacks in a vivid cinematic style that Caspary later perfected in screenplays, most notably “A Letter to Three Wives.” The story also features a strong and independent female character, not unlike Caspary’s iconic career woman in the 1943 novel “Laura” or the author herself.
– LA Times
This story is quite different from Hilda Bewildered. Indeed, this is the sort of story Princess Hilda might rather be reading, instead of giving her speech: a female-centric crime story about two women, one pretty, one plain.