In stories, if a character is looking out to sea they’re frequently experiencing epiphany. In art, too, there’s no shortage of characters gazing out to sea. The guy giving the sermon below clearly understands the epiphanic power of the ocean, especially in combination with the higher altitude of a clifftop.
These days we are technologically connected to each other, but there was a time when saying goodbye to a loved one sailing off on a ship was a separation akin to death. That was the case for my own emigrant ancestors, who sailed to New Zealand in the mid 1800s. They never returned to England, Scotland and Ireland. Nor did their children or their children’s children.
This list includes non-fiction, historical fiction (some based on true stories) as well as podcasts, TV shows and even a song. I’m including resources for all ages in this list.
Ring a Ring o Roses Nursery Rhyme
Ring a Ring o Roses, or Ring Around the Rosie, may be about the 1665 Great Plague of London: the “rosie” being the malodorous rash that developed on the skin of bubonic plague sufferers, the stench of which then needed concealing with a “pocket full of posies”. The bubonic plague killed 15% of Britain’s population, hence “atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down (dead).”
I feel keenly after reading this that the women who ended up at that 19th century silent convent were there to escape trauma. The routines of the convent may have provided some initial relief, though as becomes apparent, the silent nunnery itself inflicted its own trauma.
If you’ve ever read The World According To Garp (1978), or seen the film adaptation (1982), you may remember the resonant detail of the Ellen Jamesians, a group of (fictional) women named after an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut off by her rapists to silence her. When creating this plot, John Irving was surely cognizant of historical cults such as the Buried Alive nuns of the 1800s, in which the highest virtue a Victorian-era woman can attain is to keep quiet forever, nun or not. The novel was written during second wave feminism.
Unfortunately, this feels to me like commentary on what many conservatives considered ridiculous and self-flagellating feminist activism of the time.
As I read about the silent nuns of the Pyrenees I also thought of the sensibility of Hans Christian Andersen, especially as expressed via his story “The Little Mermaid” (1837). I have no idea if Andersen knew about this particular silent nunnery, or of any of silent commune, but that doesn’t matter. The silent nunnery aspires to one outworking of ‘perfect femininity’. (The other is ‘mother’.) This ideal was widely valorised. It affected how women were expected to behave, and it affected fiction.
Can men write woman and femme-presenting characters? Men can, do and may. William Trevor did it well. Apart from an excess of crying, Larry McMurtry also did it well. Ian McEwan is also right up there.
Content note: This is a gender binarist topic. Non-binary genders exist and continue to be invisibilised the vast majority of the time. This particular topic reflects the bimodal nature of gender and the fact that the vast majority of published books were created by writers who fit neatly into the gender binary, or who haven’t reflected much on their own gender identity. When I say ‘woman’, I mean anyone who is coded femme to others, as this is a particular experience of navigating the world.
MEN WRITING GIRLS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
In children’s literature, women write boy characters more than men choose to write girl characters. (You’re probably thinking of the exceptions right now, not of the overall corpus, but the count has been done.)
Children’s literature specialist Maria Nikolajeva urges us to look a little deeper at the men writing girl characters:
Some [girl character stories written by male authors] are plot oriented and mainly describe the external flow of events. This is the case of The Wizard of Oz, in which a male writer has chosen a female protagonist, but does not enter her inner world. By contrast, The Outsiders, The Planet of Junior Brown, The Giver, and Bridge to Terabithia depict the deepest and most secret corners of the different-gender protagonists’ minds. The Outsiders also uses a male narrative voice. Does this mean that “feminine writing” tends to be character oriented and introspective even when a male protagonist is portrayed? In fact, there are very few successful introspective portraits of female protagonists created by male writers.
Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction by Maria Nikolajeva
Science fiction author Ursula Le Guin had something to say about writers and their gendering of main characters:
MCPHERSON: I know you’re always hearing comments and questions about the fact that you write from men’s point of view in nearly all your books […]
URSULA LE GUIN: […] the women I write about tend to be more varied, more complicated; the men are more conventional. […] we write — in part — from all that we’ve read. There’s no tradition for us [women] to follow. Most of the books about women were written by men.
Before we had clocks, humans paid more attention to the sky and environment. Read older classics such as the novels of Thomas Hardy and notice how characters make use of all their senses once the sun goes down. They couldn’t simply flick on a light. Even though candles have long been available, they were expensive. My own Northern Irish peasant ancestors were well-accustomed to darkness.
I know this partly because an optometrist told me I have large pupils which don’t dilate down all that well. Especially when young, I had no trouble navigating the dark. Like many child readers, I was constantly told to turn on a light.
Clocks (and later, home lighting) changed our entire mode of being:
So kind of 13th, 14th century, mechanical clocks start diffusing and they start in Italy, but they rapidly go from city to city and towers are trying to one off other towers and they would ring bells. And it led to the city kind of literally running like clockwork, like they ring the bell and everybody wakes up and then has breakfast and then there’s the lunch bell and so the city begins to run like clockwork. But the clock doesn’t diffuse into the Middle East and other cultures didn’t seem to have the immense interest in getting a clock the way the Europeans do.
Industrialisation also put an end to genuine beliefs about certain magical times of day.
THE BLUE HOUR
The blue hour is mostly a photography and art concept. Especially on older cameras, photographs taken at the ends of the day turn out better than when taken under bright sunlight. The blue hour comes from French l’heure bleue and refers to the period of twilight when the sun dips below the horizon, causing residual sunlight to cast a blue light over the landscape.
We see people and things not as they are, but as we are.
Anthony de Mello
Park: “What did he look like?” Girl: “Well, kind of plain.” Park: “In what way?” Girl: “Just……..ordinary.”
Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-Ho (2003)
Readers differ in the amount of description they need when reading a fictional character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.)
Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards… Anyhow, the moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.
There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.
Author Sarah Dessen requests that no faces go on the covers of her books.
I don’t like to throw characters into a plot as though it were a raging torrent where they are swept along. What interests me are the complications and nuances of character. Few of my characters are described externally; we see them from the inside out.
Herbert Clark, the psychologist, devoted some of his work to types of roles which we play when communicating. He suggested that there are a number of listener roles. First, there is the addressee…There are also side participants, i.e., those who are not addressed, but are socially/interactionally ratified to listen to what is being said. The speaker is also aware of their presence (there was no such person in our conversation).
Similarly, the speaker is aware of the presence of a bystander. They are openly present, within the earshot, so they can overhear what the participants say, but they are not part of the conversation. … This is when you are listened to by someone you are not aware of.
When there’s a mystery to be solved in a story, especially in a children’s story, the character very often begins their journey after hearing a conversation they weren’t supposed to hear. The Golden Compass begins like this. Another example is The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee. For a picture book example see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.
There are many other eavesdropping scenes which open stories for children.
Why? Because children don’t start with the same information that adults have, and are protected from evil by those who love them. Also, don’t we all learn most of the things from overhearing and observation during childhood?
Since women are historically infantalised, there are many artworks which show a woman hiding in the corners, learning things she is not supposed to. Knowledge is power. These are subversive women.
Or perhaps she was simply gazing from inside at the outside world, because a woman’s place is traditionally in the home.
The TV series Big Love about the three wives of one man offered many opportunities for eavesdropping scenes, as all three women were living in each others’ pockets. When a character is forced to eavesdrop in order to learn what’s going on, this suggests a degree of powerlessness.
In Big Love we never see Bill (the husband) eavesdropping. He doesn’t need to. However subversive the image of the eavesdropping woman, determined to find things out about the world despite the lack of information provided to her, the proliferation of such gendered scenes suggests, to the wrong audience members, that women are naturally sneaky, devious and manipulative.
The following image plays on fears of the upper classes about the people they employ to work in their homes.
The stairs and hallway are typically a good place in the storybook dream house from which to hear everything going on.
The image below is no doubt supposed to be cute, but there’s something incestuosly creepy about a little brother listening in on his big sister’s conversation with (by her body language) a boyfriend. That same creep factor is utilised in Six Feet Under to unambiguously creepy effect when Billy follows Brenda and Nate into Brenda’s bedroom and photographs them while they are asleep.
The following is an eavesdropping scene from a chocolate box.
Outside ninjas and actual spies, it’s more difficult to find examples of grown men eavesdropping in art. Men run the world. Men don’t need to be secretive about their need to know what’s going on.
Both Maggie Fortini and her brother, Joey-Mick, were named for baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Unlike Joey-Mick, Maggie doesn’t play baseball—but at almost ten years old, she is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maggie can recite all the players’ statistics and understands the subtleties of the game. Unfortunately, Jim Maine is a Giants fan, but it’s Jim who teaches Maggie the fine art of scoring a baseball game. Not only can she revisit every play of every inning, but by keeping score she feels she’s more than just a fan: she’s helping her team. Jim is drafted into the army and sent to Korea, and although Maggie writes to him often, his silence is just one of a string of disappointments—being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the early 1950s meant season after season of near misses and year after year of dashed hopes. But Maggie goes on trying to help the Dodgers, and when she finds out that Jim needs help, too, she’s determined to provide it. Against a background of major league baseball and the Korean War on the home front, Maggie looks for, and finds, a way to make a difference. Even those readers who think they don’t care about baseball will be drawn into the world of the true and ardent fan. Linda Sue Park’s captivating story will, of course, delight those who are already keeping score.
Shenice Lockwood, captain of the Fulton Firebirds, is hyper-focused when she steps up to the plate. Nothing can stop her from leading her team to the U12 fast-pitch softball regional championship. But life has thrown some curveballs her way.
Strike one: As the sole team of all-brown faces, Shenice and the Firebirds have to work twice as hard to prove that Black girls belong at bat.
Strike two: Shenice’s focus gets shaken when her great-uncle Jack reveals that a career-ending—and family-name-ruining—crime may have been a setup.
Strike three: Broken focus means mistakes on the field. And Shenice’s teammates are beginning to wonder if she’s captain-qualified.
A boy who loves baseball must get past his hard-working immigrant parents—and the rhino in the outfield—to become a batboy in this laugh-out-loud middle grade novel in the tradition of The Sandlot.
Nick wants to change his life. For twelve years, he’s done what his hard-working, immigrant parents want him to do. Now he’s looking for his own American dream and he thinks he’s found it. The local baseball team is having a batboy contest, and Nick wants to win.
But the contest is on a Saturday—the day Nick has to work in his father’s shop. There’s one other tiny—well, not so tiny—problem. A 2,000-pound rhinoceros named Tank. Nick and his friends play ball in the city zoo—and Tank lives just beyond the right field fence. Nick’s experience getting the ball out of Tank’s pen has left him frozen with fear whenever a fly ball comes his way. How’s a lousy fielder going to win the contest?
Nick practices every day with his best friend, Ace, and a new girl who has an impressive throwing arm! But that’s not enough—to get to the contest, Nick has to lie to his parents and blackmail his uncle. All while dodging the school bully, who’s determined to win even by playing dirty. Nick will need to keep his eye on the ball in this fast, funny story about a game that can throw you some curveballs—just like life!
Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. Handsome, famous, and talented, Goodyear is nonetheless coming apart at the seams. And the coaches, writers, wives, girlfriends, petty criminals, and diehard fans following his every move are eager to find out why–as they hide secrets of their own.
Humming with the energy of a ballpark before the first pitch, Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League unravels the tightly connected web of people behind a seemingly linear game. Narrated by a sportscaster, Goodyear’s story is interspersed with tales of Michael Taylor, a batting coach trying to stay relevant; Tamara Rowland, a resourceful spring-training paramour, looking for one last catch; Herb Allison, a legendary sports agent grappling with his decline; and a plethora of other richly drawn characters, all striving to be seen as the season approaches. It’s a journey that, like the Arizona desert, brims with both possibility and destruction.
Anchored by an expert knowledge of baseball’s inner workings, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League is a propulsive and deeply human debut that captures a strange desert world that is both exciting and unforgiving, where the most crucial games are the ones played off the field.
The shape of a circle corresponds to the number ten. Both signify completeness and perfection. (I’m pretty sure this has something to do with the fact we have ten fingers.) Ten symbolises the return to unity from multiplicity.
The square is the circle’s inverse in this way. Squares represent the pluralist state of humans who haven’t achieved inner unity. (The octagon is the inbetween state.)
Oneness is a spiritual concept.
In Chinese thought, the masculine principle is called Yang. This is represented by a white circle. This circle depicts Heaven.
In contrast, the feminine principle (Yin) is represented by a black square. The black square depicts Earth. (There is a long, worldwide tradition of associating men with God and women with earthiness, a.k.a. with telluric forces.)
On the subject of gender and shapes…
CIRCLES AND METAPHORICAL GENDER
In many traditions around the world, the circle is feminine. We see this right down to the shapes of plots in children’s literature (in particular). Stories for and about girls emphasise the seasons and keep their characters around home. In contrast, stories for boys garner descriptions of ‘linear’. Boys leave the natal home and travel along roads and rivers on Odyssean mythical journeys. Boys find new homes of their own.
Objects, concepts and shapes have what linguists call ‘metaphorical gender.
Beef vs. chicken’ is a classic example of what’s known as ‘metaphorical gender’, where the two items in a pair are judged to express a masculine/feminine contrast despite having no directly gendered meaning — other examples include ‘square vs. circle’ and ‘knife vs fork’.
Even when picture books don’t have a specific gender attached, audiences tend to code them as either ‘books for boys’ or ‘books for girls’. An example of a girl-coded book is When The Sky Is Like Lace. The purple hues, the girl characters, the feminine name of the author and — not insignificantly — the circle of the fairy ring on the front cover signals to book buyers that this is a book for girls. (I always challenge these assumptions, by the way.)
RING OF PROTECTION
RING OF COMBAT
In combat sport there has to be a defined area in which competitors fight otherwise one or both might run off.
In boxing the mat might be a circle or rectangular. There may be ropes. If there are no ropes, the ring of combat might be called ‘the pit’. In sumo wrestling there is a circle carpeted with sand. Fenced areas are called a ‘cage’. These tend to be hexagonal or octagonal.
The ring of combat was marked out by stones laid in a circle in the castle’s base court…
A fairy ring, also known as fairy circle, elf circle, elf ring or pixie ring, is a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. They are found mainly in forested areas, but also appear in grasslands or rangelands.
Is former movie star Madeline Bainbridge an innocent victim–or a target of revenge? Thieves have just stolen her valuable old films. And her memoirs have mysteriously disappeared before they could be published. Why would anyone want the aging actress to suffer? When The Three Investigators look into her hidden past, they begin to understand. The lady is a witch–and her spells can kill.
Fairies and witches have a lot in common, at least for contemporary audiences. Fairies are in some ways sanctified witch archetypes. We’ve taken the most scary aspects of witches — their night flight, their size, their hag-ugliness and turned fairies into tiny beautiful young women in scanty clothing. Also from witches: The standing around in a circle with like-minded friends.
A witch’s altar is the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implement: a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the altar be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground. Witches use a cingulum (a belt of cord) to mark out the circle. Witches begin their ceremonies by ‘casting the circle’. This isolates and purifies the holy place where magic will occur, where gods and goddesses will manifest, where time will disappear, where faith will become incarnate. is the place between two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here.
Like a rat on a running wheel, a circle never comes to an end. This is why we wear wedding rings, symbolically joining couples together, ostensibly forever.
THE IDEA OF ROTATION
We now know that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. (Though technically, wherever you’re standing is the centre of your universe. Such is the nature of infinity.)
In diagrams of the cosmos from antiquity, the central space is reserved for the Creator. This Creator appears in centre of a series of concentric circles. Likewise, the wheel of the Zodiac is a ‘wheel’.
We’ve tended to conceptualise the world as a kind of labyrinth. I’ve written more about that here. Here’s the thing about a labyrinth: It has a centre. (It has a hairy big Minotaur at its centre, and this Minotaur must be defeated before spiritual growth occurs.)
When labyrinths appear in art, the centre is often a circle. Since getting to the centre (and slaying the Minotaur) is the absolute goal, the circle is therefore associated with Paradise regained. The circle represents a precious lost object, or an impossible/arduous journey or enterprise.
This is how the circle comes to stand for highly desirable concepts: Love, knowledge and so on.
The film Get Out opens with an image of blurred trees, as if seen from a car window. This positions the audience right there with the characters, who are about to take a journey into your archetypal snail-under-the-leaf setting. Later, by lowering the camera close to the road, the trees seem to curve in on themselves, foreshadowing the claustrophobic, entrapped feeling. Sure enough, we even have a shot of a dead deer — if you remember Bambi from childhood you’ll recognise the dead deer as a symbol of vulnerability in the face of imminent death.
Here’s another creepy tree, this time from the film Tokyo Drifter. Some trees are comforting, other trees are creepy. What makes a tree (or trees) creepy, then? Can we put this particular creepiness into words?