City As Ocean Symbolism

Today I make the case that the city, in storytelling, often gets the ocean treatment. The city equals the ocean.

This was first pointed out to me in The Anatomy of Story. You probably already know that mountains and cities are metaphorically linked. The ocean is a less well-known metaphor.

A more powerful natural metaphor for the city than the classic but predictable mountain is the ocean. With this metaphor, the writer usually begins on the rooftops, which are gabled so that the audience has the impression of floating on the waves. Then the story “dips” below the surface to pick up various strands, or characters, who live at different levels of this three-dimensional world and are typically unaware of the others “swimming” in this sea.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

The following music clip is an excellent example of what we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are swimming through water.

Mary Poppins — who floats down from the sky. (I’m talking about the original film adaptation.) In the house next door, a ship captain stands on the roof (deck of his ‘ship’), along with his first mate. From Mary, the children learn that you can float if you love to laugh the day away. Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops, which he calls the ‘sea of enchantment.’ With bursting energy, they prance on the waves (the gables) and defy gravity until the caption fires a shot from his cannon and the sweeps all disappear under the ocean’s surface until it is time to dance once more.

Broadchurch — the opening sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.

Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.

The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.

And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:

But ocean as city is not all doom and gloom. The ocean is good like that — storytellers can use it to both scary and happy effect.

The city as ocean is also the key metaphor when you want to portray the city in its most positive light, as a playground where individuals can live with freedom, style, and love.

You can often pick a film using the city as ocean metaphor because film-makers often rely on the eye of the camera, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Sponge-bob Squarepants uses the ocean as a playground. So does Ponyo, in places.

CITY AS OCEAN IN PICTURE BOOKS

Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.

Others have done similar:

scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins
scene from One Of Those Days by John Heffernan and Gwyn Perkins

The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)

These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.

Artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.

a fish comes in through a window. A girl almost kisses it.

I’ve written a separate post on Ocean Symbolism in Children’s Stories. For other symbolic archetypes in children’s literature, see this post. And for more on the country/city dichotomy, I offer you this post.

Don’t mistake the ocean for the beach, either. Consider them separate, as metaphors. (Naturally, they may be linked.)

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