Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.
In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.
Coraline is an example of the big struggle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)
INFLUENCES ON CORALINE
Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.
Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.
The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story
In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)
In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.
Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales
When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.
Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:
If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford
Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.
Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:
In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”
The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”
Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”
Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”
But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.
The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.
The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.
Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.
— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature
TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.
STORYWORLD OF CORALINE
This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.
See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House
This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.
STORY STRUCTURE OF CORALINE
This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response. I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.
Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.
At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.
Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.
Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.
The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:
- The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
- This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character
In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.
The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.
Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.
When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.
Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.
Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.
When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:
I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?
But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.
Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe. But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.
The Film Adaptation Of Coraline
As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.
Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:
- One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
- With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
- The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
- The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.
In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:
- The main character is a girl.
- Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)
I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.
What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.