The Grim Reaper In Art And Storytelling

The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929
The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929


Adventures In Sleep from All In The Mind podcast

Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.

But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.

The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.

In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.

Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.

Death Listened to the Nightingale – The Nightingale, Edmund Dulac
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) - John Everett Millais
Death Dealing Arrows (1903) – John Everett Millais
Birkin, Charles (ed.) - The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse) grim reaper
Birkin, Charles (ed.) – The Haunted Dancers (1967) (LennyS-aMouse)

La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.

Gallery label at The Tate, July 2007
Ingrid von Dardel (Swedish, daughter of painter Nils von Dardel, 1922-1962), Figure med hjärta (Character with heart), 1948, gouache on paper, 44,5 x 36,5 cm. Special collection
Eugene Grasset December calendar

The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.

The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865

Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.

Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926)

Skeletons As Death

Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.

The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper

In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.

Death & Life (1905) by Ivar Arosenius (1878 – 1909)
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935


You don’t see much of Hades, God of the Underworld, in Greek art because the Ancient Greeks were so scared of him! They didn’t even want to say his name, so he goes by many other names.

Hades ruled the Underworld and was therefore most often associated with death and feared by men, but he was not Death itself — it is Thanatos, son of Nyx and Erebus, who is the actual personification of death, although Euripides’ play “Alkestis” states fairly clearly that Thanatos and Hades were one and the same deity, and gives an interesting description of Hades as being dark-cloaked and winged; moreover, Hades was also referred to as Hesperos Theos (“god of death & darkness”).



Header illustration: René Bull (1872-1942) 1913 illustration for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

From Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling by Vilhelm Pedersen

A character is different from their family/tribe and feels utterly alone. Eventually they find their ‘people’ who accept them for who they really are. Understanding they are not alone in the world after all, the main character accepts themselves. Now they can be happy.

The Ugly Duckling is at its heart a transgression story. In any transgression story the mask must come off at some point, revealing the animal’s true self. Stories in which a character wears ‘someone else’s’ identity and remains hidden are rare and run counter to audience expectation.

This basic plot of loneliness to community to acceptance is ancient, and not surprisingly so, since humans are a social species. Separated from their tribe in the wild, a human won’t survive for long. Unlike all other animals species, the human woman cannot so much as give birth on her own.

Most non-human primates give birth unassisted with relatively little difficulty.

Obstretrical Dilemma, Wikipedia

Partly for biomechanical reasons, loneliness for us means death, even more than for many other species. This age-old loneliness plot taps into the most primal of human fears. And in children’s literature in particular, stories very often begin with the empathetic main character in a state of loneliness, hence all the moving house/starting new school stories. The child character also quite often starts from a state of boredom, though some loneliness researchers include ‘boredom’ as a type of loneliness (called ‘existential loneliness’ — being without a purpose in the world).

Although The Ugly Duckling features an animal main character, this is clearly a story about humans.

In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Andersen uses animal symbolism to tell a disguised human story. It unites animal transformation and animal moral tale in a unique way; it is about an unrecognised metamorphosis that really isn’t one at all. The Duckling only appears to be a strange outcast because no one knows what he really is, even his mother, who took trouble in hatching and defending him, gives up at last, wishing he had never been born.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Blount goes on to explain what Hans Christian Andersen brought afresh to this tale which otherwise relies heavily on Aesopian fable:

The pathos of this strange and beautiful fable is quite new to the form. The Aesop elements are there: the proud turkey cock, the old duck with the red rag of honour, and the incident when the animals quarrel over an eel head which is seized by the cat; and there is a house too, where the cat is master and the hen mistress. But there is far more than barnyard comedy in the rejection of the Duckling and his efforts to do what his nature demands, always thwarted by animals who, when he wants to swim, tell him to lay eggs or purr. Thrown out, hunted, half-starved, frozen, when he eventually meets the swans, his life has become so wretched and hopeless that he is only conscious of ugliness so great that he expects death.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
H. C. Andersen's 'The Ugly Duckling' Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965 hearth
H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ Cover and illustrations by Giorgio Trevisan, 1965


Apparently, when Hans Christian Andersen was asked whether he would write an autobiography he replied that “The Ugly Duckling” did the job.

Perhaps Hans Andersen was writing about himself. Everyone interprets the fable in [their] own way, for the story has an echo in everyone. As a fairy tale it is, like many of Andersen’s, very odd. The happy climax is so long delayed that it almost does not happen, unlike Cinderella (with the same plot) where we know the heroine is favoured and only unrecognised by an odd quirk that magic will soon put right. The long suffereings of the lonely duck are alien to the setting which (Orwell always excepted) from Chaucer to Hepzibah Hen is usually gay and superficial. The moral is the one about appearance and reality, expressed by birds so memorably and wonderfully that there is no need to call the story a Parable from Nature; these simple symbols have expressed universal truth as only a story teller of genius can do.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Andersen's 'Forty-two Stories' Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952
Andersen’s ‘Forty-two Stories’ Illustration by Vittorio Accornero, 1952

One of the well-known fairy tales that ends happily is The Ugly Duckling. The poor duckling is mocked and humiliated because he is so ugly, but he finally turns into a beautiful swan. On closer examination, what does this story say? It has been usually interpreted as follows: after many hardships, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. But if we stop to think about it, the ugly duckling has turned into a swan only bcause he was hatched from a swan’s egg. If he had been a real duckling, he would have grown into a duck. What does Andersen mean by his tale? Some biographers believe that Andersen was not the son of a washerwoman and a cobbler, but the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even the king of Denmark. There is no direct evidence for this, but the indications are strong. Perhaps The Ugly Duckling is the author’s way of saying, “I have achieved fame and wealth only because I am in fact of noble birth.”

Another possibility is that Andersen himself believed that he was of noble birth, even if it was not true. In this case, Andersen was suffereing from an obsession, a psychotic condition, traces of which we see in his fairy tale. This is an example of speculative biographical approach. It would perhaps be unwise to apply it as a consistent critical method, but it does illustrate the possibility of using literary works to illuminate the author’s life. However, this approach has little to do with the study of literature. If the focus of psychoanalysis is on the author, then the literary text is used merely as any narrative the patient may tell to the analyst.

from Aesthetic Approaches To Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling
Milo Winter (1888-1956) The Ugly Duckling


“The Ugly Duckling” is an atemporal story that takes place on a river and riverbank. The group of birds is an animal community standing as allegory for human community.



“The Ugly Duckling” (“Den grimme ælling”) is a good example of judicious title change. Hans Christian Andersen originally called this story “The Young Swans” but realised the title completely gave away the surprise ending. Don’t give away your ending in the title!

For over one hundred years The Ugly Duckling has been a childhood favorite, and Jerry Pinkney’s spectacular new adaptation brings it triumphantly to new generations of readers. With keen emotion and fresh vision, the acclaimed artist captures the essence of the tale’s timeless appeal: The journey of the awkward little bird — marching bravely through hecklers, hunters, and cruel seasons — is an unforgettable survival story; this blooming into a graceful swan is a reminder of the patience often necessary to discover true happiness. Splendid watercolors set in the lush countryside bring drama to life. 

an example of modern marketing copy for “The Ugly Duckling” turned into a picture book


The problem is that the Ugly Duckling is different.

I’m not sure who decided ducklings are prettier than baby swans. To me they’re about even. The drake’s feathers rival the majestic outline of the grown swan. I wonder if people ranked the prettiness of these water birds before Hans Christian Andersen turned ‘ugly duckling’ into a meme.

This joke wouldn’t work if we didn’t own the basic assumption that swans simply look more elegant and classy than ducks.

In any case, the baby swan’s main shortcoming is that he is ugly. And because he is ugly, even his mother rejects him. If that’s not pulling at the reader’s heartstrings, I don’t know what will.


The Ugly Duckling wants to be loved. He thinks that if he weren’t ugly then he would be loved. (He is never proven wrong on this point; he is loved once he morphs into a beautiful swan.)


The mother duck is most responsible for the Ugly Duckling’s rejection. She models her distaste for him and the genetic offspring all gang up. So does every single creature who comes into contact with the Ugly Duckling, though he does meet someone who wants to help him find love despite being ugly: The geese. These guys are more like allies than opponents. The Ugly Duckling never did want to be associated with ugly birds. He knew deep down he was better than that.


The Ugly Duckling feels down and waits around to mature. That’s not such bad advice for the mid-teen years.


The Ugly Duckling thinks he’s going to be murdered by the massive, good-looking swans and offers himself up to them. They can murder him if they want; he feels so wretched and ugly and useless.


He looks into the reflection and sees that he has grown into a swan.


The Ugly Duckling is really a swan, so will leave the ducks to live happily ever after as a beautiful swan.


Everyone is happier once they are able to live as themselves, so I guess this swan doesn’t have much keeping him down anymore.

No one really disagrees with the idea that in order to be happy you must find your people and thereby find self-acceptance.

But what might Andersen have been wrong about? Which ideas feel dated when read through a modern lens?

  • The mother duck thinks her own babies are pretty because she gave birth to them. This suggests mothers love genetically related children more than adopted children. Studies don’t bear out this idea at all. Parents don’t love their children equally, but there’s no detectable difference between genetic and adopted offspring when both are raised from birth.
  • The ugly ‘duckling’ feels so ugly that ‘even a dog will not bite me’. If we take that as a stand-in for abuse in general, it is simply incorrect that a person can be too ugly to be victimised. This probably wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t used as an actual defense in court when trying to prove the innocence of rapists. This is an example of yet another thing the Ugly Duckling is wrong about. (Main characters are meant to be wrong about something otherwise there’s not much of a character arc.) However, the Ugly Duckling never learns that he is wrong on this point. It’s up to the reader to deduce that he must be wrong, because clearly he’s ugly AND he’s being abused.
  • The ugly duckling only feels legitimised once he looks into the reflection and sees a beautiful swan looking back. This is basically the make-over plot in which Beauty equals worthiness. More modern picturebook retellings of this story generally avoid the literal transformation from ugliness to beauty and instead limit the plot to ‘finds creatures who look just like him’. But what if you have some sort of facial difference and will never find your people? If we read “The Ugly Duckling” at the truly allegorical level, the baby swan was never ugly, only lacking in love. Therefore there was no literal transformation from ugly to beautiful; the bird felt beautiful after finding acceptance with creatures who accept him. The first Shrek movie works in a similar way. Shrek and Fiona are happy because they have ‘found their people’ (both of them ugly by comparison to the haughty, insecure, beautiful versions/imaginings of themselves). The message is ostensibly a positive one for kids: You’re as beautiful as you think you are. The other, unintended message: Know your level, kids. Ugly creatures belong with other ugly creatures; beautiful creatures belong with other beautiful creatures. Beauty is meaningful. Beauty is something we should all be constantly thinking about and trying to improve. In our image obsessed culture it feels hopelessly idealistic to believe that beauty doesn’t mean anything; clearly it does. But can we imagine and work towards a better world than one that runs on Beauty privilege?
  • This is basically a Chosen One story, in which bloodline is king. The Ugly Duckling is really a swan; the poor boy is really a prince. There are many ideological issues with the bloodline story, which remains popular in contemporary storytelling (see Harry Potter and all its offshoots).


This story is so well-known that ‘ugly duckling’ is now a widely understood English idiom.

The Animal Who Thought He Was A Different Animal is an enduring trope across children’s literature:

Then there’s the animal who wished he were a different animal. The Saggy Baggy Elephant is a Little Golden Book by Jackson and Tenggren, first published in 1947. In the jungle, a bird taunts a baby elephant, saying his skin is too baggy. He doesn’t seem to realise he’s been separated from his tribe. The poor elephant feels self-conscious and tries to shrink his skin so he won’t be wrinkled. The tiger, whose sleek skin fits ‘perfectly’ is no help and instead offers to eat bits of it off for him. (That part is quite gruesome by today’s picture book standards.) The saggy, baggy elephant finds happiness and self-acceptance after meeting other elephants.

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Home » allegory

Header illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” by Vilhelm Pedersen

Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

The Horse and His Boy boy open on bed

Allegory means, among many other things, that the characters, worlds, actions and objects in a work of fiction are highly metaphorical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unique or created by the writer. It means the symbols have references that echo against previous symbols, often deep in the audience’s mind.

Allegorical also means ‘applicable to our modern world and time’.

Good stories have elements that are founded on the thematic line and oppositions. This especially applies to allegory. For example, for Tolkien, Christian thematic structure emphasises good versus evil.

What’s The Difference Between Allegory And Symbolism?

An allegory is a story told by a symbol’s POV, or a highly symbolic story. Allegory = ‘extreme metaphor’.

Symbolism is a bit more subtle, and will be interpreted in a range of different ways by different readers, as Thomas C. Foster explains  below:

Here’s the problem with symbols: people expect them to mean something. Not just any something, but one something in particular…It doesn’t work like that. Oh, sure, there are some symbols that work straightforwardly: a white flag means, I give up, don’t shoot. Or it means, We come in peace. See? Even in a fairly clear-cut case we can’t pin down a single meaning, although they’re pretty close. So some symbols do have a relatively limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing. […]

[With symbols, however,] the thing referred to is likely not reducible to a single statement but will more probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations. [A symbol requires] of us…to bring something of ourselves to the encounter [in order to get its meaning].

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

With allegories, on the other hand, there is generally a commonly accepted symbolic meaning. It’s harder to come up with your own unique interpretation (and justify it).

Examples of Allegory

Strict allegory, in which virtually every word must support a double meaning and fit into a coherent interpretation, has produced few examples since the Middle Ages. But loose allegory, in which only major events and characters must fit the chosen ideological pattern, still appears with fair frequency and is a staple of experimental, literary fiction, and fantasy.

Lord Of The Rings is fantasy but applied to a wartime 20th century world. (Tolkien said he didn’t mean to write it as an allegory of war, but he was a product of his time.)

Lord of the Flies is, in large measure, a fable of this sort. Each of the major characters represents one particular facet of hu- man possibility as Golding conceives it. The characters are stranded on an island to limit them to their own resources. They’re schoolboys (some are choirboys) to underline that they’re as close to innocence as human beings are apt to get. And all are male, I assume, to keep any question of sex from muddling the experiment, since it’s not part of what Golding wants to examine. They’re boys. But boys plus. Simon, for example, is a fully realised individual. But he also stands for and demonstrates the mystical and hopeful tendencies in all people. He’s the only mystic on the island, just as Piggy is the only intellectual, Jack the only natural hunter, Roger the only sadist, and so on.

Narnia — Aslan stands for a concept beyond his role — Jesus, of course. But as Roger Sutton writes in his article about the allegory of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, there is a contradiction involved in writing allegory for kids:

There’s a reason we caution would-be writers for children to stay away from allegory, and it’s the same reason we see so much of it from self-published and small-pressed* children’s authors: it’s more often preachy and didactic and labored than not, but there’s a lesson involved, which people who don’t love to read love to see in books for the young. Allegory also, as we see above, eludes many young readers, so what’s the point?

Roger Sutton, November/December 2019 editorial at The Hornbook

Animal Farm — an allegory about capitalists and totalitarians. This 1945 novel is popular among many readers precisely because it’s relatively easy to figure out what it all means. Orwell is desperate for us to get the point, not a point. Revolutions inevitably fail, he tells us, because those who come to power are corrupted by it and reject the values and principles they initially embraced.

Aesop’s Fables — In its simplest forms, allegory can be a fable like that of the dog in the manger or the fox and the grapes, in which dog, fox, grapes and manger stand for some reality of human experience—that some people who can’t use a thing nevertheless are reluctant to let others enjoy it; that some people rationalise their disappointment at being unable to get something by claiming the thing is no good anyway.

Pilgrim’s Progress — Back in 1678, John Bunyan wrote an allegory called The Pilgrim’s Progress. in it, the main character, Christian, is trying to journey to the Celestial City, while along the way he encounters such distractions as the Slough of Despond, the Primrose Path, Vanity Fair, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Other characters have names like Faithful, Evangelist, and the Giant Despair. Their names indicate their qualities, and in the case of Despair, his size as well. Allegories have one mission to accomplish—convey a certain message, in this case, the quest of the devout Christian to reach heaven. If there is ambiguity or a lack of clarity regarding that one-to-one correspondence between emblem—the figurative construct—and the thing it represents, then the allegory fails because the message is blurred.

Pinocchio — an allegory of life, similar to The Water Babies and The Three Pearls, but far nearer to folktale in feeling due to its shadeless black and white issues and quick rewards of virtue and sharp punishment of wrongdoing. Pinocchio can be considered a young Pilgrim’s Progress. There are animal tempters, avengers and judges. Pinocchio is always saying, “Oh! How I wish I could have been a good child!” Obedience brings you to heaven, the reverse gets you nowhere.

Features Of Allegory


Like a theme story, allegory has a subtext, a pattern of meaning beyond what’s evident on the surface. Just more so.


Allegory involves creating a fairly thoroughgoing pattern of symbolism in which all major events and characters in a story have a meaning beyond themselves and those meanings can be put together to make some sort of overall sense.

This kind of structural symbolism lends itself to social satire, political polemics, fantasy, and religious fiction. There are innumerable examples of each. Some are plotted; some derive their energy from the tension between symbol and reality, the character and what the character stands for, the gradual revelation of larger meanings.

Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

To see how metonymic and metaphoric devices interact in a mixed, that is, both realistic and romantic, fiction, it is perhaps best to begin with the extreme form of the metaphoric or romance pole, the allegory. In an allegory, the only way to approach the characters is by reference to their position in a preexistent code. An analysis of the metonymic context leads nowhere. […] if we were to meet an allegorical character in real life, we would think the person driven by some central obsession. The obsessive-like behaviour of the character is, of course, a result of his or her actions being totally determined by the position he or she holds in the preexistent code. The difference between an allegorical character and a character in a romance is that the romance figure not only acts as if obsessed because of his or her position in the story but also seems obsessed in reference to the similitude of real life created in the work itself.

This combination seems most effectively achieved when a psychologically real character’s obsession is so extreme that he or she projects the obsession on someone or something outside the self and then, ignoring that the source of the obsession is within, acts as if it were without. Thus, although the obsessive action takes place within a similitude of a realistic world, once the character has projected an inner state outward and then has reacted to the projection as if it were outside, this very reaction transforms the character into a parabolic rather than a realistic figure.

The most obvious early examples are those stories by Poe that focus on “the perverse”, that obsessive-like behaviour that compels someone to act in a way that may go against reason, common sense, even the best interests of the survival of the physical self. In many of Poe’s most important stories, the obsession occurs as behaviour that can be manifested only in elliptical or symbolic ways. For example, in “The Tell-tale Heart” the narrator’s desire to kill the old man because of his eye can be understood only when we realize that “eye” must be heard, not seen, as the first-person pronoun “I”.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

The Challenges Of Writing Allegory

There are two main dangers with this kind of fiction, from Ansen Dibell’s Elements Of Plot:

1. The message, the larger meaning, will take over, making the characters seem like lifeless puppets and the story, however organized, a mechanical thing determined by forces imposed from outside—a political stance, a religious or social ideology. The fiction has a blatant ulterior motive. In extreme cases, the events and people of the story, as presented, make no surface sense at all. Only what they stand for is of any significance; and that’s not enough to make the story readable or coherent.

2. The second difficulty is establishing the system of symbols itself. The pattern must make sense, rather than seeming an arbitrary authorial whim (umbrella = ambition; galoshes = passionate love; fish = space travel). The symbols chosen must be appropriate both to what they represent and to one another. The connections should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol; but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represents cutting free, cutting loose, in the story’s beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten, later on.

In practice, this makes characterisation and plotting doubly hard, since each element of the story carries an added weight of meaning and invites interpretation, as though it were a code to be broken rather than a story to be enjoyed.

Both difficulties, combined with allegory’s tendency to become preachy and polemic and its requirement that the reader put in extra work discerning the second level of meaning, have diminished its popularity over the centuries. 


The Baby’s Own Aesop, illustrated by Walter Crane

Gorilla by Anthony Browne Picture Book

Gorilla Anthony Browne cover

Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodern picture books. It was awarded the Kurt Maschler Award (1982-1999), which specifically rewarded British picture books demonstrating excellent integration between words and pictures.


A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 7 years old — feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she has a special interest in gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.

See more on hallways and corridors in art and illustration.


There is something wonderfully unsettling about the picture books of Anthony Browne, who is a postmodern picturebook writer/illustrator.

Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.

Wikipedia (BTW, anyone would think from the Wikipedia write-up that postmodern picture books are created only by men.)

Features of Postmodern Picture Books

  • they expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader (in common with Impressionist literature)
  • may be self-referential — they discuss their own creation or existence
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony
  • often contain surrealistic images
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images
  • mock traditional formats
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone
  • contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
  • often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, characters reading about their own fictional lives)
  • feature typographic experimentation
  • feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
  • illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles

– Frank Serafini

For more on postmodern picture books see David Beagley’s lecture on iTunes U, or my notes on that, here.

A less well-executed story may have started with something like, “Tomorrow it was Hannah’s birthday…” It is particularly masterful that Anthony Browne withholds this information until the conclusion. Why? Because the brightness associated with birthdays lightens the ending. Since the first part of the book is melancholic, a birthday tone would not fit well.


A feature of Anthony Browne’s work is that although the characters are depicted in almost naturalistic style, “in all styles we can only interpret faces with certainty as positive, negative or neutral in affect, with more subtle readings dependent on contextual and intermodal guidance. (Tian, 2011.)

As is the case in all of Browne’s books, the illustrations contain surreal details which reward the reader for lingering. This is not a page-flipper. A young reader will feel smart, in a Where’s Wally/Spot The Difference kind of way, for picking out what’s strange about each picture.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Newspaper Breakfast Scene

First, Browne sets up a desire in Hannah: She wants her dad to show her some affection. The reader must emphasise with Hannah and feel some of her isolation and loneliness. Above, the father holds up a newspaper as a wall.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Dad Is Busy In His Office

In the image above, the father has his back to his daughter. Hannah’s isolation is emphasised by the rectangle of light coming through an off-stage door. The rectangle forms a border between Hannah and her father. They may as well be in different worlds.

There is no comfort in this house — not even a sofa to sit on, and no carpet. Notice the map of Africa on the wall — a part of Hannah’s imagination. The truly masterful part of this illustration is that the light coming out of the television turns the pattern on the wallpaper into butterflies. The light coming out of the television is Hannah’s only company — her only brightness in an otherwise dark home environment.

What does it mean when a background merges with the real life of the story?

  • The character feels ignored/isolated/lonely, having more in common with the background than with the action going on around her
  • The character is retreating into her imagination/dreamscape/fantasy
  • The world around the character is not what it first appears, suggesting there’s a hidden depth to everything. Here, the father’s feelings towards Hannah are warmer than initially suggested. (He is redeemed at the end.)
Anthony Browne Gorilla Kiss

There’s something a little disturbing about this, unless we realise that the gorilla is a fantasy stand-in father.

I must admit there are a few scenes that had me arching my eyebrow at what she was up [to] in the way of questionable behaviour, but the end explains everything nicely.

from a 3 Star Goodreads Review
Anthony Browne Gorilla Superman Movie

Superman is the symbol of supreme strength and prowess. This little girl thinks of her father as a superhero. But, like Superman, he is also some glamorous figure who remains out of reach.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging Through The Trees

The city is a jungle and the jungle is a city. Most stories set in cities have elements of the jungle in them, and vice versa.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Eating Out

Food is immensely important in children’s books. Though there is a bit of a movement towards depicting healthy food in picture books, this is almost impossible to do when the feast takes place inside a child’s imagination, in which case (in the West, at least) it’s almost always cakes and sundaes.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Happy Birthday Hannah

Not seen in this shot, but the father has a banana poking out of his back pocket. There are little details like that which tell the reader visually: “The gorilla IS the dad.” Anthony Browne reuses this trope in his postmodern Hansel and Gretel, in which the mother IS the witch.

The reader (along with Hannah) now learns that Dad really does think about his daughter. He has intuited that Hannah is fascinated with gorillas, and has planned exactly the birthday outing she has been dreaming about. He’s the sort of dad to hang Hannah’s pictures on the wall, framed. The young readers are left with the message that even when they feel that their caregivers don’t care about them, parents actually do love them, no matter what. This is a reassuring story: children will eventually receive the attention they crave.

Of course, terrible caregivers do exist in real life. But they don’t tend to populate picture books. Even in the young adult category, truly terrible parents are extremely rare.

Although very sad at the beginning I found this story to be refreshingly honest and deeply gratifying.

from a 5 Star Goodreads Review


Gorilla won a number of significant awards:

There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:

This image with the surprised cat is my six-year-old’s favourite. The expression on the cat is funny to a kid, and is perhaps the one bit of true hilarity in the whole book, which is bitter-sweet and melancholic. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as a front cover image.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging

This cover makes readily apparent the jungle/city metaphor.


A number of artists merge backgrounds with ‘the real world of the narrative’. Here’s an example:

My Family by revolenka
My Family by revolenka

Gotye blends into the wallpaper in Someone That I Used To Know.

Flight of the Concords had spoofed this earlier, in their song I Told You I Was Freaky.

Other Postmodern Picture Books

  • David Macaulay‘s award winning Black and White (1990)
  • David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man
  • Bamboozled by David Legge
  • Shaun Tan and Gary Crew’s The Viewer
  • Emily Gravett’s Wolves
  • McGuire, R. (1997). What’s Wrong with This Book?
  • Burningham, J. (1977). Come Away From the Water, Shirley.
  • Watt, M. (2009). Chester.
  • Child, L. (2002). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
  • Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman
  • Pretty much all of the other Anthony Browne picture books
  • A Goodreads List of Postmodern Picture books

The adult equivalent of a slightly disturbing story about a gorilla’s relationship with a human is Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (Australian).

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