Symbolism Of The Atrium

Joseph Nash - The Opening of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, by Queen Victoria on 10th June 1854

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

atrium beauty and the beast
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney atrium

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).

midnight feast atrium glasshouse

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

from the film
from the game

See also Storytelling Tips From Northern Lights

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry

midnight feast aquarium cats

An aquarium is related to an atrium… and below we have an atrium as it commonly appears in modern architecture.

midnight feast first atrium

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

Beauty And The Beast by Carter and Schroeder

Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.

Beauty and the Beast front cover

Beauty and the Beast back cover

Beauty and the Beast is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. It’s called “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter includes Beauty and the Beast revisioning

In this picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:

  • the palace
  • nasty sisters
  • the return home

The main differences:

  • In versions of the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
  • Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.

The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author

  1. Wrote the tale for adults, not children
  2. Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.

Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.



With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.

It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.


Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.


Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.

Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.

beauty sewing with dog
Notice how the dog — its eyes, its colouring and its open mouth — look very much like the Beast when we meet him in the night garden. If this dog can love Beauty, so can the similar-looking Beast, apparently. Note also the bird, depicted in the same pink and greys as Beauty — who chooses not to fly away even though the cage is open.

The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally. (Or he’s meant to be. I code him as a coercively controlling menace.)

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

table chimera


When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.

It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.

The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.

The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty's ascent to Heaven. That's where she thinks she's going, after all.
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.


The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?

It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.


As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.

Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.
Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.


Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.

See Also

Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […] 

A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast

Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation

The Beauty and the Beast. Illustrator – Margaret Evans Price

Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this right

Studio Glibly

Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.

The Symbolism Of Altitude

Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.

mountains and valleys

Something weird happens when humans position ourselves in high places. High place phenomenon is that weird urge you get to jump off a bridge.

I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.

In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.

Because there’s always the tennis ball.


A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney house on hill

From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley
Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley

Wolf Hollow is an interesting setting because it is an snail under the leaf setting. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.

Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

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

In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.

from Treasure Island
from Treasure Island

Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson


Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.

Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her anagnorises.

Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.

This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.

The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.

John Truby, Anatomy of Story

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena


The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.

And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.

Roger Ebert’s review of The River Wild

In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).

from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986

house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

from The Adventures of Robin Hood
from The Adventures of Robin Hood

British artist Tracy Savage draws her inspiration from the Yorkshire coastline and landscape.
Her paintings are bursting with subjects she finds fascinating, capturing the imagination with her individual & dramatic style.

Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.

a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry

John Frederick Tennant - Waiting for the Catch 1839
John Frederick Tennant – Waiting for the Catch 1839

For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:

  • mountains
  • high desert landscapes
  • canyons
  • buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
  • eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)

When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.

“Lookout Point” by Richard Sargent, cover art for the July 18, 1953, Saturday Evening Post


The manmade equivalent of a natural high place is a rooftop. Characters often experience anagnorises on rooftops, or go there to achieve an overview of a situation, and to work out a plan to achieve their desires.

Artist on the Roof (1950) From…The Amsterdam Series (1940-50’s) ~Anton Pieck~ Dutch~ Painter/Graphic Artist/Illustrator

Header painting: Louis Bosworth Hurt – A Highland Drove at Strathfillan, Perthshire 1

Why so many orphans in children’s literature?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans

Orphans in modern literature evolved from orphans of folk and fairytales.There are many orphans in American and British children’s literature, but also in literature from around the world. Some communities have always been set up with strong social networks. Even if parents die, there are no true orphans because the extended family will care for them.

There are no orphans in traditional Hopi society. It would be culturally impossible for a child to fall right through their densely failsafe weave of family, no matter who died. If there was no father or mother, there would be an aunt; if there were no aunts or uncles, there would be a cousin; if there were no cousins, there would still be someone. But even for Hopis, the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of a story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.

The Child That Books Built

Yet stories of abandonment seem to be a universal, no matter the culture.


American children’s literature has a particularly strong tradition of orphaned — or ‘functionally’ orphaned — child protagonists.

  • The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen does have a father at home, but since she’s in charge of financing her own life, she is functionally an orphan.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy
  • Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — It’s commonly said that Jim is a surrogate father who replaces inadequate Pap. Others have said that Huck is having an oedipal crisis, and Jim and Huck are a homoerotic archetype rather than father and son archetype.
  • Toby Tyler
  • Hans Brinker
  • The Secret Garden
  • Pollyanna
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Max of the Wild Things
  • Peter Rabbit
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Stuart Little
  • Weetzie Bat
  • Harry Potter
  • Lyra and Will from Pullman’s Northern Lights
  • Bud (not Buddy)
  • Dorothy who went on a mythical journey to see The Wizard Of Oz lived with her aunt and uncle in Kansas
  • Kira of Gathering Blue
  • Mowgli of Kipling’s Jungle Book
  • Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island
  • The children of Swallows and Amazons
  • Brian from Hatchet
  • Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War
  • In modern middle grade fiction, Crow in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond The Bright Sea wants to find out who she really is, especially in relation to where she comes from. The ideology behind such stories is that you can’t possibly find out where you’re going until you find out where you’ve come from. But in the end she realises that her real family is her found family.
  • Bye Bye Baby is a fairly rare example of an orphaned picture book character — perhaps quite disturbing for actual toddlers, but funny for adult co-readers who are (over-) familiar with the orphaned child sob story. This picture book ends as a found-family narrative.
  • etc


This is almost too obvious to mention, but in earlier times there were, literally, a lot more orphans. People died younger. Women frequently died in childbirth.

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In Bruno Bettelheim’s* book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Why Don’t People Ask Why?

*Bettelheim was an asshole who probably set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)

Less obvious to modern readers are social customs which meant children were quite frequently without their mothers even if the mothers hadn’t died. When women and children are treated as chattels, the importance of the woman, even as mother, is not necessarily honoured. A woman’s place was especially tenuous before the custom of the eldest son inheriting everything. (Problematic as that was in its own right.)

The chronicles of the Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian dynasties, before the establishment of primogeniture, are bespattered with the blood of possible herbs, done away with by consorts ambitious for their own progeny — the true wicked stepmothers of history, who become embedded in stories as eternal truths. Moreover, children whose fathers had died often stayed in the paternal house, to be raised by their grandparents or uncles and their wives. Their mothers were made to return to their natal homes, and to forge another, advantageous alliance for their own parents’ future. Widows remarried less frequently than widowers.

From The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

In other words, children belonged to the household (their father), and the women were required as vessels, but after that, frequently disposed of.

Apart from the culture of primogeniture, there was also:

  • general patrilineage (in which children belong to the father)
  • dotal obligations (ie. the customs around dowries, in which the woman’s family is required to give resources to the man’s family in exchange for ostensibly looking after here. There are many knock-on effects from these customs, which is why it has been banned in countries such as India.)
  • female exogamy (in which women are required to marry outside their own social group, often moving far away with no more support from her natal family or childhood friends. In this case, if the marriage breaks up, the woman is sent far from her children.)
  • polygamy (in which fathers had more than one wife, each competing for scarce resources, and in which sister wives shared the childcare, inheriting children if one of them dies)


Why is there still a disproportionate number of kids without parents, even in contemporary literature?

First, an unexpected answer. Alison Lurie has noticed that authors of classic children’s literature may have been disproportionately orphaned themselves:

The classic makers of children’s literature are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods — or consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain — or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one continent to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. Though she was primarily an artist rather than a writer, Kate Greenaway belongs in this category.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

In Audacious Kids, Jerry Griswold puts the large numbers of orphans in children’s literature down (partly) to intertextuality — in other words, authors were borrowing from each other, and this led to a whole bunch of orphans.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876), for example, clearly inspired the story of Rebecca Sawyer when Kate Douglas Wiggin decided to write about a tomboy in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). In the same way, the subplot of Laurie and his grandfather in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) seems to me to have been enlarged and become the story of Cedric and his grandfather in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) —  a novel that served, in turn, as the basis for Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913).

But perhaps this is the most important reason for the prevalence of orphans throughout children’s literature: It gets adults out of the way, allows for psychological growth and ‘an equally exciting and disturbing idea’:

The prevalence of orphans in children’s fiction seems to relate to a central concern adults have with children’s independence and security. Orphans are of necessity independent, free to have adventures without the constraints of protective adults. At the same time, they automatically are faced with the danger and discomfort of lack of parental love. Childhood is usually understood as that time of life when one needs parental love and control. As a result, it seems, adults tend to believe that the possibility of being orphaned—of having the independence one wants and yet having to do without the love one needs—is an exciting and disturbing idea for children who are not in fact orphans, and a matter of immediate interest for those who are. In depicting orphans, writers can focus on children’s desire for independence, or on their fear of loss of security. In some cases, they offer interesting combinations of the two, as in Wolff’s Make Lemonade: one young girl teachers another independence by offering comfort and security. In doing so, she herself must learn, first, to compromise her own desire for independence and then, eventually, to give up the comfort of the relationship and become independent again.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

(There are other ways of getting adults out of the way of child heroes in children’s stories. It’s not entirely necessary to kill the mother off.)


Far fewer modern children have lost their mothers, though many are estranged from a parent or a grandparent. Still others fear losing their mother. Marina Warner makes the case that a dead mother in a story is, paradoxically, a comfort to a child:

[Dead mother fantasy] can also comfort bereaved children, who, however irrationally, feel themselves abandoned by their dead mothers, and even guilty for their disappearance. One English Cinderella story, called ‘Tattercoats’, perceptively focusses on this type of grief: the king figure mistreats his granddaughter ‘because at her birth, his favourite daughter died’. In this case, her ragged, starving, neglected state reflects his excess of mourning and her anguished guilt, and neither of them can be healed of the wound — the story has an unhappy ending.

The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

Warner also points out how the Grimms had a huge influence on storytelling for children, and they had their own reasons for getting rid of mothers:

Paradoxically, the best possible intentions can also contribute to the absence of mothers from the tales. In the case of ‘Schneewittchen’ (Snow White), for instance, the Grimm altered the earlier versions they had taken down in which Snow White’s own mother suffered murderous jealousy of her and persecuted her. The 1819 edition is the first to introduce a stepmother in her place; the manuscript and the editions of 1810 and 1812 place Snow White’s natural mother at the pivot of the violent plot. But it was altered so that a mother should not be seen to torment a daughter. […]

Wilhelm [Grimm] in particular [infused] the new editions [of the Grimm fairy tales] with his Christian fervour, emboldening the moral strokes of the plot, meting out penalties to the wicked and rewards to the just, to conform with prevailing Christian and social values. They also softened the harshness — especially in family dramas. They could not make it disappear altogether, but in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, for example, they added the father’s miserable reluctance to an earlier version in which both parents had proposed the abandonment of their children, and turned the mother into  wicked stepmother. On the whole, they tended towards sparing the father’s villainy, and substituting another wife for the natural mother, who had figured as the villain in the versions they had been told: they felt obliged to deal less harshly with mothers than the female storytellers whose material they were setting down.

The disappearance here of the original mothers forms a response to the harshness of the material: in their romantic idealism, the Grimms literally could not bear a maternal presence to be equivocal, or dangerous, and preferred to banish her altogether.r Fro them, the bad mother had to disappear in order for the ideal to survive and allow Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum.

The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner


Writing about American children’s literature, Griswold explains what turns up again and again in the ‘basic plot’, or the ‘ur-story’ of the orphaned child:

  • A child is born to parents who married despite the objections of others.
  • For a time, the family is well-to-do, members of the nobility or otherwise happy and prosperous.
  • Then the child’s parents die/The child is separated from its parents and effectively orphaned.
  • Without their protection, the child suffers from poverty and neglect and (if nobly born) dispossessed.
  • The hero/ine makes a journey to another place and is adopted into a second family.
  • In these new circumstances the child is treated harshly by an adult guardian of the same sex but sometimes has help from an adult of the opposite sex.
  • Eventually, however, the child triumphs over its antagonist and is acknowledged.
  • Finally, some accommodation is reached between the two discordant phases of the child’s past: life in the original or biological family and life in the second or adoptive family.

Maria Nikolajeva has also outlined these points and attributes the pattern to the fairytale family of Cinderella.

Maria Nikolajeva also makes a distinction between sad death and emotionless death when writing about the orphans in The Secret Garden. Death of the parents is sometimes just a plot device rather than something that leads to psychological growth:

A great number of fairy tales begin with the death of one or both parents, which sets in motion all the further events and complications of the plot. […] Just as we do not feel sorry for the death of the fairy-tale hero’s parents, because it is an indispensable part of the plot, we do not feel sorry for the death of Mary [Lennox’s] parents or Colin’s mother (especially since we do not feel much empathy with either of the children on the whole). Neither do the children grieve their dead, for different reasons. Colin has never met his mother, and the servants are forbidden to speak of her (ritual taboo!). […] while death certainly has a ritual function in the novel, it is not the kind of death that brings about the characters’ insight about their own mortality. On the contrary, the most important part of Colin’s development implies the change from his firm belief that he will soon die to an equally firm belief that he will not die at all, from “No one believes I shall live to grow up to “I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Marina Warner makes the same point but uses Beauty and the Beast as an example:

The absence of the mother from the tale is often declared at the start, without explanation, as if none were required; Beauty appears before us, in the opening paragraph of the earliest written version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with that title, in 1740, as a daughter to her father, a sister to her six elders, a biblical seventh child, the cadette, the favourite: nothing is spoken about her father’s wife. Later, it will turn out that Beauty is a foundling, and was left by the fairies, after her fairy mother was disgraced by union with a mortal — not the father Beauty knows, but another, higher in rank, more powerful.

The Beast To The Blonde by Marina Warner


Traditional orphan stories often borrow the linear ‘Cinderella structure’ in which the hero loses his/her home, becomes a nobody, suffers trials and is helped out of a bad situation at just the right moment by a ‘helper’ archetype. In these stories, the true specialness of the hero is finally made apparent to everyone in the setting, and they live happily ever after.

A modern orphan story tends to dispense with so many of those Cinderella story beats. An example is The Great Gilly Hopkins, which has an open ending by contrast. For modern orphans, there is not necessarily a ‘happy ever after’.

The Great Gilly Hopkins orphan

There are some basic guidelines to crafting modern stories for children: One is that you must not be overtly didactic; another is that you must have the children solve any problems for themselves. That means, in short, that the teachers and parents need to stay right out of it. This is the kidlit version of deus ex machina, in which ‘god’ descends from the sky to resolve the problem for the hero. Let’s call it ‘parentis ex machina’.

What sort of setting is often used for keeping adults at bay?

1. Boarding schools: Harry Potter, Mallory Towers etc

2. Fantasy portals into adult-free realms: Narnia etc

3. Tragic real-world circumstances, in which parents have died or been posted abroad etc.


Modern children’s stories are full of compromised parents (most often busy, sometimes stupid, sometimes neglectful or drug addled) and so modern child characters are ‘functional’ orphans:

We live in a culture that refers constantly to helicopter parents, yet there are many young adult books with self-absorbed, negligent parents who can’t be bothered to attend to their children’s needs. In children’s literature you need a certain degree of parental incompetence and absence to enable the child’s “triumphant rise.” An earlier age depicted cruel, abusive parents or simply killed off the biological mother and father, but in a very different genre–fairy tales and fantasy. Is the parent problem in YA fiction symptomatic of a new hands-off attitude among parents today?

Maria Tatar

A good example of a functional orphan is The Little Match Girl, whose mother appears to be dead, but who technically has a father at home. But because she is out in the world earning a ‘living’, he’s hardly a parental figure — more of an absent threat.

The child who angrily wishes his mother to drop dead for not having gratified his needs will be traumatized greatly by the actual death of his mother — even if this event is not linked closely in time with his destructive wishes. He will always take part or the whole blame for the loss of his mother. He will always say to himself — rarely to others — “I did it, I am responsible, I was bad, therefore Mommy left me.” It is well to remember that the child will react in the same manner if he loses a parent by divorce, separation, or desertion. Death is often seen by a child as an impermanent thing and has therefore little distinction from a divorce in which he may have an opportunity to see a parent again.

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Harriet The Spy is another good example of a functional orphan.

Harriet The Spy orphans

One pleasant result of the disappearance of old assumptions about the infallibility of parents and the duty of children to toe the line has been the arrival of a number of highly-individual child characters — usually girls — whose personalities have been allowed by their authors to develop without too much regard for what constitutes a proper example. Harriet, in Harriet the Spy (1964) by Louise Fizhugh (1928-74), lives in Manhattan, is eleven, and intends to be Harriet M. Welsch the famous writer when she grows up.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

…another heroine who is her own child and nobody else’s. Claudia has decided, coolly, to run away from home, returning only when everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia-appreciation. Since she believes in beauty, education, and comfort, and lives within commuting distance of New York City, where better to run away to than the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

— John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


In picture books, the artist can help ‘orphan’ the child character but also offer the reassuring presence of parents by cutting off the parent’s head.

functional orphan in a picture book
Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by Beverly Donofrio & Barbara McClintock (2007)

This was a trick used in the cartoon series Muppet Babies (1984—), in which we never see the nanny’s head — only her green and white striped stockings. “The caregiver is here but not important to the story.” That’s the clear message.

scene from actual muppet babies

Naturally, this lead to a meme in which we imagine Nanny has no actual head.

Muppet Babies nanny


Despite all these dead parents, Roberta Seelinger Trites noticed something about orphans in young adult literature in particular: ‘the propensity of adolescents with neither actual nor effective surrogate parents to create imaginary parents against whom to rebel.’ This is apparently a Lacanian principle, for those familiar with that (not me). Trites offers the following examples of YA characters who create imaginary parents and then rebel against them:

  • Judy Abbott, the main character of Daddy-Long Legs
  • Junior Brown, The Planet of Junior Brown
  • Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins, in which the mental construction of her mother is nothing like the reality
  • Ellen Conford, of To All my Fans, with Love, from Sylvie

Trites coined her own term to describe these parents who are parents in name only: in logo parentis. (In loco parentis, logos.)


There has been a conversation lately about something like ‘symbolic annihilation’ of parents in young adult literature.

I legit don’t understand the parents in YA convo. Why does it matter if your book has parents or not? Make it a good book. I hope I’m not alone in this. It just feels like every other month we’re debating why books need more parents or saying that parents have no place in YA



List of Orphan related tropes from TV Tropes

Best Books About Orphans, a Goodreads list, in which you’ll see that the list is heavily populated with children’s literature

In this moving talk, British playwright and poet Lemn Sissay opens up about his experience of being a fostered child and child in care in the 1960s and 70s in the UK. This talk is of interest for kid-lit fans not just because Sissay has written for children (“The Emperor’s Watchmaker”), but also because he references lots of cared-for, fostered and orphaned children in children’s literature at the start of his talk.

Playing By The Book

An “elder orphan” is someone who is aging alone, without parents, a spouse, siblings, children, or grandchildren. Its population is growing—and America is terribly unprepared.

Judy Colbert

Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Orphans