The Symbolic Basement In Fiction

The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.

EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT

The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.

First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)

“It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches —a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)

She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.

Alice Munro, “Free Radicals

EXAMPLE TWO: BASEMENT AS COSY PRISON

Another example from Alice Munro.

Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:

There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum—all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen—it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.

Alice Munro, “Cortes Island

When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.

This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.

MORE ON BASEMENTS AND CELLARS

Attics aren’t much safer than basements, to be fair. Atriums are different again.

Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.

You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”

How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.

A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)

Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.

Basements are pretty much mandatory in gothic children’s horror, and have made me wish many times we had basements here in Australia. Lemony Snicket and Courage the Cowardly Dog stories make heavy symbolic use of basements. Mercy Watson’s family has a basement, and those are cosy picture books, with just a hint of danger.

But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.

Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.

As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.

The Utopian Basement

In Arcadia, the basement is a storehouse, full of things you may need in times of famine.

Jill Barklem (1951 – 2017) British writer and illustrator Brambly Hedge Crabapple Cottage. For more examples of tree houses in children’s illustration see here.
by John Phillip Falter
by John Phillip Falter

A witness who remembers nothing is in mortal danger.

A young woman regains consciousness and finds herself on some cellar steps. At the bottom of the steps there is the corpse of a dead girl. She cannot remember who she is, what has happened or why she is there. Terrified and confused she manages to find a way out and as she flees she runs into Miss Silver, who offers to help her.

A letter in her bag is the only clue to her identity. But by investigating what has happened to her will she find herself in danger? Can she trust the letter writer? And who is the girl in the cellar?

Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826

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Pine a Short Story by Robin Black Analysis

“Pine” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This published 2010, written by Robin Black. This is a wonderful example of a contemporary story loosely based on an old fairytale—this time it’s Bluebeard.

“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centres a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.

Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time.

NARRATION IN “PINE”

“Pine” is written with first person narration. The opening scene describes a kitchen — the kitchen of a woman named Heidi, whose stand-out feature is that she is missing one leg.

THE BLUEBEARD CONNECTION

What is the story function of Heidi? Why does this first section and this character exist?

First, this is the author establishing a pattern: Our main character is an outsider in general, not just with her friend/boyfriend.

Second, the artificial leg is highly symbolic. Our main character feels she has lost a part of herself when she lost her husband. Heidi serves as a contrast character but in a way that’s physically apparent — some people get the emotional equivalent of an artificial limb after bereavement, which means they’re never quite the same but are able to function nonetheless. In contrast, others never manage to get to that point, forever stuck in utter despair because you feel incomplete.

“Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” I reach across and pour us both more wine. “Do you suppose she keeps them all? Do you suppose she has them locked up somewhere? Like Bluebeard’s wives?

Pine, by Robin Black

In the Bluebeard fairytales, a broken man murders a succession of wives. This is a sort of modern, gender-flipped version in which a bereft wife symbolically ‘murders’ her own chance at happiness with (not coincidentally) five people in this story: The three women in the kitchen, who she might otherwise have become friends with, and with Kevin, her friend/boyfriend.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PINE”

SHORTCOMING

Like the first person narrator, the reader is a visitor in Heidi’s kitchen. Like the narrator we, too, feel left out of the discussion between woman friends who obviously have a long backstory and know each other well. This is a relatable situation — we’ve all been the newcomer at some point. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

This is the narrator’s initial Shortcoming. Drill one layer deeper — her One Great Shortcoming — the shortcoming that is ruining her life is that she is failing to achieve new and meaningful human connections since her husband died.

Extrapolating from that: The reason she doesn’t want to get close to anyone is because people just up and die on you. Why risk your feelings like that?

The following song was written by an artist whose own mother lost her husband at a young age to an aneurysm in his sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqj8_RdLoJE

(Supposed) Moral Shortcoming: Running hot and cold with the friend/boyfriend while failing to either open herself fully to the idea of a relationship or be clear that it’s never going to happen.

Of course, no one ever owes anyone else a relationship, even if sex has been had. There is another thread to this story which is ripe for discussion. “Pine” is not necessarily a tragedy simply because a woman didn’t get together with a man. Perhaps he just isn’t the right one? Perhaps they were important to each other for a short time, and that time had its upper limit.

This is therefore a story about the Erotics of (Emotional) Abstinence and reminds us that life is short, and that life comprises a series of episodes which have distinct endings, each ending serving to prepare us for our own death.

The following passage reminds me of a technique utilised also by Alice Munro — the inclusion of young women and older women. The reader is encouraged to consider these differently aged characters as one person, only at different stages of her life. An older woman looks at a younger one and sees her younger self gone; alternatively she may look at an older woman and see herself in three decades’ time:

…they call my daughter Ally one day and then Lyssa the next, as though she were their property, to name and claim. As though she no longer belongs to me and only I have not figured that out. Deceptively clothed in bell-bottoms and horizontal stripes, outfits reinvented from my own youth, they are the trumpeters of my daughter’s departure, the harbingers of yet another loss. They are the clock ticking forward with no concern for me.

“Pine” by Robin Black

It’s all to do with creating that sense that time comes for us all and there’s no going back.

Tragically, we never know exactly when those inflection points are going to be, because sometimes, other people end things for us.

DESIRE

Perhaps the narrator wants human connection, but she is sabotaging this wish with her actions. Instead she settles for a mimicry of human connection — visits to the kitchen of a new acquaintance; occasional sex with the friend who wants to become her boyfriend.

OPPONENT

It’s not a level playing field. My foes do not play fair.

“Pine”, Robin Black

Who are the foes? ‘Death and all of its traveling companions’, we are told in the next sentence. However, any given stories needs human opposition who stand in for these existential enemies.

This is an anti-romance, so her main opponent is the man who wants to be her boyfriend. Though they both want the same thing, he’s emotionally able to have it while she is not. So they will remain forever in opposition.

Heidi is also an opponent in this story, and an excellent example of an ‘opponent’ who does nothing whatsoever to deserve that status. Instead, she is the unwitting enemy in the main character’s own psychological struggles. When the narrator says Heidi should have put down a pine floor rather than a hard one, the narrator is really criticising herself for being so emotionally ‘hard and cold’ (like marble). When the narrator says Heidi is in denial, it is the narrator who is actually in denial. This is clear from the second paragraph: “If it were me”. This is the author telling us that Heidi IS ‘me’.

“I almost envy Heidi,” our narrator says, after Heidi’s husband puts her hand on Heidi’s artificial knee, and when it’s clear that Heidi can somehow feel that gesture. In stories about two women, the women often envy each other, craving in another woman what she doesn’t have herself.

PLAN

Keep people at bay. Don’t get too close. Do the bare minimum to ward off utter loneliness.

We have a passive character here, so it’s up to the opponent to create the conflict. This argument they have isn’t exactly planned — rather, the boyfriend seems to snap, and says things he’s been thinking for a while.

BIG STRUGGLE

Sure enough, the boyfriend confronts her at her daughter’s sports match — a symbolic place to have a Battle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

The Opponent is the one who has the Anagnorisis. He realises our main character is not open to a relationship with him, ever. https://youtu.be/rg-3a6Hy-yc

The concept of Main Character is a little problematic in stories like these because normally the very definition of Main Character is ‘the one who changes the most’ ie. the one who has the Anagnorisis. Technically, you could argue the boyfriend is the main character, except we don’t see the setting through his eyes in this particular narrative. Even the title is named after a feeling of Kevin’s:

“I’ll bet he’s secretly pining over you,” [Alyssa] says

NEW SITUATION

This is a rare example of a story in which the main character starts with Slavery, has a chance at Freedom but because of a failure to have any sort of Anagnorisis, returns instead to Slavery.

Another example of this kind of story is The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. Likewise in that story, the love interest is the one who has the Anagnorisis — Randy’s girlfriend moves on without him.

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Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

Boy George has said that the difference between a pop song and an unpopular song is repetition. The same can be said of many popular things, including fairy tales.

Many fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off […]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Harrington Mann The Fairy Tale 1902
The Fairy Tale 1902 Harrington Mann (1864-1937)

Interview with Maria Tatar from Kim Hill, Saturday Morning, RNZ, 2011

Maria Tatar chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in German Studies, Folklore, and Children’s Literature.

Maria Tatar is the author of Enchanted Hunters: The power of stories in childhood. ‘Enchanted Hunters’ is the name of the hotel in Lolita where Humbert Humbert does the bad thing. An edgy title was chosen to reappropriate that title for children because it describes so well what happens to children when they read. Children fall under a spell when they’re reading but they are also active seekers of meaning, looking for knowledge, trying to make sense of a world in which there is pain and violence and death. (Literacy specialists call this ‘ludic reading‘.)

Most of the old stories did have happy endings. The Hans Christian Andersen tales are sadistic, and those were inspired by stories told in spinning rooms where he had been eavesdropping. Modern audiences often have a different response to fairytales. As a child, one of the most heart-rending books on my shelf was The Little Match Girl. But The Little Match Girl does have an intended happy ending. The little girl goes to heaven and meets her grandmother.

The beauty of the fairytale in the oral storytelling tradition is that the child survives. The storyteller puts the child into the worst scenario possible, with villains, treachery, danger out in the world and yet, like Little Red Riding Hood, if you use your wits and are courageous, you can survive.

In the Grimms’ version of “Little Red Riding Hood” you may say the girl needs the hunter, but in the early versions recorded in 19th C France, Little Red Riding Hood outwits the wolf, managing to escape on her own, without patriarchal help.

Classic tales are elastic, shapeshifting into new versions of themselves. They are symptomatic of a culture, and deal with the issues that are profoundly important to us: Innocence and seduction in “Little Red Riding Hood”, Monstrosity and Compassion in “Beauty And The Beast“. These tales tap right into our cultural anxieties.

The Bedtime Story

When did we start the tradition and practice of the bedtime story? This isn’t easy to document. Little Women seems to have the first scene of reading where parents argue about what to do at bedtime — force the child to go to sleep or ‘coddle’ the child by reading to them?

Peter and Wendy is another foundational story and happens at night-time. This can be terrifying for children. The Lost Boys who have fallen out of their prams are a terrifying concept for a child. Where’s the comfort in all that? The Darling children do return home. Maybe this is more comforting for adult readers, because we learn that children always have this place for magic and enchantment. Many children are sensation seekers so they do need to be scared to explore imaginatively what will happen to them if they are taken away, if they go to a different and scary place. Above all, how do we get back home? Is there a way to get back home?

Now I lay me down to sleep…

This bedtime prayer is really quite dark. (If I should die before I wake…) That’s the time that a child’s thoughts turn.

Charlotte’s Web begins with Where’s Papa going with that axe?

Even the benign Goodnight Moon, ‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ suggests creepy things lurking in every nook. But the story ultimately reassures. Everything will be there in the morning. (The last sentence does pack a bit of a punch.) Children like to read this book over and over because the story reassures.

The Countdown To Sleep Story

The conundrum for parents putting children to sleep is that a good, exciting story can keep kids awake. Modern publishing offers titles such as One Minute Bedtime Stories. There are dozens of these books, ‘guaranteed’ to put your child to sleep. There are many ‘countdown to sleep’ type of plots.

This is a modern change. Children’s stories used to contain plenty of excitement, with chapters ending on cliffhangers, so of course children wanted to keep reading, much to the distress of some parents who were hoping the story would lull the child to sleep.

We’re desperate now to have our children read more, but it’s not long since having a child with its head in a book was a bad thing, and big readers were encouraged to go out and enjoy themselves in the sunshine. Many children today are still described as being ‘bookworms’ or voracious in a negative way. Negative connotations remain — reading as an antisocial activity. (The word ‘antisocial’ is most often used incorrectly. These people often mean ‘asocial’ activity, and in that they are still wrong.)

Books can be read in isolation. But what the book offers that real life cannot is the opportunity to see inside somebody’s mind, to really know what they’re thinking. Book characters can be like friends for a child. In real life we can’t mind read — people are always misrepresenting what they’re really thinking.

Some champions of electronic media say reading leaves little room for improvisation, social interaction and creativity. Maria Tatar is astonished that fairytales seem to thrive in a culture of electronic entertainments. Fairytales migrate well into many media, and can still provide a visceral entertainment. Fairytale get us talking about the characters, about the right thing to do in any given situation, and about how to manage in a world full of perils and opportunities.

It’s not the ‘reading’ — it’s the ‘story’. We reshape the messages and make them our own.

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Pixar’s Brave: Ideology and Storytelling

brave movie poster

Brave was released by Pixar in 2012. At that point, there were no Pixar films with girls as main characters, so this film was welcomed with open arms by people who’d been waiting and waiting for this. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great. Kids are likely to enjoy it — or aspects of it — I know some who fell in love with archery, as a concept. But kids like almost any animation with high production values. Though I don’t count Brave as an example of top-notch storytelling, I’m going back to it to clarify for myself what exactly went wrong, for me. Why do I find this one doesn’t engage? Is it because I’m not the target audience, and shouldn’t be expected to like it? I don’t buy that. Other Pixar films manage dual audience appeal.

A sobering side-story is how Brave went wrong behind the scenes. With so much money and talent available to them, it almost defies belief that a corporation like Pixar could release anything with a problematic plot. The #metoo movement has shown us what any woke viewer has noticed in the ideology of Pixar films all along — that the men running Pixar are faux-feminists at best. As for the Brave story, a woman was originally hired to direct. She was then fired. I believe this absolutely shows in the final product, in a story which shoehorns femininity into a story which doesn’t quite work.

Then again, there’s plenty that is interesting about Brave, as an artifact of half-assed feminism for kids.

THE MAGICAL SETTING OF BRAVE

I gave my mom a cake, she turned into a big bear. My old man tries to do her in. If that’s not a pure mess, I don’t know what is.

@LizzRoinett, Twitter video

A fantasy medieval Scotland. This is ancient Scotland in the same way Princess Mononoke is ancient Japan — it’s a vision of the past according to a contemporary audience, when we imagine the world really was ruled by magic. In both Brave and in Princess Mononoke, you’ll find magical spirits in the woods. Here they are known as ‘wisps’ and they play a critical role in the plot, leading Merida first into the witch’s cottage, next on her journey of discovery as she finds out what happened to that guy who asked the witch for strength. (He turned into a bear and stayed like it, upping the stakes for the mother.)

I think this part aspect hits on why I found Brave lacking as a satisfying story: First the audience is told that we must believe in magic. I have an issue with this general ideology. Merida’s father says he doesn’t believe in magic. He is proven wrong as the audience is shown the wisps on screen. “Well he should because it’s true,” says Merida, our viewpoint character. Of course, she means it’s true within the world of this particular story. But I feel we have a problem with magical thinking across contemporary society, and it bothers me when a sympathetic viewpoint character in a story basically tells the audience that you’re fool for not believing in magic. There are ways  of writing magic into stories which don’t chastise anyone for failing to trust and believe. I prefer those ones.

That aside, there’s a narrative drive issue to do with those magical wisps. The writers faced the problem of getting Merida into the woods (why would she go, and how would she know to go?). She follows the wisps and they show her. Later the writers had the exact same problem (how would Merida find the castle ruins)? Easy fix. We’ll have her follow the magic again, literally. Where’s the self-determination in that?

Does Merida do her own problem solving? No.

Is there an intriguing mystery to be solved by the young hero? No.

“Follow and you will believe!” is reinforced as the dominant ideology when she is shown to follow the wisps. Can you think of a popular story in which a boy character simply believes in magic and follows it, achieving enlightenment forthwith? I cannot. Because that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it. It’d be too passive for a boy. I argue it’s too passive for a girl, especially when it’s been established early on that Merida is a dab hand with bow and arrow. I’m not arguing for a big struggle scene where Merida shoots the opponent with an arrow. That’s not what I’m arguing for at all. That would be a classic knight character in a girl’s body, embarking upon a classic, linear male mythic journey where the hero meets a variety of characters and then defeats the big bad one at the end, coming to some major self-realisation.

I feel Brave is an attempt at the new big struggle-free myth form. And who knows — it might’ve been if the original female screenwriter had been allowed to continue where she was headed. The big struggle-free mythic form  is where a character (often a girl but not always) thinks and feels her way through a situation rather than fighting her opponents. Inside Out was a later and successful example of that. Instead, what we have in Brave is a weird hybrid in which Merida goes on a literal journey (a mythic journey), which is basically linear in shape — symbolised early on by the arrow when the father exclaims “Fate is like an arrow!”(It’s not just the theme of this story which is likened to an arrow, but also the linear shape of the plot.) In a linear structure, the character is obliged to solve their own problems, okay, yes, often by fighting in some kind of big struggle, but still, they’ve solved it themselves.

This is why it bothers me that Merida is lead through the forest by wisps. Merida does indeed solve her own problem. We know she has, because she arrives back at the castle during the masculine, rough-n-tumble escapades and delivers a big speech. This feels a lot like Pixar’s good ole Female Maturity Formula on steroids — I’m sure the antics of the little brothers and the men are meant to provide the bulk of the movie’s humour. (I personally find rough n’ tumble boring to watch.) Meanwhile, both Merida and her mother sit and roll their eyes at the boyish antics going on around them. However immature Merida is at the beginning of Brave, the father’s descent into wild behaviour shows that she was always more mature than him, in many ways. When the father pretends to be Merida, imitating her voice near the beginning, it’s made clear to us that father and daughter are very much alike. This point is underscored time and again. But really — gender flip that for a moment. Can you imagine a story with an uptight father sighing, and complaining to his wife that their son is just like her as he pushes the boundaries? The writers of Pixar have hit upon a fairly common real-life gender dynamic — the dynamic of the sensible, uptight mother counterbalanced against her wild husband and the offspring who uses him as role model instead. I believe this story is meant to set up that dynamic in order to challenge it entirely. But a weak anagnorisis phase makes me wonder if subversion has really been achieved, or if the audience walks away seeing yet another example of sensible women juxtaposed against wild men.

Merida’s anagnorisis —  that everyone needs to learn to work together — doesn’t feel earned. This is directly related the the magic of the setting, and how the writers relied too heavily upon those wisps to lead her to her mature understanding of co-operation and whatnot. Big audience scenes can sometimes be an attempt at papering over a subpar revelation sequence, so I’m quite wary of them. I’m talking about scenes — beloved by American storytellers in particular — in which a main character addresses a large audience and delivers a monologue. The larger the audience, the more important the revelation, or so the writers would have us believe.

William Powell Frith - The Fair Toxophilites 1872
William Powell Frith – The Fair Toxophilites 1872

STORIES ABOUT MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

On its release, critics tended to focus on the fact that we now have a mother-daughter relationship. Critics see a lot of stories, and they noticed that the mother-daughter relationship is rarely depicted.

Film critic Roger Ebert said that kids would like it more than adults. He said that Brave did have an uplifting message about improving communication between mothers and daughters, “although transforming your mother into a bear is a rather extreme first step”

Peter Debruge of Variety said that “adding a female director, Brenda Chapman, to its creative boys’ club, the studio Pixar has fashioned a resonant tribute to mother-daughter relationships that packs a level of poignancy on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo“. Finding Nemo is of course a story about a father-son relationship, as is The Lion King.

When Pixar took me off of Brave — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. … This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.

Brenda Chapman, after her firing

It’s clear that Brave is meant to be a mother-daughter story by intent, and should have been written to its completion by someone who has been a mother and a daughter themselves.

Western civilization has a double standard about parenting. As Mary Pipher notes in Reviving Ophelia, relationships with fathers – in literature and film – are almost always portrayed as being productive and growth oriented, while relationships with mothers (especially for children during their adolescence) are considered regressive and dependant. Mothers cannot be involved too much or too little – their involvement has to be precisely the ‘right’ amount. Distant mothers are scorned, even as their close and loving counterparts are criticised for being smothering and overprotective.

Tharini Viswanath

Although Merida’s character arc doesn’t feel enfleshed to me, the mother’s arc works nicely. By turning into a bear, the mother learns to get in touch with her baser self. This is an example of a story in which two characters learn something from each other. The daughter learns to understand her mother and the mother learns something from her daughter. Brave is basically a Freaky Friday story, which also makes use of the transmogrification trope (used a bit differently). Lady Bird is another mother-daughter story and an excellent example of the double character arc in which everyone’s arc feels very much earned. The Meddler is another.

Whatever my storytelling problems with Brave, I’m grateful for the mother-daughter relationship. The target audience will have seen relative few stories about mothers and daughters, because there are very few mothers in picture books, let alone mother-daughter relationships. This was written in the 1990s but hasn’t changed much:

In the most comprehensive study to date of the mother/daughter relationship as it is manifested in picture books, Adrienne Kertzer explores the silencing of the mother in picture books. Kertzer analyzes the  multiplicity of techniques used to suppress mothers’ voices in picture books. Her thesis, that mothers’ voices are silenced in ways that the voices of other adults are not in picture books, is relevant to an investigation of mother/daughter relationships in children’s novels. Kertzer speculates that mothers’ voices are marginalized as a result of the cult of perfect motherhood and as a result of the desire to promote children’s points of view in children’s literature. Kertzer then deconstructs a central irony of the image of the mother in picture books: mothers read picture books to their children that show mothers to be silent.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

This symbolic annihilation of mothers abates a little in middle grade stories but not much:

These points are germane to children’s novels, for interestingly enough, the voice of the mother is more often heard in contemporary children’s novels than it is in picture books. That this phenomenon coincides with the time that the child is no longer dependent on her mother to read to her is interesting; it indicates that children can accept strong literary mothers as they grow older and become more sure of their own voices. This is not to imply, however, that children’s novels are replete with maternal voices, for this is far from the case. Whether feminist or otherwise, more children’s novels omit maternal subjectivities than include them.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Possible reasons suggested by Myers:

  • The authors of these stories may wish to have been beter mothered themselves
  • Female authors may lack strong artistic mothers and mentors, so they transfer their own symbolic motherless to their writing — female characters are also motherless.

I don’t think we need to get so deeply into the psyche of the creators of these stories — the dominant culture does a fine job all on its own of minimising mothers. Lack of interest in motherhood for anyone other than mothers could account for 100% of it.

Seelinger Trites points out the very good story reason why mothers are omitted from children’s stories. I’ve covered it in my post Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature? Trites acknowledges the plot reasons for getting rid of mothers, but argues there’s more to it than that:

While this tendency has fit conveniently into the commonplace of children’s literature that parents must be absent from the narrative in order for the child characters to have adventures and to explore on their own, it seems that as feminism has influenced the culture, strong mother/daughter relationships have begun to infiltrate the children’s novel.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Seelinger Trites has noticed two main types of mother/daughter relationships in children’s stories.

1. OEDIPAL NARRATIVES

Oedipal narratives are all about allowing for the daughter to achieve independence from her mother. 

They tend to focus on the daughters’ strength. The best stories in this category allow both mothers and daughters to be strong. Both mother and daughter go through a character arc. That’s why I loved the film Lady Bird so much.

Examples
  • Prairie Songs (1985) by Pam Conrad
  • Plain City (1993) by Virginia Hamilton
  • My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday is a non-fiction feminist work which is all about the Oedipal relationship between mothers and daughters.

There are Three Main Types of mythic structures, and in two of those the hero is required to leave home. Leaving home is a surefire way for getting a hero to separate from his mother (and father). And if you read the really early recorded fairy tales, e.g. in the first volume collected by Grimm, you’ll find a lot of those start with a son who goes out wandering, with no specific aim in mind.

2. FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Freudian stories allow the daughter to mature without necessarily breaking her from her mother.

The Freudian structure can be done well, but so many of them are ‘rebellious-daughter’ stories which portray mothers as evil beings, whose stifling presence must be escaped in order for the misunderstood daughter to develop fully. Mothers in these stories don’t have a character arc of their own. Far from it — they are one-dimensionally portrayed as controlling and manipulative. We don’t get the mothers’ backstory. In other words, these books are reductive in their portrayal of mothers.

Examples
  • Dinkey Hocker Shoots Smack (1972) by M.E. Kerr
  • Deenie (1973) by Judy Blume

3. ANTI-FREUDIAN NARRATIVES

Perhaps another third category could be called ‘The Anti-Freudian Plot’. Seelinger Trites offers this as a type, though doesn’t include it in her two main categories.

In anti-Freudian narratives, the daughter is not required to separate from her mother.

In fact, the mother helps her daughter through her trials. The mother will probably pass some of her strength on to her daughter. A story with this character web is likely to be about the nature of maternity, and may link maternity to death. They often have messages such as: nurturing others is hard work but also good for the soul.

So where does Brave fit into this history of mother-daughter relationships? To know this, I ask the following questions:

  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition?
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’?
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional?
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story?
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc?
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy - The Daughters of Atlas 1896
Paul Alexandre Alfred Leroy – The Daughters of Atlas 1896

BRAVE STORY STRUCTURE

The story in a nutshell:

Not only does the protagonist have a mother who is seen and heard, but both mother and daughter spend more than half the movie renewing their strained relationship. The protagonist, Merida, is at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor, because she prefers traditionally ‘masculine’ activities to performing the duties of a princess. When Elinor invites the sons of neighbouring clan leaders to compete for her daughter’s hand in marriage, a fight ensues between mother and daughter. Incensed, Merida buys a spell from a witch to change her fate; as a result of Merida’s actions, Elinor turns into a bear. Elinor and Merida then try to reverse the spell by ‘mend[ing] the bond torn by pride,’ which Merida interprets to mean sewing together a tapestry she tore during their worst fight (Brave, 2012). Meanwhile, Fergus, the King and Merida’s father, has a vendetta against bears, and will not rest until he has avenged the leg he lost in a bear attack.

Tharini Viswanath

SHORTCOMING

A Celtic Huntress, George de Forest Brush, 1890
A Celtic Huntress, George de Forest Brush, 1890

This is not a story in which a repressed female character with no voice learns to discover her voice. Merida knows her mind from the beginning of the story, which is exactly the thing that makes Brave a slightly different take on the Female Maturity Formula:

Merida … clearly has a voice early in the film. And by standing up to her parents and refusing to go through with the betrothal, it does seem as if she has both agency and an established subject position as a headstrong tomboy. She uses her mother’s language – ‘That’s what you’ve been preparing me for’ – against her, to establish her own position on the issue. Merida represents the capacity to act independently of social restraint: her vehemence at the idea of marriage does, in a way, make the viewer question dominant social ideologies, especially as Merida opposes the marriage plot trope, where Disney Princesses before her rarely question the concept of falling in love and/or getting married. (As a matter of fact, the heteronormative romance between princesses and young men they hardly know drives the plot of almost every Disney film.

Tharini Viswanath

Merida’s shortcoming is that she has contemporary (2012) feminist attitudes but lives in medieval Scotland. She needs to live as an individual with some autonomy, and for her, this means eschewing an arranged royal marriage.

DESIRE

Here’s an interesting word. Adrienne Rich wrote of ‘matrophobia’. It doesn’t mean ‘fear of one’s mother’. It means ‘fear of becoming a mother’. Merida’s story is defined by what she does not want more than what she does want: She does not want to become her mother.

‘My whole life is planned out, preparing for the day I become… well, my mother.

Merida in a voiceover

Marina Warner calls stories about the psychosexual fear of marriage and childbirth ‘Fear of Engulfment Stories’. I make the case that Brave is a bowdlerised, contemporary take on a Bluebeard tale.

OPPONENT

Opponents don’t have to hate each other. Many opponents love each other, especially when one is the parent, another the child: Elinor does have Merida’s best interests at heart: “What I do, I do out of love.” What makes Elinor an opponent is that she wants a different life for Merida.

The ‘big bad baddie’ opponent is the magic spell which may turn Elinor into a permanent bear, without the humanity.

PLAN

As I mentioned above, Merida’s plan is pretty terrible. Her initial plan works.

“I’ll put a spell on my mother and then she won’t make me get married.” In other words, I’ll change my mother rather than sacrifice my own bodily autonomy. After that her plan is to follow the magic.

BIG STRUGGLE

The most irritating thing about this movie — to me — is the elongated male big struggle scene going on at the castle all the while Merida and her mother are on this emotional journey, into the subconscious symbolised by the forest. There’s a real ‘boys will be boys’ ideology going on here. Of course men fight each other, that’s what men do… Isn’t it funny watching them go at it, though?

Merida herself encounters a variety of big struggle scenes, escalating in stakes:

  • Fights with her mother about being ladylike, in a montage sequence
  • Fights with her mother at the dinner table about ladylike amounts of food
  • Fights with her mother about getting married
  • Faces the witch in the forest, who seems amiable but turns out to be an opponent later — a false ally opponent, who in the end turns out to have done the right thing for Merida. Good-bad-good witch.
  • The mother turns into a bear. This is an annoying turn of events because she could have told her father what had happened and what she’d done. He had the power to stop the men marauding the bear, were they to find her. Instead, Merida confides to her three little brothers, and none of them thought to tell the father, either. Presumably this is because the father is pretty useless. Hence, unsatisfying.
  • In the forest, Bear Elinor fights the baser nature of herself while Merida helps her through it.
  • After Merida’s big speech, in which she and Elinor have part of their anagnorisis, the story should really be over now, but no. The writers didn’t have a movie-length amount of material, so what did they do? Wrote another elongated rough n’ tumble big struggle scene, centring on the men marauding around the castle after the bear. The stakes are ostensibly very high — if they catch Elinor they will kill her. But this entire sequence feels like a carnivalesque insertion into a story which started off as a mythic journey, and I’m not sure it works to pad a mythic story out with carnivalesque hi-jinx. It feels like… padding.

Here’s a typical reaction from one reviewer:

The film takes an odd turn and seems to lose momentum temporarily once the spell is cast.

Reelmama

What’s the ‘odd turn’, specifically? Why does it feel odd to someone who’s seen lots of stories? Because of the carnivalesque sequence inserted into a mythic structure. This is part of a wider problem with big struggle-free myths. They tend to be naturally shorter. Unfortunately, the film industry requires that films be a certain length to assuage customers who’ve purchased expensive tickets. I’m sure there are plenty of writers who’d love to write more big struggle-free myths, but they’re naturally about an hour in length from what I’ve seen. Inside Out manages to beef the story out authentically by telling us two stories concurrently — the story inside Riley’s head and the story of Riley.

ANAGNORISIS

I’ve already said quite a lot about this. But I will add this: Because Merida is already a mature character in the beginning, this is not a story about Merida. It’s a story about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Does it matter that I don’t buy Merida’s individual epiphany when I do buy the change that has happened to the  mother-daughter relationship?

One has power when he/she establishes a sense of individuality and the capacity to act consciously, independent from his/her social group.

Tharini Viswanath

BRAVE AND THE STORYTELLING ROLE OF TRANSMOGRIFICATION

Why does Elinor transmogrify into a bear? Why indeed? It’s a little scary for the  youngest viewers. My daughter was scared by this scene when she saw it in 2012, though the rest of the story is set in a kind of forest utopia.

First there’s the story reason for why she turns into a bear:

The fact that Elinor gets turned into a bear comes as no surprise: the witch’s cottage Merida stumbles upon is full of bear carvings. On a superficial level, the viewer is expected to read the figure of the bear as being synonymous with the body: the bear is unruly, large, disruptive, and in need of direction, and Mor’du, the demon bear, supports this description.

Tharini Viswanath

Dig a bit deeper though, and transmogrification itself seems to symbolise the changing state of the female body, especially as she becomes a mother:

As a woman, Elinor signifies the human potential to return to a more primitive state of being, and as a bear she is able to restrict the shaping, manipulation and stereotyping of the female body. […] Reduced to her body, the once articulate Elinor is defined by her animalistic needs. Elinor-asbear embodies monstrous motherhood. She is physically overwhelming, monstrous in shape and size, and dominates space and situation; in short, she is too large and too powerful to ignore.

Tharini Viswanath

Importantly, only Merida is able to see that the bear is her mother:

[A]nd with good reason: Elinor’s inability to control her fertility (Merida’s three younger brothers eat some of the abject cake and turn into bears as well) and repress her sexuality make her ‘monstrous’ in male eyes.

Tharini Viswanath

Transmogrification demonstrates the centrality and importance of language, and of communication in general, because if you won’t listen to each other, you might as well be unable to communicate:

Until Elinor transforms into a bear, the two women talk past each other, and may be speaking two languages as different as English and Bear. As McCallum notes, ‘meanings are always, to some extent, culturally constructed, and the learning of another language entails learning the cultural codes through which a linguistic community represents and makes sense of the world’.  Both Elinor and Merida need to learn to speak each other’s ‘language’ in order to communicate, a task they are able to achieve only when faced with dire consequences. Arguably, this language difference is also one of intergenerationality.

Tharini Viswanath

Viswanath argues that when Elinor turns into a bear and ‘loses her voice’, it’s not ‘her’ voice that is lost but the voice of the patriarchy who she has been channeling. It is only by an enforced introduction to her own uncontrollable self (in the form of a bear) that she can see the extent to which she’s been repressed.

Viswanath also points out that when Merida takes the role of looking after her mother-as-bear, Merida has unwittingly turned into her mother. Though she brings the mother food, she herself doesn’t eat any. This is the very role she’s been preparing for her whole life.

NEW SITUATION

Mother and daughter have undergone a double reversal. Merida respects all that her mother has done for her and understands that she will be unconditionally loved. Elinor understands that the daughter is her own person, and has a more visceral appreciation of her wild side, having temporarily been a bear. Merida will choose her own husband. Merida has also changed the culture of the society — the young men will also now be able to choose their own life partners.

Elinor has also had a bit of a sexual revelation, I expect:

Elinor’s body is the embodiment of control… especially when compared to Merida’s: she dresses formally, always wears a crown, and significantly, her dark hair is constantly tied down in two long braids.

Tharini Viswanath

By the end of the story her hair is loose and free — a hair trope commonly seen in stories for adults in which a female character learns to enjoy sex. She changes her hair, from tight and held down, to loose and free. Thelma and Louise is just one example of that.

My questions revisited:
  • Is the mother Merida’s main opposition? — Yes, especially in that she embodies the voice of the patriarchy.
  • Does Merida need to separate from her mother in order to be ‘free’? — You can argue this both ways. At the beginning of the story it’s on-the-page clear that Merida wants to avoid becoming her mother at all costs. But in the end she does become her mother, looking after her mother, forgoing food herself in a nurturing, maternal role. Merida has learned to care for her mother, but has she learned to break free of her feminine duty of caring? Also, should she? I’m going to argue no. Instead, we need stories about boys who learn to be nurturing. The nice thing about Brave is that mother and daughter are genuinely united at the end. This is the film’s triumph, just so long as you can believe it’s genuine.
  • Is the mother a rounded character in her own right, or one-dimensional? — The viewer is required to bring something to this. I suspect mothers will empathise more with Elinor than kids do. When mothers see Elinor trying to get her children not to play with their food, and wishing her daughter would eat, but only the correct amount, mothers are likely to understand where all this comes from, even if we don’t agree with her doing it.
  • Do we get any of the mother’s back story? — The tool-of-the-patriarchy queen is so well-known that the writers don’t need to give us much backstory. We do understand why Elinor is the way she is. She’s a member of the royal class and very well looked after by conforming to her gender roles as queen, however she does mention that she had questions about marrying Merida’s father. (This is apparently news to the father, who raises his eyebrows in surprise.)
  • Does the mother undergo her own arc? — Yes, in fact her arc is more believable than Merida’s arc. It’s interesting that in the vast majority of children’s stories in which a character transforms into an animal, it is the child (or adolescent) who transforms. This is because the transformation symbolises the power and strong emotions of adolescence. So when we see a mother who has changed into a bear… this should tell us that the mother is dealing with her own shit. In the beginning, it is Elinor and not Fergus who upholds the rules of the patriarchy. Elinor’s anagnorisis is symbolised visually when she takes off her crown. Elinor can only be a companion to her daughter when she is no longer a queen under the direct gaze of the patriarchy.

RELATED

I’ve written much more about how Brave is not a successful subversion of gender tropes in this post.

The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes for a long time.
The Adventures of Three Bold Babes (1897) by S Rosamond Praeger (1867~1954) Irish poet, writer, and illustrator. Women have been imagining themselves as heroes of masculine mythic stories for a long time.
Lemon girl young adult novella

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What is a fractured fairytale?

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas offered up in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience, though they’re common in children’s literature as well.

See this post on Postmodern Picturebooks. Fractured fairytales lend themselves to postmodern readings.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

Another standout example of a fractured fairytale picture book, mentioned often by literature academics: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Scieszka and Smith. The story’s aim is meta, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that these are just stories, and whatever meaning they seem to imply should be interrogated. The ‘meaning’ of these ‘stupid tales’ is constructed by the reader.

Fractured Fairytales narrated by Edward Everett Horton
Fractured Fairytales narrated by Edward Everett Horton

When classic tales are revisioned to deliberately poke fun at the form, we call them ‘fractured’, but classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:

Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages — even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection — a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience — if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture.

Christina Henry

Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:

  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy (Parody)

Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for young adults and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.

  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective.

Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:

  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:

There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications—and changes are always made—they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts.

Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

Jane Campion’s The Piano is loosely inspired by “Bluebeard“, but is nonetheless obvious with the play-within-a-play structure. Robin Black’s short story “Pine” is even more loosely Bluebeard-ish, but still there. These things sit on a continuum.

Angela Carter often uses a title as clue to her inspiration, but then blows away the plot. Carter’s “Erl-King” is inspired by Goethe’s poem without adhering to the original beats.

Hello! Project’s Minimoni starred in a drama based on “The Musicians Of Bremen“. In Japanese it’s called Mini Moni.de Bremen no Ongakutai (Mini Moni’s Bremen Town Musicians). This adaptation goes backwards in time through three periods of Japanese history unveiling the story. The drama is inspired by the Bremen tale but does not have much in common with it.

A TAXONOMY OF FRACTURED FAIRYTALES

Kevin Paul Smith (2007) drew on French literary theorist Gerard Genette’s theories to identify eight categories of intertextual use of fairy tales:

  1. Authorised: Explicit reference to a fairytale in the title
  2. Writerly: Implicit reference to a fairytale in title
  3. Incorporation: Explicit reference to a fairytale within the text
  4. Allusion: Implicit reference to a fairytale within the text
  5. Re-vision: putting a new spin on an old tale
  6. Fabulation: crafting an original fairytale
  7. Metafictional: discussion of fairytales
  8. Architextual/Chronotopic: “Fairytale” setting/environment

STORIES WHICH MAKE USE OF FAIRYTALE SYMBOLISM

The term ‘fairytale’ is often used as an epithet—a fairytale setting, a fairytale ending—for a work that is not in itself a fairy tale, because it depends on elements of the form’s symbolic language. 

Marina Warner (2014) (xviii)

I have argued that Animal Kingdom (the American TV series) and Breaking Bad make heavy use of fairytale symbolism, but other viewers may not see it; meanwhile, other viewers may see fairytale symbolism in shows where I do not. Many stories have deep fairytale links, and it’s only a matter of making the connection.

You can find many examples of scholars who talk about fairytales in terms of symbolism and motif and the importance of fairytale archetypes to human psychology.

See for example Walter Rankin’s Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films (2007).

Though Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published about 200 years ago, the revered collection of folk stories remains one of the most iconic pieces of children’s literature and has had significant influence in modern pop culture.

This work examines the many ways that recent films have employed archetypal images, themes, symbols, and structural elements that originated in the most well-known Grimm fairy tales. The author draws similarities between the cannibalistic symbolism of the Grimm brothers’ Little Red Cap and the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and reveals Faustian parallels between Rumpelstiltskin and the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby.

Each of eight chapters reveals a similar pairing, and film stills and illustrations are featured throughout the work.

Importantly, a narrative isn’t complete until it is interpreted by its audience. We might even say there’s no such thing as a symbolically fairytale text, only a symbolically fairytale reading of a text.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS WITH FRACTURED FAIRYTALES

When writers take an old tale and subvert expectations, wonderful things can be done. Worldviews can be modified or even shattered. But because these stories are so powerful, they can also be unhelpful.

ALISON HALDERMAN: Science fiction likes to take traditional old fairy tales and magic and to explain them in a scientific context.

URSULA LE GUIN: I don’t like that at all. Things like Chariots of the Gods? [by Doris Lessing, 1979] really put me off. It’s not a real explanation. It seems to destroy the magic when people try to give scientific rationalisations. That’s different from taking an old myth and dressing it up in new metaphors.

The Last Interview

FREE EXAMPLES OF FRACTURED FAIRY TALES CREATIVE WRITING

Although “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is a legend rather than a fairy tale, my feminist fractured take “The Magic Pipe” was longlisted for The Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019.

See also “Lotta: Red Riding Hood“, co-written with a friend of mine. We humanise Little Red Riding Hood by giving her a name.

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Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories Analysis

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Light-and-Shadows-1907-Etching-by-Tyra-Kleen-1854-1951-artist-author-womens-rights-activist
Light and Shadows 1907 Etching by Tyra Kleen (1854-1951)

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

Supernatural Intervention

Spiritual beings intervene on the side of the heroes, or sometimes against them.

cinderella-fairy-godmother-ruth-ives-1954
Cinderella and her fairy godmother by Ruth Ives 1954

Fire and Ice

Fire represents knowledge, light, life, and rebirth.

If we watch fire in the fireplace, which is a source of pleasure and comfort, it is expressive of a mood of aliveness, warmth, and pleasure. But if we see a building or forest on fire, it conveys to us an experience of threat or terror, of the powerlessness of man against the elements of nature. Fire, then, can be the symbolic representation of inner aliveness and happiness as well as of fear, powerlessness, or of one’s own destructive tendencies.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

Ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

The Snow Queen

Snow in 101 Dalmatians increases the tension. Being lost and in danger is bad enough, but when snow cascades down… even worse. Especially when your paw prints can be tracked by Cruella de Vil.

101 Dalmatians snowy scene
101 Dalmatians snowy scene

Nature vs. Mechanistic World

Nature is good; technology is evil.

Shaun Tan subverts this archetype in The Lost Thing. The weak, vulnerable ‘character’ is a machine who no one notices.

The Threshold

Thresholds are symbolised by a gateway to a new world which the hero must enter to change and grow. Fantasy portals take many forms.

Eric, by Shaun Tan, features a fantasy gateway which neither the narrator nor the audience fully understands.

eric-cupboard-shaun-tan

The Underworld

The underworld is a place of death or a metaphorical encounter with the dark side of the self. Entering an underworld is a form of facing a fear of death.

Hilda Bewildered, Slap Happy Larry, 2015.

hilda-bewildered-underfoot-jungle_800x600

I used a subway in our book app, but an overland tunnel achieves a similar thing. The 101 Dalmatians film is basically a long chase scene. A tunnel is used at some point to heighten the feeling that we’re on a journey and there’s nowhere to go but forward.

101 Dalmatians tunnel
101 Dalmatians tunnel

In fairytales, the forest can stand in for the underworld. (See below)

Haven vs. Wilderness

Places of safety contrast sharply against dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

This describes all fairytale worlds in which there is a forest right next to a town or village.

the-chase

See here for Symbolism of the Forest in Storytelling.

See also The Symbolism of Windows, in which a pane of glass often separates these two settings.

Water vs. Desert

Because water is necessary to life it commonly appears as a birth symbol. In religious ceremony, we have baptism. This symbolises spiritual birth and commonly involves water. There may be a strong psychological/physiological reason for this link — a lot of swimmers will tell you there’s nothing like a bracing dip in the ocean to completely clear the mind.

Rainfalls, rivers, oceans, etc. function the same way.

adventures-of-raggedy-ann-river
Adventures Of Raggedy Ann, falling into the river in a ‘baptism’ scene

In visual media like film, a dip in the water often accompanies the character’s Anagnorisis. A great example of that is the film American Honey.

The Desert suggests the inverse.

Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.

Howard Suber

Heaven vs. Hell

Parts of the universe not accessible to us = the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern our world. Gods live in the skies and mountaintops. The bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces.

See also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

The Maze

The maze represents a puzzling dilemma or great uncertainty. The maze can be part of mythic structure, symbolising the  search for the dangerous monster inside oneself, or a journey into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t have to be a literal maze, but might instead be getting lost in an urban jungle.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is an example of an urban jungle maze.

The Cat Returns features a darkly humorous maze scene full of meta-humour and slapstick.

The maze is often a microcosm of the mythic journey, which is usually ‘epic’.

The Castle

The castle is a fortified place of safety which protects treasure or princess. The castle may be enchanted or bewitched, especially in the Gothic tradition.

Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954
Cinderella approaches the ball, illustration by Ruth Ives 1954

Castle Motif on StorySearch

The Tower

A tower is similar to a castle but represents the isolation of self. Bluebeard’s castle was probably a tower.

Rapunzel is the archetypal tower.

Tower motif on StorySearch

The Magic Weapon

In a traditional mythic story, the hero needs a weapon to complete his or her quest (but mostly still his, because most heroes are males and when heroes are female they often don’t fight). In a big struggle-free myth, the characters don’t fight — instead they think and feel themselves out of a tight fix. In that case, the hero probably needs a mentor, or a library book or a magic spell (as in Brave). Interestingly, there is archery (weaponry) in Brave, but it’s not actually used for fighting. It’s more of a prop, and aids as a symbol for fate and the passing of time.

Mountains And Valleys

See here for the symbolism of altitude.

The valley enclosed between mountains can arouse in us the feeling of security and comfort, of protection against all dangers from the outside. But the protecting mountains can also mean isolating walls which do not permit us to get out of the valley and thus the valley can become a symbol of imprisonment. The particular meaning of the symbol in any given place can only be determined from the whole context in which the symbol appears, and in terms of the predominant experiences of the person using the symbol.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

The River

See here for all the different symbolic uses of the river in children’s literature.

new-equilibrium

Whirlpools

The whirlpool generally symbolises the destructive power of nature or fate.

In A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer (first wife of Dr Seuss), the whirlpool stands for something mysterious happening below.

Fog

See here for more about fog symbolism in literature.

Fog was once thought to be caused by demons/magic. In other stories fog is an ogre who has drunk until he has burst. Fog can be dispelled by a saint. Fog is a representation of soul.

A picture book example is Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Colors

Red

blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder, autumn, women, hatred, death

Green

growth, hope, fertility

Blue

highly positive, security, tranquility, spiritual purity

Black

darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy

White

light, purity, innocence, timelessness (negatives: death, horror, supernatural)

Yellow

enlightenment, wisdom

Numbers

3—light, spiritual awareness, unity (holy trinity), male principle

Children’s books are all about the Rule Of Three.

Three is a significant number in witchcraft.

4—associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons, female principle, earth, nature, elements

5 — Freemasons (like Pythagoras) regard the number five as sacred, hence they call the pentagram the Blazing Star. (Five points.)

Children’s books for girls tend to be circular in plot, following the seasons. (Books for boys, in contrast, are linear.)

7—the most potent of all symbolic numbers, signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number, a religious symbol

Snow White And The Seven Dwarves

9

Nine is often considered a magic number. For example, cats have nine lives. The ancient Greeks said that the number nine referred to the trinity of all trinities. Cats have 9 lives: the facts behind the myth.

12

These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.

Innate Wisdom vs. Educated Stupidity

Some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero on the journey.

This pretty much describes all carnivalesque picture books. “The Wisdom Of Children” is an ideology common to children’s literature, in which it is thought that humans are born natural and wise, and that cultural conditioning ruins us somehow, by making us sophisticated and blind to the realities around us. Children (and animals), from their naive but unadulterated perspectives, are able to see things that adults cannot. This is helped by their smallness, and how they are close to the ground and literally see the world from a different angle. Therefore, perspective shots from low angles illustrate this archetype.

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What does Gothic mean in literature?

The Gothic is notoriously difficult to define. This is a type of story in constant flux. Each new literary period adds is own spin. “Gothic” is more like a skin layered upon other genres, most often: horror, romance, science fiction and fantasy. Where does one genre end and the gothic element begin?

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. Characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

Continue reading “What does Gothic mean in literature?”

55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

NARRATION IN 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump'”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic* comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

*If you’re wondering what the holy hell ‘metadiegetic’ means, I wrote a post about that. Believe it or not, it’s a useful and necessary concept.

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

SHORTCOMING

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her shortcoming is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s shortcomings are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort-of-kind-of knows her husband is the local mass murderer. Good at burying her head in the sand, I’d say.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

Note that even in the most simple of stories, the initial plan usually doesn’t work. I believe this is for reasons of verisimilitude. While plans sometimes do work first time in real life, when they work without trouble in narrative, the audience feels it’s a little too convenient.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather than a big struggle this story gives us the aftermath of a big struggle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps. An implied big struggle scene.

ANAGNORISIS

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

I wonder if the colour blue is an allusion to Bluebeard.

NEW SITUATION

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

So although there was a revelation, the New Situation phase of this short story tells us there was no real character arc. This is in line with Proulx’s grim view of humanity, shared by writers such as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), who break story convention to remind us that in fact people rarely change. And if they do, not easily.

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Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Prom Night 1980
Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
“Why?”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).

Breaking Bad And The Influence Of Classic Fairytales

Vince Gilligan broke new television ground by writing a series about a good man turned evil. He also borrowed from a long history of storytelling. Walt White is a modern superhero archetype, but Breaking Bad also borrows from classic fairytales. Most modern stories do.

PUSS IN BOOTS

Walter White Boots

The unnamed cat in Puss In Boots is determined to make life better for himself and his underdog third son master. The first thing he does is pretty benign — he catches a rabbit with a lettuce leaf and sells it to the palace. But then he gradually turns into a lying, thieving, threatening, murdering little bastard. Puss ‘Breaks Bad’, in other words.

Things end better for Puss though, depending on which version you read. In one version he ends up as a pyromaniac, setting fire to his master’s house after the ‘Marquis of Carabas’ turns out to be ungrateful for all the help he’s had in securing the ogre’s house. Kind of like the final episode of Breaking Bad, in a way.

BLUEBEARD

Skyler

The wife in Bluebeard knows something’s going down, and she makes it her mission to find out once Bluebeard leaves town. So she finds out he’s lying, murdering scum and that her own life is in danger. What now? Unfortunately, Skyler doesn’t have two brothers to save her from her fate.

THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Breaking Bad Money

Walt actually thinks that as long as he gives his wife everything money can buy he is actually a good person. Doesn’t matter that he’s basically holding her captive, using the kids as bargaining chips.

I’m reminded too of the father of the girl held captive in Rumpelstiltskin, because who is worse in that story? Rumpelstiltskin, the greedy King, or the father who pawns off his own daughter?

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOOD

Jane death breaking bad

Jane. Sleeping. She’s not cursed by an evil fairy but by drugs. She used to be Daddy’s little princess.

Jane doesn’t have an ogre of a mother-in-law exactly, but she does have Walt — her boyfriend’s business partner. He doesn’t kill her — exactly — but lets something else do the job. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, however, Jane sleeps forever.

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

how you doing brock

The Brock storyline, perhaps. Not goodies, ricin. Walt is the Big, Bad Wolf.

Others have suggested that Little Red Riding Hood is Jesse, with the hint in his name: ‘Pinkman’.

CINDERELLA

Breaking Bad Grey Matter

This is the rags-to-riches ur-story that applies not to Walt but to his millionaire erstwhile business partner. Like Cinderella, Walt’s friend kind of struck it lucky and that’s how he got rich. Also like Cinderella, he is a good person. But Walt doesn’t think this in itself is what justice looks like. Walt is an Ugly Stepsister, perhaps.

FAIRY GIFTS

A rule in fairy stories which applies across cultures: If you find out where a fairy gift came from you lose the gift.

When Skyler returns Marie’s baby shower gift to the jewellery store, she learns that Marie has stolen it. Marie is a bad fairy, and Skyler not only loses the expensive baby tiara but narrowly escapes from a night in prison.