The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Storytime 1893

Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?

Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haiitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:

People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.

Becoming Witches
Continue reading “The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling”

The Toys of Peace by Saki

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) tree guns

“The Toys of Peace” (1919) is a short story by H.H. Munro (a.k.a. Saki) and is out of copyright so can easily be found online. This is the opening short story in a collection called The Toys Of Peace And Other Papers by H.H. Munro (and G.K. Chesterton). This volume was published after Saki’s death. Saki died on a battlefield during WW1.

Readers will most definitely arrive at this story with their own ideas about children, toys, gender and violence. This will very much affect your reading.

Continue reading “The Toys of Peace by Saki”

The Doll House Picture Book by Karas and Riches

The Doll House is a 1993 picture book written by Jacqueline Karas and illustrated by Judith Riches. Yesterday I took a close look at a short horror story by M.R. James called “The Haunted Dolls’ House” so today I thought I’d take a closer look at how picture book storytellers deal with the trope of the alive dolls in a cosy way, avoiding the horrific.

Continue reading “The Doll House Picture Book by Karas and Riches”

The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield

Benjamin Leader - A Relic of the Past

“The Doll’s House” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, set in New Zealand, written 1922. This is Mansfield’s most accessible story, and a good introduction to her work. Its main themes are seen across children’s literature as well. Unlike stories such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss”, the reader is not required to fill in so many gaps by interpreting imagery. Readers are told exactly what happens.

(It always bothers me that the apostrophe doesn’t come after the ‘s’ in dolls’ house, since more than one doll always lives there…)

Margaret Drabble reads “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield at The Guardian.


Schools looked like this around the time Katherine Mansfield was growing up in New Zealand — the New Zealand of her memory.

Opotiki School

New Zealanders have long loved to tell ourselves the myth that New Zealand is without social class. “When Europeans settled in New Zealand, everyone was equal. Everyone started from scratch, and everybody drank at the same pubs, attended the same schools…”

That was never true. My earliest ancestor to New Zealand emigrated as a bannister maker. He went to New Zealand to make bannisters for rich people, who took their servants, their wealth and their attitudes with them. Nothing magical happened on that boat to wipe those slates clean.

It is true that for hard-working early settlers, climbing the economic hierarchy became a genuine possibility, given good luck, white skin and valuable skills. One line of my working-class ancestry managed to secure swathes of farmland, some of it in an area which is now central Christchurch. That land was stolen by a lawyer who duped a new widow and ran off to Australia with the late husband’s fortune. (Women weren’t taught much about money in those days.) My family’s newly acquired immigrant fortune was thereby lost, even more quickly than it was gained. (Back then, Australia might as well have been the other side of the world.) My own family’s example demonstrates the ebb and flow of fortune in a young, new land, but classist attitudes are slower to change.

Do they ever change? Mansfield encourages us to mull that one over.


Doll house stories inevitably utilise one of two literary effects (or even both at once):

  • The miniature effect, in which a story set in a particular time and place represents times and places everywhere. (Click that link, because there are many other uses for it.)
  • The mise-en-abyme effect, which I cover in detail in an Angela Carter short story. In Mansfield’s story, imagine a doll house inside a doll house inside a doll house and so on. This conveys the idea of a never-ending pattern. What’s the never-ending pattern? Classism. Each new generation learns the same old classism from the one before, transmitting it later to their own children. A dolls’ house is therefore the perfect symbol to convey how classist attitudes transmit across generations.

For other examples of dolls’ houses in literature, see this post. (Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903 — was this a favourite of Katherine Mansfield? Mansfield was a teenager by that stage, but Potter’s stories found very wide appeal.)

The central image of “The Doll’s House” is the little lamp, often interpreted as a symbol of light and therefore of knowing. But the lamp is a symbol of tricks, shams and illusions:

It was even filled already for lighting, though, of course you couldn’t light it.

… you couldn’t tell it from a real one’.

This is very similar to how Beatrix Potter uses the doll house in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice“. Potter’s story would therefore make an excellent companion text to this one. Unlike the Burnell children, the two ‘bad’ mice are outraged to learn that the miniature food is fake. They have a tantrum and make a complete mess of the dollhouse. But I find “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” the most affecting of all Potter’s tales — we feel genuine sorrow for the mice, who looked forward to a wonderful treat, only to have their hopes dashed.

Let’s look more closely at the imagistic pattern described in “The Doll’s House”, focusing on the dollhouse itself:

the door was like a slab of toffee
very big, awful smell, big lumps of paint, the hook was stuck fast
as if they had fainted [describing the very stiff dolls]

These details reenforce the basic theme: the gradual revelation to a child of social discrimination and injustice.

Significantly, only Else seems to realise that the rich people’s ‘little teeny lamp’ is a sham.



This is the story of a community rather than of an individual. This narrative choice fits the theme, because social strata requires an entire community in order to exist. As in “Sun and Moon”, it makes more sense to divide the cast into two ‘main characters’ — adults versus children.

Whenever rich and poor people interact in a story, you get immediate, ready-made conflict. The adults of this rural town resemble rural towns dotted throughout New Zealand today, with the stark division between landed farmers and the service industry workers who work for them, alongside the unemployed. Rural towns are the perfect arena for rich and poor to mingle together. Although some of the rich farmers’ children are sent away to high school, they do still tend to attend the local primary school together. Katherine Mansfield herself was sent away to ‘finishing school’. (My father always used to threaten to send me away to finishing school if I didn’t behave like a proper little lady, though but the 1980s such institutions no longer existed, and I never really understood the empty threat. Even in England, Princess Diana was the very last of the finishing school class of lady, alongside Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born.)

The moral shortcoming of the adults: They have no empathy for people they consider beneath themselves.

The moral shortcoming of the children: The children are emulating their adults, and this story is a snippet of indoctrination. The little girls mimic their mothers exactly, and the in-group, out-group bias is evident in the playground, where niceties are extended in return for social favours. You could even draw parallels between the doll’s house and the housing market, which is even more of a social issue than it was back then, when even the servant class were able to afford their own small cottage. In contemporary New Zealand there is an ever-increasing class divide between those who can own their own homes (and rental properties), and those who will never afford the payments on a the most modest of mortgages. This year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created legislation preventing offshore ownership of New Zealand real estate, in an attempt to put a lid on this problem.

Anthony Browne covered similar issues in his picture book Voices In The Park. Before children learn who they may and may not talk to, they are inclined to talk to everyone. Browne’s book would make a good companion text to “The Doll’s House”.


Another short story master who tends to write communities rather than individuals is Annie Proulx. If you want to create a story with community themes, it’s all in your choice of narration:

Imagine a camera, attached to a silent drone. This drone follows Mrs Hay, who leaves a doll’s house with the Burnells, then flies over to the Burnell children, goes with them to school, flies up to pan out and include the Kelvey girls, who wait in the wings. For the big struggle scene it follows Aunt Beryl, but we accept this change in point of view because Mansfield never settles in on any single individual. Finally, it rests with the Kelvey girls, who are given the final word. This moment of sweetness makes the rest of the story all the worse.


The Burnell children are proud of their new dolls’ house and they want to tell everybody about it.


The web of opposition is:

  • Children versus adults (though the children don’t realise this — to them, it’s perfectly natural that the Kelveys would be excluded.)
  • The children have their own social hierarchy, and Mansfield does a good job of depicting the hierarchy of a schoolyard, with its false niceties and the ‘designated untouchables’.

For more on that see Bullying In Children’s Literature.


The Burnell children scheme between themselves how to milk this doll’s house for all the social capital it’s worth. They decide who’s going to pick friends to come home and view it, how to create momentum. (If the era were different, Isabel would have found great success in a marketing career.)

Little Kezia eventually gets sick of her big sister taking all the glory, and she makes her own plan: To invite the Kelveys to see it. (I imagine everyone else has seen the doll’s house by this point.)


When Aunt Beryl finds the Kelveys in the yard she shoos them out as if they are chickens, later described as rats.

There may have been another reason, apart from the father in gaol/servant reason given, that the Burnell adults refused to allow poor children into their yard, treating them as disease-spreading rodents. The following is a fairly new theory, to do with the discovery that Harold Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield’s father) probably moved the family out to the ‘country’ (now pretty central Wellington) to escape a bacterial plague affecting the old central Wellington:

What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?

Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.



I doubt Kezia had any sort of epiphany regarding social class and exclusion and untouchable culture. She most likely learned that the Kelvey girls are too disgusting to enter the yard, and she won’t dare associate with them again.

In this story, the revelation is for the reader rather than for the characters, who are victims of the cogs of the local social hierarchy.

Apart from being asked to offer critique of classism, the paragraph with Aunt Beryl offers an insight into human psychology: Adults get mad at children when their own personal lives aren’t working out. This has nothing to do with the children, but children (similar to the adult servant class) bear the brunt. Or, ‘shit travels down’, as corporate workers well know. (I believe Americans say ‘shit rolls downhill’.)


The ending serves to underscore this: The underclass are learning their place. This isn’t just one-sided, with the upper class learning their place at the top. The Kelvey girls are meek. They don’t complain.

Else is satisfied that she’s seen the little lamp. She’s ‘forgotten the cross lady’. As time goes by, she’ll not necessarily remember the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl at all, and she may barely remember that little lamp. But all of these micro-aggressions add up, and by the time she’s grown, Else will know her place in the social hierarchy: firmly at the bottom.

This ending is similar to that of “Her First Ball” in which an underdog character has an unpleasant interaction then apparently forgets all about it.

There is a concept in psychology known as “relative deprivation

by which disenfranchised groups, having been trained to expect little, tend paradoxically to report the same levels of satisfaction as their better-treated, more privileged peers.

Lili Loofbourow, The Female Price of Male Pleasure

Because the Kelvey sisters are so socially and materially deprived, the opportunity to view a fancy doll’s house makes their day, despite the inevitable (to them) ostracisation which follows.

There are subcategories of relative deprivation. It can work the other way, in which a disenfranchised group or individual looks at far more privileged others around them and this maximises their dissatisfaction. Mansfield covered this variety of relative deprivation in “The Tiredness of Rosabel“.

Header painting: Benjamin Leader – A Relic of the Past. I chose this painting not because it is set in New Zealand but because of the children playing, and because the angle makes the foregrounded house look so much bigger than the cottage.

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

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.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance and is a popular genre in young adult literature. When gothic is the skin of horror, it’s called “gothic horror” and so on.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA boyfriends?

Bear in mind, no one has yet produced a satisfying definition of Gothic which is widely agreed upon. There are even arguments about whether “horror” should be considered a necessary part of it, or whether horror is enough to call something “Gothic”. (Why not just call it horror? What special sauce makes it also “Gothic”?)

If gothic novels do not need to “look” gothic – if they do not need the ‘trappings’ (as they are often called) of castles, ghosts, corrupt clergy, and so on – then
what exactly defines the genre?

Donna Heiland

Gothic stories can have any function from upholding conservative values to subverting them.

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

Gothic horror is ‘family horror’. That may sound strange, but Gothic horror relies on feminine monsters: murderous nannies who infiltrate the home, women who are monsters, houses which are feminised, women’s pregnant bodies compared to a house, you name it.

This applies to contemporary Gothic horror as much as to classic Gothic horror. Psycho is considered a turning point — the transition ‘from the family or marital comedy of the 1950s to the family horror film’ (Robin Wood, 1986). Three years after Hitchcock’s Psycho came out, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which is also about a feminine transition, from ‘mystique’ to genuine empowerment.

gothic horror

English author Horace Walpole is thought to have kicked the gothic genre off, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” This story originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. But it took until the late 1790s for “Gothic” to take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well-known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period closely aligns with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word “Gothic” also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Encoded in law, marriage meant a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Many women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But we still live in a patriarchal world. Classic Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location. Patricia Murphy has said that “a truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” (Zombie stories are another example of this.)

For example, the 1970s saw a lot of ‘bodice rippers’ which were replaced in the 1980s by a revival of gothic romance in the Harlequin series. Plots reflected a rising divorce rate in the West.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one character in a Manichean view of human nature. Even in children’s literature, with perhaps a slightly higher tolerance for ‘black and white’ morality, the opponent web is more complex than ever. Even if a story contains a Minotaur opponent (pure bad), there will be other more nuanced opponents. These characters are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. When writers create fictional characters, they usually hint at how they became that way, by giving them a ‘psychic wound‘ (sometimes called ‘fatal flaw’ or ‘ghost’).

The ‘innocent’ victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral shortcoming, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair. Though it may seem counterintuitive, characters with moral shortcomings are more likeable.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. We also associate Gothic with Goths, who are pale, wear a lot of black, and reject mainstream culture as default.

See my post: What’s a Goth?

Natalie Wynn succinctly describes the sensibility of gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.

Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories

Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:

You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear

The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century. The word for this is ‘horripilation’.

The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.

The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire. Some have even called the Gothic form the ‘literature of desire.

An interesting thing about Gothic stories: They find popularity among woman readers at times of social change and much talk of feminism. For some people, this feels like a contradiction, because Gothic stories aren’t generally known for being bastions of feminist thought. Here’s a theory:

[Gothic literature] accepts our stereotypes — such as the high value we place on good loocks, or our cultural sex-role stereotypes — but insinutates that the reader can beat the system, whether through talent or through such loopholes as luck or socially advantageous marriage.

Kathryn Hume, 1984

Might we apply a similar theory to why true crime attracts such a large woman audience, even when most of the victims of crimes explored are women?

Stories about monstrous women are especially popular when the rights of women are in flux.

‘Gothic’ is also a book marketing term, used to describe any book likely to appeal to the demographic of white middle-class women whose primary concerns include caring for house and family. The psychological needs addressed by these books are what we might expect from someone with that kind of life. In interview, Margaret Atwood used a phrase ‘slightly prefeminist women’, which describes women whose lives would be very much improved with feminist advancement, but who aren’t in a place to confront the issues head on (I suggest because that would spark so much unbridled rage).

The first modern novel to be called ‘Gothic’ was Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt, published 1960.

Think Jane Eyre and Rebecca combined, a 19th century governess story set in an ominous house haunted by another woman. The heroine uses courage and busy-ness toi solve a mystery . She thereby earns her happy ending, with the violent and brooding hero.

Common Features Of Gothic Stories

Though some commentators stop at saying the Gothic is about unknown, unnamed fear, others have created a lengthy list of features common to Gothic stories, or, what we have collectively mostly decided should be called Gothic stories.


There is much parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.

Some commentators feel that ‘pastiche’ is a more appropriate word than ‘parody’ when describing how Gothic stories borrow from earlier stories.

When creating pastiche, Gothic writers commonly borrow the following:

  • Parts of folk tales
  • Songs
  • Old wives’ tales and superstitions
  • scientific enquiries
  • theology
  • graveyard poetry
  • Sturm und Drang German romanticism
  • the literature of sensibility (the Sentimental novel is an 18th C genre)
  • theories of the sublime
  • travel guides
  • dictionaries
  • legal and religious testimony
  • melodrama

The reason we should probably call these elements pastiche rather than parody: The Gothic texts which utilised them pretty much presented them at face value without offering commentary or encouraging criticism.


The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.

Gothic stories are popular at times of great technological change. The Gothic flourished during the period of early industrialised capitalism. This was the age of Enlightenment, when science was influencing social change.

Information revolutions bombard us with sensory overload. We feel everything’s changing so quickly and we can’t keep up. We tend to feel like ‘They’ are doing stuff behind the scenes and for all we know They are up to no good. Paranoia, in other words.

The popularity of Gothic stories make more sense when considered in the light of a paranoid reading public. The Gothic villain plots away behind the scenes. To be fair, people did have knowledge of the Holy Inquisition, which wasn’t great. Talk about dangerous master plotting:

The Inquisition was a powerful office set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish heresy throughout Europe and the Americas. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, the Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures and its persecution of Jews and Muslims.



The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature.

In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much.

The sublime is a feature of Romantic work.


Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.


The ‘buried ominous secret’ is Joanna Russ’s term for what is basically some kind of mystery. This mystery will be connected to The Other Woman and the Super-Male. The virginal maiden will try to get to the bottom of this secret but ends up in need of rescue. The real hero will end up saving her. Now she knows which of the men is the goodie.

Gothic writers typically set off one account of events against another, asking the reader to guess at or deduce which account is the truth.

This part of the story will typically be subsumed by a ‘master narrative’ whose unseen narrator fails to pick up what the reader hopefully has. This failure allows access to a myterious other realm.


Desire plays a big part in feminine Gothic fiction. In Gothic texts there is generally some kind of violent separation at the beginning. In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has gone so far as to say that separation is one of the most characteristic gothic conventions.


Typical Character Archetypes

Critics disagree about much when it comes to defining “Gothic” but most agree that the Gothic archetypes (or stereotypes if you prefer) are the defining feature.

The basic cast of characters:

Virginal maiden

Young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. She is also lonely.

These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

They are written to have emotional extremes. The word ‘melodramatic’ might be applied to these characters but in fact, melodrama describes a (very common) type of story, not a character. Perhaps it’s because of the traditional Gothic virginal maiden and her emotional extremes that we now think in terms of ‘melodramatic reactions’.

She is unable to rescue herself from danger. She is a damsel in distress. If she is ‘truly’ innocent, she is rescued. If she is not truly innocent, she fits one of the female archetypes below, and her story will be a tragedy.

The story usually starts out by suggesting a mysterious past. It will later be revealed that the virginal maiden is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. Modern stories such as Harry Potter borrow from the Gothic. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.

The Final Girl describes a female archetype who is the last to find herself alive in a slasher film. The Finale Girl closely fits the Gothic Virginal Maiden archetype. Note that even when the Final Girl is able to slay the monster, she’s often in some remote location and will need rescuing at the very end to get back to civilisation.

The Other Woman

In Gothic romance, there needs to be a romantic rival for the virginal maiden. These women are “beautiful, worldly, glamorous, immoral, flirtatious, irresponsible, and openly sexual” (Joanna Russ). “She may even be adulterous, promiscuous, hard-hearted, immoral, criminal or even insane”.

The Young Girl

Also in Gothic romance, there will often be a girl who the virginal maiden feels the need to protect. Not a romantic rival. The virginal maiden now has the opportunity to show us how good a mother she’d make. This also functions as a Save The Cat thread.

Older, foolish woman

Or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science.

This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were connected. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of. 


Like the virginal maidens, the hero was innocent, plunged into a weird situation. Gothic stories are melodramatic stories, and in classic melodrama, the main character reacts to crises. The classic hero drives the action, deliberately setting out into the world. In those stories there’s no pull factor, but rather a push factor: to escape the feminine realm of mother and home.

In a Gothic romance, the hero is the male love opponent. So, what’s the difference between a Gothic male love interest and a guy out of a Harlequin romance?

Someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband.

Joanna Russ, parodying the thought process of virginal maidens who realise they’re in love with a dangerous brooding man.

The Gothic romance is all about how love transforms into fear. The virginal maiden is scared by the object of her affection. She learns he can harm her. In contrast, fear turns into love in contemporary Harlequin romances. And the modern heroine isn’t necessarily afraid of the man, but afraid of losing herself to love because she’s been hurt in the past, or something like that.

These Gothic heroes, who inspire fear in virginal maidens, are often called Byronic heroes. Think Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) and Max de Winter (Rebecca).


In a Gothic cast, the villain is the most interesting character.

He is endlessly resourceful. He inspires awe. The audience won’t be able to easily guess his evil plans. He is mysteriously attractive.

He tends to wear a monastic habit with a cowl (a large, loose hood).

With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos.

Joanna Russ divided the Gothic villain into two main types:

  1. SUPER-MALE: “an older man, a dark, magnetic, powerful brooding, sardonic…who treats [the virginal maiden] brusquely, derogates her, scolds her, and otherwise shows anger or contempt for her. The Heroine is vehemently attracted to him and usually just as vehemently repelled or frightened.”
  2. SHADOW-MALE: “a man invariably represented as gentle, protective, responsible, quiet, humorous, tender, and calm”.

You’re probably already thinking of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey.

It would be too predictable if the super-male always turned out to be the real baddie and the shadow-male always turned out to be the goodie, so stories mix them up. In classic Gothic, it was often the harsh man who turned out to be the nice one. (Darcy, anyone?)

Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of other demographics.

The modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.


These opponents add interesting complexity to the web of opposition. They are less powerful than the main tyrant/villain.


Clergy in Gothic stories are always weak, usually evil.

In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich and pampered. They sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, more likely to behave properly according to the church.

John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media
John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media

Gothic Stories And Madness

American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.

  • Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. Sunset Boulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
  • Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
  • Black Swan
  • Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
  • Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
  • Misery by Stephen King
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
  • Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.

Stephen King is an especially popular writer of contemporary Gothic fiction and deserves further mention.

While classic Gothic has only two adult female archetypes, the Virginal Maiden and the Other Woman, Stephen King uses three stereotypes:

  1. Monster: Women who shun or distort the criteria of the domestic test. The audience is invited to pass dark judgement on these women. They are human villains. They are feminine in gender, but have no feminine virtues at all. IT is a standout example, and a hideous inversion given that it targets children. (Throughout the novel, IT is generally referred to as male; however, late in the novel, the characters come to realize that IT is most likely female, due to its true form in the physical realm being that of a giant pregnant female spider.)
  2. Helpmate: the most common female character in Stephen King stories. She aspires to be a good wife and mother and does well on the domestic test. The better they do on the domestic test, the better their outcome in the story. These women step back and let the men take care of the beasts. Not all helpmates are successful. Donna Trenton of Cujo is a failed helpmate. She waits too long before trying to save her son. Women who behave like children (rather than providing safe refuge from their men) are also failed helpmates. Traumatised women behaving like children are also punished (Rachel Creed). Rachel Creed is an extreme version of the failed helpmate and descends into monstrosity.
  3. Madonna: much less common in Stephen King stories. Normally when we talk about Madonna characters we mean women who are pure and chaste, but this isn’t exactly what Pharr is talking about. Sex is liberally sprinkled throughout Stephen King’s stories. He doesn’t tend to write non-sexual women. This Madonna character is like a super-helpmate. She is so good at being a helpmate that she is above reproach. Stephen King doesn’t give her a moral shortcoming. Sasha from Eyes of the Dragon is a Madonna: perfect wife, mother and homemaker.

Critic Mary Pharr classified King’s female characters into Monster, Helpmate and Madonna.

Pharr makes use of Kay Mussell’s “domestic test”, equating a female character’s goodness and likeability with how well she fulfills the roles of homemaker, wife and mother. Often in stories, if a female character fails on one of those areas, her story ends up a tragedy.

Ideally, women provide such a respite for their mates and their young.
This role is enormously important and never intentionally patronizing. Its
defect, however, is also enormous: it determines a woman’s worth
exclusively by her domestic success or failure rather than by any
achievements she may have as an individual. The domestic test is, finally,
a very narrow, very tough way to judge any human being, even fictional

Mary Pharr
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952

As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

from Davey Davis writing at The Millions

Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:

  • Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
  • This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
  • Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age. Old age is linked to death, the most scary thing of all.
Owls' Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul
Owls’ Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul

Settings Of Gothic Horror

In general, the settings of Gothic stories focus on the archaic in some way.

The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting 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.

The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.


The building might be:

  • a large castle or estate set in the wilderness, far away from neighbours or cities
  • an abbey
  • a monastery
  • crumbling battlements
  • ruined dwellings
  • prisons
  • abandoned hospitals
  • or some other, usually religious, edifice

Buildings will probably be in need of repairs, even if they’re not actually abandoned. Ruins, dungeons, darkness and largeness are key to setting the Gothic mood. Owners have a lot of economic capital and power to ruin others. Or perhaps the owner used to possess considerable wealth, but not anymore.

This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires). These Building Characters even have names of their own. They seem to “brood”. In feminist Gothic fiction, the house may be an outworking of the female body, with its ability to ‘house’ others (via pregnancy).

The castles and monasteries of classic Gothic are in some way exotic. They’re not typically written by authors with excellent architectural knowledge themselves, but by writers whose idea of castles and monastaries have been influenced by the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778), who was himself an architect.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi 'The Round Tower'
Giovanni Battista Piranesi ‘The Round Tower’

These scenes play with tidbits from imagined feudalistic and Medieval histories which are remixed for maximum playfulness. The readers of these stories were living in the age of industrial capitalism, whose idea of the past didn’t exactly hew to accuracy.

Painters such as Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825) were also creating for industial capitalist audiences a ‘Gothic’ idea of the past.

Henry Fuseli, "The Nightmare"
Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare”

Other settings may include caves or the wilderness, metaphorical spaces which are as old as storytelling itself.

The scary house on the cover of Spirit Hunters makes use of a tilt angle to increase the feeling that not all is right with this world.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up UNIRONIC CLASSIC Gothic Story

WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.

DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.

OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.

ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.

BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.

NEW SITUATION: The evil is now expelled completely.

Symbol Web Of Gothic Horror

Night journeys

Journeys that take place overnight 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.

Evil characters

Evil characters are a particular feature of American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.


Omens, portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.

Miraculous survivals

Shy, nervous and retiring heroines are nonetheless equipped with the remarkable ability to survive, even in the most hideous and dangerous situations.

An element of fear

Commentator Scott McCracken says, “The central and indispensable element of gothic horror is fear.” While fear is present in every Gothic story, not every story about fear is Gothic. Some say that fear is Gothic if human characters don’t understand the source of the fear.

To that I would ask, don’t we already have a word for that kind of fear? See: What Is Cosmic Horror?

In any case, this fear can lead characters in Gothic stories to commit heinous crimes. Brown’s character Edgar Huntly is driven by fear when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat. (Memoirs of a Sleepwalker is a 1799 novel by the American author Charles Brockden Brown.)

Psychological overlay

Characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example: A character is in a maze-like area. The story makes a connection between the outer world of incomprehensible path, and the maze-like confusion (inside the character’s mind).

The Other

Frederike van Leeuwen said in 1982 that women’s Gothic fiction is ‘the discourse of the Other’. Frankenstein is an early and tentpole example of this. You’re likely familiar with the following famous paragraph from Mary Shelley’s classic:

I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.


Frankenstein was different because the story gave voice to the Othered. Until then, the monsters had been kept as Minotaur opponents, not afforded humanity or sympathetic thoughts of their own.

Note that ‘feminine Gothic’ doesn’t have to be written by women nor star female characters. A ‘feminine Gothic’ story is defined by a number of criteria. One feature is the presentation of ‘subjectivity as female’, and in its own way, monstrous.

Susanne Becker offers Margaret Atwood’s novel Lady Oracle as an excellent example of feminine Gothic because the main character ‘Joan foster continuously engages in a play with herself as Other’.

In children’s literature, Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters may also fit the category of feminine Gothic.

Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery

Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.

Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.

The Mad Woman In The Attic Trope

The Mad Woman In The Attic is now a trope, though this real life story flips it — a woman kept her husband in the attic and made him live like a bat. 

Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.

Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story

Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.

interview with Dr Phillip Serrato

A Short List Of Well-known Classic Gothic Tales For Adult Readers

  • Bluebeard — the ur-Castle story
  • Kafka 
  • Gormenghast series — three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
  • Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The horror classic film Freaks
  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established. “A lonely, self-divided hero [embarks] on an insane pursuit of the Absolute” (Thompson, 1974). “He persecutes the maiden-in-flight and is himself destroyed, rather than attaining his immoral aims” (Becker, 1988)
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. “The heroine’s pursuit of self-fulfilment through marriage is interrupted byt he vilain’s intervention, which — ironically — enables her to solve a mystery related to her mother and to position herself with a much stronger sense of — psychological, social, linguistic — identity before attaining her original goal.” (Becker, 1988). Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette. Radcliffe defamliarised ‘woman’s place’ by turning the home into a castle.
  • The Haunted Beach (1758-1800) by Mary Robinson — a tale of a murdered man and a ghostly crew. 
  • Zofloya (1806) by Charlotte Dacre — “Zofloya is all about the voluptuous and half-demonic Victoria and her dealings with the all-demonic Zofloya—the devil disguised as a handsome Moorish servant. Although Victoria is suitably punished for her transgressions at the end, Dacre revels in depicting female desire (for a man of colour no less—scandalous) and you can’t help wondering if she isn’t rather on the devil’s side.” (Dr Sam Hirst)
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was already in some ways a parody of the Gothic tradition. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it. Pastiche may be a better word than ‘parody’ because it simply utilised various tropes, plot points and motifs.
  • The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley — This novel is the pinup Gothic novel. Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery. It was Ellen Moers who first recognised Frankenstein as a birth myth in 1978, which started academics thinking harder about the role of mothers in Gothic fiction.
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
  • The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
  • Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
  • Work by Clive Barker has gothic elements
  • Stephen King’s work is very clearly modern Gothic, but when asked, King says he can’t think of any academic subject more boring than trying to define what Gothic is and is not.
  • The Tell Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
  • The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
  • 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it

Gothic Children’s Literature

A Brief History Of Gothic Children’s Literature

Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.

Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:

[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]

Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)

The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place

Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)

Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.

There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.

Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother, 1759 – 1797), Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a seminal feminist work called Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). But she also wrote Maria, of the Wrongs of Women (1798) in which men are the real threat, not the supernatural (much like a Scooby-Doo conclusion).

ABODES OF HORROR have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavouring to recall her scattered thoughts!

the opening to Maria, of the Wrongs of Women

Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.

Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.

Before the rise of the Gothic novel, faciliated by the development of cheap printing systems, the Chapbook and Bluebook were common forms of literature, particularly in the United Kingdom. For a penny or half-penny, members of the public of any class with the ability to read suddenly had access to a wealth of information (of varying degrees of accuracy) and stories of adventure and morality through these publications. Although looked down on by the higher classes of the time, and indeed by scholars of today, the Chapbooks and Bluebooks are a wonderful repository of folklore which can tell us much about the beliefs and traditions of the people of the time. In this edition of The Folklore Podcast, the first of Season 2, creator and host Mark Norman examines some of the folklore presented in the old Chapbooks and how it was used to teach lessons to others. 

The Folklore Podcast

A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.

Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.

Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature

  • Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
  • A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
  • The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
  • C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia ChroniclesThe Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
  • The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
  • Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.

If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.

Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature

What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:

  • Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
  • Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
  • Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
  • Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
  • Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
  • Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
  • The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
  • A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
  • The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
  • Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
  • Many children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
  • There are a lot of orphans in children’s literature. Absent maternity is a feature of the Gothic.

Tips For Writing Gothic Stories For Children

Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.

The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).

Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.

Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:

  1. They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
  2. They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.

Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.

Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children

  • Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is young adult fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
  • Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
  • Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
  • An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
  • J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
  • Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
  • Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
  • The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
  • The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
  • The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
  • Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
  • The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
  • The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
  • Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
  • Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.

Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.

Further Reading

With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.

Dr Phillip Serrato

 ‘On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror’ by Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld)
and John Aikin

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » dolls

Dollhouse Symbolism In Storytelling

Dollhouse symbolism

Dollhouses in stories fall into a number of main categories:

  • Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
  • A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
  • Fakery
  • Girlhood and naivety
  • The doll house can also create a mise en abyme effect, or provide other ways for storytellers to play around with scale.
René Magritte La Charmbre de Madame Sundheim, 1962
René Magritte La Charmbre de Madame Sundheim, 1962
Norman Rockwell (American painter and illustrator) 1894 - 1978
Norman Rockwell (American painter and illustrator) 1894 – 1978
My naughty little sister doll house by Shirley Hughes
My naughty little sister doll house by Shirley Hughes


The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

Tale Of Two Bad Mice Doll House

If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.

However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

See also:  Tom Thumb, Thumbelina and Other Miniature Tales

The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Guy Doré, 1970
Guy Doré, 1970

The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls

Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.

Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.

Gilmore girls wiki

Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents and the big fancy dollhouse represent.

Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends

Monica's doll house

The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.

Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.

Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series

Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family a typically Mormon aspiration is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.

Big Love Pam who loves dollhouses

But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an snail under the leaf setting.

A dollhouse is meant to be looked at at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative and they are storybook in their nature; as in a stage set, staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side.

Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.

The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.

Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.

All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.

My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film

My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.

Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.

“The Doll’s House”, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield

This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.

The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.

The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”

“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.

Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.

“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.

The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.

“Something Childish But Very Natural”, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield

There’s no actual doll house in “Something Childish But Very Natural“. But after Edna tells Henry that she’d like to remain in childhood for a good while longer, rejecting his advances, the young lovers turn London into their personal playground. They both seem to come from upper middle-class families, which partly explains why they see other people’s houses as ‘small’ but I think there’s more to it than that. To them, these houses are doll houses designed for play and Mansfield is also playing with scale.

The houses were small and covered with creepers and ivy. Some of them had worn wooden steps leading up to the doors. You had to go down a little flight of steps to enter some of the others; and just across the road—to be seen from every window—was the river, with a walk beside it and some high poplar trees.

“This is the place for us to live in,” said Henry. “There’s a house to let, too. I wonder if it would wait if we asked it. I’m sure it would.”

“Yes, I would like to live there,” said Edna.

The setting seems to have shrunk a little in relation to our two lovers. This reflects their emotional state. Nothing seems scary to them. They feel that together they can conquer the world. This perfectly describes the feeling of intense new love.

Beatrix Potter uses a very similar trick in “The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle“. It appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce

Tom’s Midnight Garden is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:

[T}his was a great disappointment to himhe found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could not push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.

Kings of Summer

Kings of Summer is an indie coming-of-age film and again features no actual doll house. Instead, a group of high school aged boys get sick of society and decide to retreat to the wild. In the nearby woods, they renovate and decorate a life-sized version of a doll house. These boys might as well be playing. That’s how much hope they have of really escaping society without suffering the fate of Chris McCandless.

Kings of Summer is what ‘a dollhouse story’ can look like when it’s a story about boys and masculinity.

The Doll House from The Mouse and His Child

There is a utopian, safe doll’s house in the toy shop which opens the mid twentieth century children’s novel by Russell Hoban. This is the illustration:

September, 1927 - House Beautiful cover by Harold Sichel dollhouse
September, 1927 – House Beautiful cover by Harold Sichel
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza dollhouse
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza dollhouse

[D]riving around The Ville today, where Moore has lived for almost his entire life, the neighborhood looks very different. Some buildings are simply rundown or abandoned, but others are missing large chunks entirely. Walls have disappeared. The bricks are gone. “We call them dollhouses,” says Moore, “because you can look inside of them.”

Dollhouses of St Louis, 99% Invisible podcast


Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, Jacob Appel (I), c. 1710
Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, Jacob Appel (I), c. 1710

The dollhouse collection at the online Rijks Museum

Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling

Charles Robert Leslie - The Miniature

Stories featuring vast size differentials are as old as storytelling itself. These differentials can be created in various different ways, and are much utilised across children’s stories in particular:

  • A normal sized person pitted against a giant or ogre
  • A normal sized person who enters a land in which everyone else is tiny or huge
  • Toys as tiny characters
  • Animals as small characters
  • Fairies in all their variations: dwarves, goblins, pixies etc., all of them much smaller than humans.
  • Familiars, which are sometimes fairies, sometimes the spirits of dead children or other family members.
Margaret Tarrant (British illustrator and writer) 1888 - 1959 Poppies/ Flower Fairies, 1921-
Margaret Tarrant (British illustrator and writer) 1888 – 1959 Poppies/ Flower Fairies, 1921-

Go back far enough in time, and the tiny human was not fictional, but real in the collective imagination. A tiny human was known as a ‘homunculus‘, which means a very small person. The plural is homunculi. This was originally a medical term which comes from alchemy. People believed in the homunculus for much longer than we might imagine today. It was only in the nineteenth century that we learned a bit more about how humans come about, so now the tiny human becomes a fictional character for most people.


It was trendy in Elizabethan times to collect objects in the miniature. (Jacobeans also loved the miniature — perhaps even more so.)

Fairy stories took off in Elizabethan times. Miniature objects took off as consumer items:

It was understood that the microcosm represents the macrocosm.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Illustrator Gennady Kalinowski
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Illustrator Gennady Kalinowski
William Donahey The Teenie Weenies
William Donahey The Teenie Weenies


How are tiny humans useful in storytelling? Here is writer Emma Donoghue, explaining how when rewriting fairytales she took tales from the oral tradition and simply considered them in metaphorical terms.

My method was mostly metaphorical: what if Thumbelina wasn’t actually small, she just felt small.

Emma Donoghue

By making something unusually small, a storyteller can turn the everyday into something remarkable. Likewise, a miniaturised item is a luxury item. A distinction is drawn between the homely and the exotic.

Susan Jeffers – artist & illustrator Thumbelina

Flight is very common in children’s stories. When a character shrinks, this means they can ride on the back of something that actually flies (or a fantasy creature that actually flies).

An illustration from “Through The Fire” by Hilda Boswell
George Shrinks by William Joyce

In this music video featuring a series of still, the viewer is lulled into an entranced state which plays with our sense of scale.

One of the powers of attraction of smallness lies in the fact that large things can issue from small ones.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Another function of reducing something in size: It becomes manageable and also laughable. What once was scary is no longer.

But it also works in the exact opposite way:

Animal stories are the stuff of an imaginative child’s delight: Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty and Mole, C.S. Lewis’s beaver family, Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny. In these stories, impossibility is key. “Lucie opened the door: and what do you think there was inside the hill? – a nice clean kitchen with a flagged floor and wooden beams – just like any other farm kitchen” . . . only suspiciously smaller. In fact, everything in Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is suspiciously small, including the washerwoman herself, who has other strange features: a nose that goes “sniffle, sniffle, snuffle” and prickles rather than pincurls under her cap. But none of her animal-like qualities stops Tiggy-Winkle from living a very person-like existence, wearing a print gown and apron while she irons out her neighbors’ waistcoats. This is a common animal story conceit: away from the familiarity of home, a child encounters fantastical creatures, the impossible nature of which she only slowly registers. (Tiggy-Winkle is a hedgehog!) At which point, the child seems to awaken; perhaps it was all a dream. But was it? The evidence points in both directions, a la Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Rebecca D. Martin

Reimer and Nodelman write that tiny characterisation is used as a metaphor for childhood in children’s literature:

Reducing the size of their characters, or bringing miniature objects to life, is a[nother] technique children’s writers use to explore the nature of childhood. In Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, for instance, a girl as small as a thumb has to cope with a world made for much bigger people. In Lynn Reid Banks’s The Indian In The Cupboard, a plastic toy comes to life and interacts with a human child. In Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, tiny human beings who live within the walls of a normal-size house survive by “borrowing” objects and adapting them to their own use.

These miniature human beings and living dolls and toys can all be read as metaphoric representations of children. Like dogs or pigs or rabbits, the miniature beings are much smaller than the creatures who control them. But unlike animals, toys and miniature humans have no instinctual defences, no innate ability to cope with the dangers of life in the wild.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman


One of the early classics was of course Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, first published in 1726. By asking the reader to see human society in miniature, Swift is asking us to take a good, hard look at ourselves:

Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters – with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos – give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire view mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as a diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves.

Goodreads marketing copy

Lilliputian‘ is now used as an adjective to describe these small worlds in fiction.

Though Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t have good things to say about humanity, miniatures more typically say both good and bad things:

In many books about toys and other small creatures, the simplification of the miniature is itself a central concern. The small creatures of children’s fiction tend to express both the virtues and the vices of smallness and limitation. They are exquisitely delicate but also vulnerable, and often quite small-minded.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

By ‘small-minded’, it is explained that this means that the characters have responded to their physical condition by becoming unadventurous and inflexible.

‘Miniatures’ refers here to books about tiny people, but includes heroes such as mice, who are naturally small, living in an over-sized world.

Further Examples of The Miniature In Storytelling

The following two stories are about mice, which not at all unusual — popular stories starring mice appeared every couple of years during the 20th century and keep on coming. (Interestingly, the mouse in Thumbelina goes against the usual characterisation of casting mice as nice.)


Thumbelina can be controlled by whatever larger creature comes along, as can the mechanical father and son who are the main characters in Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. As Lois Kuznets suggests, then, characters like these “suggest the relatively powerless relationship of human beings to known or unseen forces: their dreadful vulnerability”. When these small beings prevail over insurmountable odds, as they almost always do, they represent a potent version of the typical underdog story […] The very small can triumph over the dangerously large, the very powerless over the exceedingly powerful.


Books about miniatures tend to focus on the physical difficulties that their characters face and their ingenious solutions to them. In Stuart Little, E.B. White describes his small protagonist’s troubles with ordinary toothpaste tubes and drain-holes. In The Borrowers, Norton shows how the Clock family adapts postage stamps to wall paintings, spools to chairs, and children’s blocks to tables. Much of the pleasure such books offer depends on their readers’ delight in objects that are just like other objects but smaller.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

I believe we carry that fascination for miniature objects into adulthood. This explains the current interest in tiny houses, popular conceptually as a wish fulfilment for a simple life, though perhaps not so comfortable to live in long term. In fact, the movement to encourage economically disadvantaged populations into small houses en masse is bolstered by the idealisation of the tiny house.


Thumbelina is unlike more modern stories about little people in that Thumbelina’s is a life and death story, sans irony:

Even the triumphs of miniatures tend to be little ones. The Borrowers’ epic adventure is a trip out of the house and into the adjoining field. Readers’ consciousness of the relative insignificance of these creatures and their triumphs tends to give an edge of irony to these books. Readers seem to be expected to both identify with the Borrowers and separate themselves from them, in both cases because of their smallness

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

Townsend also enjoys The Borrowers:

In contrast to large allegorical and mythic themes is the small-scale, magnifying-glass fantasy of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series which began with The Borrowers (1952). These books create, with perfect consistency and attention to detail, a tiny world within our own. Borrowers are little people who inhabit odd corners of houses: under the floorboards, for example, or anywhere else that provides a safe retreat. They live by “borrowing” from the human occupants of the house. Over the years Borrowers have grown smaller and fewer, and now you only find them in “houses which are old and quiet and deep in the country — and where the human beings live to a routine. Routine is their safeguard: it is important to them which rooms are to be used, and when. They do not stay long where there are careless people, unruly children, or certain household pets.”

“Our” particular family of Borrowers are Pod, the father, Homily, the mother, and little Arrietty (even their names are scraps of borrowed human names). They live below the wainscot under the grandfather clock, and Clock is their family name. Here is a glimpse of them at home:

The fire had been lighted and the room looked bright and cosy. Homily was proud of her sitting-room: the walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical strips which ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls, repeated in various colors, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl; these were postage-stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp-box on the desk  in the morning-room. There was a lacquer trinket-box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle; and that useful stand-by — a chest of drawers made from match-boxes […] The knight [from a chess set] was standing on a column in the corner, where it looked very fine, and lent that air to the room which only statuary can give.

Homily is a houseproud, nervous little woman. Pod is a tough, resourceful little man, but he is beginning to feel his age, and a Borrower’s life is not an easy one — it involves perilous mountaineering exploits over tables and up to kitchen shelves. And poor Arrietty, at nearly fourteen, is bored and lonely.

In The Borrowers, a human boy comes to stay in the house and meets Arrietty; he does some borrowing himself on the Borrowers’ behalf, so that for a time they enjoy a life of undreamed-of affluence. But he borrows more than is wise; things are missed and the Borrowers’ household is exposed; they are smoked out and have to take to the fields. The Borrowers Afield (1955) and The Borrowers Afloat (1959) trace their adventures after this forced emigration. In The Borrowers Aloft (1961) they find a home in the model village built by a retired railway man, Mr Pott, but are kidnapped by his unpleasant rival Mr Platter. Ever-resourceful, they build themselves a balloon in order to escape from an upstairs window of Mr Platter’s house.

The author then indicated that the series was complete, but in 1982 The Borrowers Avenged effortlessly jumped a gap of twenty-one years and followed straight on from its predecessor. After their escape from Mr Platter, the Borrowers are again looking for a home, and this time they find an ideal one in a rambling old rectory with only caretakers and the odd ghost in residence. Arrietty still has a dangerous longing to talk to Human Beans, and another for the fresh air and wider world; and there’s a hint of romance when she meets Peregrine Overmantel, a Borrower of the vestigial upper class and also a poet and painter. The Platters get their comeuppance and the Borrowers are safe — or as safe as Borrowers can ever be.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Margaret Blount has this to say about The Borrowers, and other similar tales:

The quality of Lilliput and the delight of smallness which makes objects increase in pleasure and value in inverse proportion to their size so that a human size is useful, child’s size agreeable, doll size delightful and doll’s house size a work of art, outweigh the other considerations of Gulliver’s first voyage. Smallness is of no particular interest without something to measure it by, and both Mary Norton’s and T.H. White’s miniature fantasies are in retreat from life of average size, and have to hide from it. Contact with humans is in some way fatal — mouse societies are the same. The People in T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, 1947, i colony of Liliputians living on an island, are self-sufficient until contact with the child Maria encourages them to make use of human artefacts, not always to their advantage. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, 1952, experience the same thing. When the precious balance is upset — when Homily, Pod and Arietty have their home filled with doll’s house furniture by the Boy, when the People are overwhelmed with gifts from Woolworths — the relationship has to end and the small retreats from the larger.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Film Adaptations of The Borrowers

There is a 1997 British/American film for children called The Borrowers, but I recommend this is avoided in favour of the Japanese version. 1997 CGI no longer looks much good to a modern audience, and this type of fantasy is beautifully suited to animation. There is also a lesser known film adaptation from 1973.

The Japanese Studio Ghibli made a beautiful animated film adaptation of The Borrowers series, and unlike what Hollywood tends to do with female protagonists (in which even books with female names as the title tend to be changed to something less ‘gendered’ in order to ostensibly avoid alienating the boys), Hayao Miyazaki took the main female’s name and used it in the title.

Arrietty Movie Poster
The presence of a boy’s face lets the audience know that Arrietty is a miniature person.
The Japanese title is 'Karigurashi no Arrietty' which more closely translates to 'Arrietty the secret borrower'.
The Japanese title is ‘Karigurashi no Arrietty’ which more closely translates to ‘Arrietty the stealthy borrower’.
Arrietty Leaf Detail
Arrietty is one of Studio Ghibli’s most beautiful looking films, with details such as this typical of the scenery. The interiors of the houses are equally gorgeous.

Studio Ghibli loves the miniature world as much as it loves flight symbolism. In The Cat Returns, the main character takes a fantastical trip to The Cat Kingdom, where she becomes the size of a cat.


Another small world was created n The World of the Genii (American title The Return of the Twelves). A boy called Max finds, under the floorboards of an old house not far from Haworth, the toy soldiers of the Brontes, as described by Branwell in The History of the Young Men. It seems that the chief genius Brannii breathed life into them. Now they can revive. And when they do, their faces become bright and living, sharp and detailed instead of blurred and featureless with age. These tiny men are characterized not only as a group — they are soldiers, organized and resourceful in all they do — but as individuals: most strikingly their patriarch, the kindly and dignified Butter Crashey. And what more natural than that when in danger they should “freeze” into mere wood?

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


Another different and ingenious world is created in Power of Three (1976), which is set on the Moor, a sunken plain occupied by the People, or Lymen, and by the strange, water-dwelling, shape-shifting Dorig. There are also the noisy Giants, who trample over the place from time to time; and a brilliant revelation about the Giants, guaranteed to make the reader blink, changes the whole scale of the story. Fire and Hemlock (1984) blends a great deal of traditional material with real-life relationships in a long and ambitious book for older readers.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


The British title is The Minnipins but the American title is The Gammage Cup. This book was published in 1959.

The appeal of the book lies largely in the neatness and consistency of the portrayal of the Minnipins’ country. The valley of the Watercress River, with its dozen villages — Great Dripping and Little Dripping, Slipper-on-the-Water and Deep-as-a-Well — is exactly the place in which to find such a right little, right little, smug little people. The Whisper of Glocken (1965) is a sequel.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children



More recently, Pixar’s Inside Out makes use of tiny people who live inside Riley’s brain. These ‘people’ are presumably too small for anyone to see, existing more at the level of atoms than of your thumb. However, these characters are ‘regular’ sized in their own worlds.


If different species could hypothetically scale up or down, as from an insect into a man-sized creature, there’s no way the creature would survive. Dutch thinker Arne Hendricks (from a tall country and 195cm himself) has researched the topic of humans and animals and scale and shrinking. He has worked out that humans could be shrunk to the size of a chicken, but no smaller. This is because we’d then be sacrificing brain power etc. He has proposed that we deliberately try to breed ourselves smaller to shrink our carbon footprints accordingly. His blog is a fascinating exercise in hypothetical futures.

Header painting: Charles Robert Leslie — The Miniature