Werewolves In Storytelling

I’ve previously taken a close look at wolves in literature, specifically in children’s stories. Werewolves are a separate archetype from wolves and play a different storytelling role. In folklore and fairytale, werewolves are lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time, alongside. dragons, serpents and related creatures.


Werewolf literally means ‘Man Wolf’. Were is from Old English ‘wer’ meaning ‘man’. The maleness of ‘were’ has since been lost in modern English, but if we wanted to seem technically accurate, the female equivalent would probably be ‘wifwolf’, and that’s not ideal in an age where women don’t always appreciate being referred to in relation to men. (Wif is the Old English word for ‘wife’, in an era where women did not exist as autonomous human beings, belonging only to fathers, husbands and sons.)

In Europe, people really used to believe werewolves were a thing. Imagine believing that. Imagine thinking that, if you weren’t careful, you yourself might turn into a werewolf. How would you regard the moon, if this were your worldview? Don’t know about you, but I’d stay inside on moonlit nights.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reports of werewolves pervaded much of Central Europe and sections of France along the Swiss border, notably the Jura and the Franche-Comfte. The surgeon Johann Dietz witnessed a crowd of villagers in the northern German town of Itzehoe chase a werewolf with spears and stakes. Even Paris suffered sporadic attacks. In 1683, a werewolf on the Notre-Dame-de-Grace road supposedly saved a party that included several priests.

At Day’s Close, A. Roger Erkich
Weird Tales v06 n01 (1925-07) werewolf
Weird Tales v06 n01 (1925-07)

This dynamic picture book from an award-winning art director shows how feeling hangry can turn even the sweetest kid into a Wolfboy!

Wolfboy is hungry!


Werewolf with child and torn bodies, Lucas Cranach (I), 1510 - 1515
Werewolf with child and torn bodies, Lucas Cranach (I), 1510 – 1515

Something about wolves that leads humans to think, across largely unrelated cultures, that people can turn into them. Horror storytellers have since turned all number of creatures into were-creatures, from horripilating to comedic effect and everything in between. Wallace and Gromit gave us the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, for instance, comedic because rabbits are not naturally terrifying (on their own).

The ‘were’ of ‘werewolf’ originally meant ‘man’ (man-wolf). This gendered meaning has largely been forgotten in contemporary English. We can therefore have female werewolves.

werewolves and the moon

There is a long history connecting moon cycles to changes in the human body:

Best known of the many “planets” said to influence the rhythms of everyday life was earth’s closest neighbour, the moon. While a welcome source of light, the moon reputedly affected the internal workings of the human body much as it did the flow and timing of ocean tides and the course of the weather. France’s “first philosophe”, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, was one of many learned authorities to perpetuate the medieval theory stressing the moon’s importance to physical health: “As it passes through its phase, it exerts a great influence for better or worse over the course of illnesses.” So potent was its power that the moon could alter the amount of moisture within a person’s body, including the brain, thereby driving some individuals insane or “moon-struck.” Observed the authors of Maison Rustique, or, the Countrey Farme (1616), the moon was the “governesse of all such humidities as are in earthly bodies.” When the moon was full, women were thought at particular risk to become “lunatics.” Some victims died on the spot. In London’s St. Botoloph’s Parish between 1583 and 1599, as many as twenty-two deaths were attributed to planetary influence.

At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch

But the story which connected the moon so closely to werewolves for a modern audience was the 1941 Wolf Man movie. Earlier werewolf stories were more fairytale in nature. The person turning into the wolf tended to put on a certain item of clothing such as a magic belt or coat.


When it comes to werewolf tropes, the tropes differ depending on the medium. Movie werewolves are most often supernatural horror villains, there for the gore and slashing, and could be swapped out with many other horror villains. For this reason, these werewolves are not particularly interesting.

Twilight shifted the status of werewolves — the character of Jacob paved the way for a modern werewolf who is also a potential love interest.

Werewolves can be used to convey many things, depending on the ideology of the storyteller. One common use of the werewolf (among various other wild animals) is as a proxy for overwhelming teenage sexuality:

It can be a hard thing to be a teenage girl. You face pressure from both your peers and society at large to rush into sexual activity you may not be ready for. You’re judged for your clothes, your makeup, your interests. You have to navigate that blurry line between childhood and adulthood, exemplified by physical changes that can make your body feel like it’s not your own.

Also, you might turn into a werewolf.

Or a mermaid.

Maybe a succubus.

At least that’s the case in the movies, where there exists a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.

Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing: “Help, I’m a teenage girl coming into my own as a sexual creature, while also turning into a literal creature who transforms into a deadly animal/can control objects with my mind / has an all-consuming hunger for human flesh / bites dudes’ junk off with my vagina” (circle where applicable).

Supernatural sexuality is nothing new at the movies.

It’s a horror subgenre that’s shown its face time and time again throughout the decades. In 1942’s Cat People, a sexually repressed young woman refuses to be intimate with her husband due to her (justified, as it turns out) fear that doing so will cause her to turn into the killer cat that looms so large in her people’s mythology.


As such, the werewolf as sexual beast trope can be used to try and suppress sexuality, or to encourage readers to embrace it.


The problem with many werewolf stories is that the wolf is based on inaccurate, outdated science, in which wolves were studied in captivity, not in the wild. When studied only in captivity, scientists came up with the following:

  • In each pack there is an alpha male and an alpha female running things.
  • The alpha male is more powerful than the alpha female.
  • There will be wolves at the bottom of the hierarchy (omegas).
  • Wolves mate for life.

In the wild:

  • The parents are in charge of the pack. ‘Alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ are mum and dad taking care of the teenagers. (Not so sexy now, right?)
  • Wolves don’t mate for life.
  • The ‘males are stronger than females’ thing is never so simplistic, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. It is a fantasy to imagine that men can protect us all. To take an example from a different species, it was only recently that researchers shared that male, alpha chimpanzees are only the alphas of the other males, and that an alpha male chimp can easily be dethroned if all the females decide to reject him. It is certain that the sexual hierarchy of wolf packs is equally nuanced and complicated as it is in chimpanzees.

If storytellers go with the captivity inaccuracies, this results in a romantic view of the (human) patriarchy, which is intimately connected to the One True Love story. We see this in Twilight, in which werewolf Jacob’s One True Love is Bella’s baby.

Consent is a complicated topic in storytelling because sexual fantasies are somewhat separate from what an audience will accept in reality. Or is the line really so clear? The very definition of ‘fantasy’ becomes muddied when narratees live in the real, non-fantasy world in which non-consensual activity happens to people frequently. Werewolf stories set up under the (human) patriarchal system require ‘underdogs’ do as they are told. While this hierarchy can pave the way for con-non-con fantasies, is it still a fantasy when the characters within the setting are unable to give their own consent? Con-non-con activities are in fact consensual. There is a dearth of stories modeling conversation which needs to take place beforehand. To what extent should stories model good behaviour? Does there need to be that wrapper story in which readers are gradually immersed further into the fantasy world?

As mentioned above, the alpha werewolf in a patriarchal werewolf story is more powerful than the alpha female. This is an uncritical presentation and serves to reinforce ‘the natural order of things’ (for humans).

Some werewolf stories present werewolf as analogue for disease. J.K. Rowling has said that in the Harry Potter series, the werewolf part stands for AIDs. Even if readers are supposed to get the message that ostracising werewolves (diseased people) is bad and we shouldn’t do it, the very act of writing a diseased character as a supernatural monster is in itself problematic, and perhaps relies too heavily on the audience’s ability to see the storyteller’s intent. Zombies are also used in this way.

Werewolves in modern stories are sometimes presented as protectors of nature, which is not problematic in its own right. It can become problematic once non-native writers include tokenistic, appropriated indigenous cultures and transfer those symbols onto wolves.


In better stories, a werewolf can make for an interesting, rounded character in its own right. An adept storyteller can almost transport us into a canine body ourselves and send us running through the forest.

Modern werewolf stories tend to say one of the following:

  • Friendship makes you stronger. The metaphor here is the wolf pack. Teen Wolf is a good example of that, with the additional message that ‘those in your pack don’t have to be wolves’, which conveys a message of diversity and ‘chosen family’.
  • Werewolf stories can say something interesting about anger management, and the struggle to control one’s emotions.
  • Werewolf stories can more generally be about Being Different — this plot is certainly not limited to werewolf stories.

One modern and interesting way writers are using werewolves: As symbols for how hard it is to fit into the rules of the patriarchy.

The following example makes use of wolves rather than werewolves, but these wolves are functionally ‘were’- wolfish:

“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell is […] about a pack of wolf-girls sent away to live with nuns so they can transition into normal young women. I think Russell uses animals in this story as a symbol for the wildness in young people and how there is an expectation, especially for girls, to abandon rough or wild behaviour as they mature. It is about societal pressure, but it is also about the kinship people feel toward animals, and similarly the divide between animal and human that we can never traverse. Pulling from this set of examples, what are some of your favourite short stories and in what ways are animals used in them?

“Dear Amelia” by Anne Valente, explores a similar transformation in reverse. The story is narrated by a group of girls that is turning into Maine black bears, a secret that they keep to themselves. To me, this story is so much about the private discovery of the self as you come of age, an experience that is at once mysterious and magical. What better way to enact that than through this literal transformation?

The Masters Review

In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It’s as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they’ve consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.

Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous — and it has met werewolves before.


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Home » metaphor

Passages, Hallways and Corridors

Herbert Thomas Dicksee - Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

When storytellers focus on the hallways and passages of a building, look for metaphor. Take note of the width of the passageway: Narrow passages might represent the will to escape. Broad passages represent freedom and space.

The tunnel is the naturally occurring equivalent of the manmade passage. In houses, the passages, hallways and corridors are the liminal arenas, because they symbolise ‘inbetweenness’.

I love scenes set in hallways myself. In Midnight Feast, the hallway is a transitory space between reality and the freedom of imagination, functioning similarly to a fantasy portal.

the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.


The house described by Dawn French in her 2015 novel According To Yes is one of those huge, very old New York apartments that only the wealthy can afford. The main character is a ‘blithe spirit’ archetype similar to Mary Poppins who indeed arrives in New York from Wales as a nanny. She is a fish out of water. The house belongs to a stiff, upper-class, domineering woman and her ‘henpecked’ husband.

This corridor wasn’t intended to be dark, requiring internal lighting at all times. It’s the kind of space that is supposed to have light thrown into it by the leaving open of various doors all the way along. That doesn’t happen in this apartment under the rule of Glenn Wilder-Bingham. No. All doors remain neatly shut, and all the corridors off the main hallway, of which there are four, remain gloomily dark. It’s not that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is a vampire, it’s that she is a consummate control freak. If she could she would control all the light and doors in the world. As it is, she has to satisfy herself with the light and doors in this vast apartment only. Until she takes over the world, this will have to suffice.

Dawn French, According To Yes

In this example, the house functions metaphorically as an architectural version of the matriarch — formidable, dark and unwelcoming. (This same metaphor — house as formidable matriarch — is used and abused in the children’s film Monster House.)

By saying that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is not a vampire, the narrator encourages the reader to think of her of exactly that (the technique of paralepsis). Vampires lead us to bats. The hallway in this house, therefore, functions as an urban cave.


If you’ve ever had a rodent infestation you’ll know that rats and mice love ceilings and walls. The Rats In The Walls by Lovecraft makes the most of what was surely a familiar night-time sound before the invention of Rough On Rats (and subsequent safer poisons).

Neil Gaiman was perhaps thinking of that famous Lovecraftian short story when he conceived of The Wolves In The Walls, in which a child’s fear manifests in… well… it’s all in the title.

I wonder how common it is to imagine monsters in the walls of one’s house. Is it as common as Monsters Under The Bed? The particular horror of something residing in the walls is that it’s right there but you can’t see it. Once something is in the walls, it might as well be in the house.

The first Addams Family cartoon, 1938
Caldecott medalist Barbara Cooney's 1955 dust jacket design for Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, first published 1868-1869
Caldecott medalist Barbara Cooney’s 1955 dust jacket design for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, first published 1868-1869
Frederick William Elwell (British , 1870 – 1958) My Neighbour’s House, 1929
Frederick William Elwell (British , 1870 – 1958) My Neighbour’s House, 1929
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie illustration by Tom Adams corridor
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie illustration by Tom Adams
LA JETÉE Jean-César Chiabaut, Chris Marker 1962 corridor
LA JETÉE Jean-César Chiabaut, Chris Marker 1962

Supernatural crime horror comedy franchise Scooby-Doo is well-known for making heavy use of creepy corridors.


Lost in the Wild Wood, Mole and Ratty stumble upon Badger’s house. Badger invites them in warmly.

[Badger] shuffled on in front of them, carrying the light, and they followed him, nudging each other in an anticipating sort of way, down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall; out of which they could dimly see other long tunnel-like passages branching, passages mysterious and without apparent end. But there were doors in the hall as well — stout oaken comfortable-looking doors. One of these the Badger flung open, and at once they found themselves in all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen.

The Wind In The Willows

The home of a badger is called a ‘sett’.

Their setts are usually situated in or near small clearings in woodland or copses. Roughly 80% or so are in woodlands or hedgerows where trees or their roots provide the badger with some form of protection. The sett will be obvious to those who know what to look for, as the ground around the used entrances will probably be free of vegetation, and may be muddy and may show evidence of badger prints. There may also be evidence of latrines (holes in the ground) nearby, into which badgers do their poo.


The Badger of The Wind In The Willows is a Spirit archetype, a guide in the woods who saves Mole and Ratty from certain death. At a metaphorical level, Mole has entered the Wild Wood to get in touch with the most repressed part of himself. When Badger invites him further into it and leads him down all these branching passages, Kenneth Grahame is utilising the symbolic archetype of crossroads. Down here, Mole is going to be making an (off-the-page) moral decision about what comes next.


The paintings below of upper class houses go some way towards describing how a ‘hallway’ comes from the ‘hall’, which is a very large room with multiple uses.

In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski describes eighteenth century English bourgeois life, when people spent most of their time at home — a private place where one did not simply call in to the house of another — it was the done thing to leave a calling card and wait for a reply. (I believe we’ve since returned to the era of the ‘calling card’, at least here in Australia, where you don’t simply knock on the door — you send an SMS to say you might pop round.)

An invitation having been received and properly accepted, the first room which greeted a visitor to the house was the hall. Although aristocratic homes were often organized around a medieval-style centrally located hall, the hall of a middle-class house was a room adjacent to the entrance, located so that doors led from it to the main common rooms. Since it contained the main staircase, it was a large room, and, in keeping with its medieval ancestry, one that often contained coats of arms and suits of armor. Although it was no longer the main gathering room, it did serve an important function as a setting for the ceremonial arrival and departure of guests on formal occasions. Here visitors arrived, under the frosty gaze of a family retainer, to gain admittance to the house. This was the room where carolers were invited in to sing at Christmas, and where the servants gathered to be addressed by the master on important occasions.

Witold Rybczynski
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 - 1969)
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 – 1969). The woman in blue looks almost ghostly.
Adelaide Claxton (British painter) 1835 - ca. 1905
Adelaide Claxton (British painter) 1835 – ca. 1905. The characters in this illustration are more clearly ghosts, also blue, also hanging around stairs and landings.
Frank L. Emanuel Kensington Interior 1912
Kensington Interior 1912 Frank L. Emanuel 1865-1948

Corridors can sometimes feel as if we’re looking into a the mise en abyme effect created by two mirrors. In Anthony Browne’s illustration below, the checked tiles on the floor add an extra element of spatial horror to the sensory overload of a very long corridor with repeating doors, subtly suggesting we are stuck in this space for eternity.

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland By Lewis Carroll, Illustrated By Anthony Browne (First published by Julia MacRae Books in 1988; this edition published by Walker Books Ltd, 2003
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland By Lewis Carroll, Illustrated By Anthony Browne (First published by Julia MacRae Books in 1988; this edition published by Walker Books Ltd, 2003
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 - 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 – 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969

Especially where stairs open into hallways and corridors, these spaces are regularly considered a place where secret converations happen. This is no doubt to do with the practical realities of landline telephones of yesteryear, where the most convenient place to anchor a phone to the wall was next to the stairs. The stairs therefore become a natural sitting place to talk for hours. It’s also possible to eavesdrop from above the landing. The hallway with stairs therefore becomes associated with eavesdropping. And because the word ‘eavesdropping’ includes the word ‘eaves’, it’s clear that the stairwell association with overheard conversation replaced an earlier trope of the spy character standing under eaves, from the other side of a wall. The ‘eaves’-dropping trope clearly dates from an era when houses were much smaller.

Patricia Coombs, illustrator and children's book writer
Patricia Coombs, illustrator and children’s book writer
Alice in Wonderland by Gennady Kalinovsky 1974 hallway
Alice in Wonderland by Gennady Kalinovsky 1974 hallway
Swedish painter, Henrik Nordenberg (1857-1928)
Swedish painter, Henrik Nordenberg (1857-1928)
‘The Red Door’ Isabel Quintanilla (1938-2017) Spanish painter Oil on Canvas hallway
‘The Red Door’ Isabel Quintanilla (1938-2017) Spanish painter Oil on Canvas hallway
Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire hallway
Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire
Louise Rayner - Interior at Haddon Hall
Louise Rayner – Interior at Haddon Hall


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Header painting: Herbert Thomas Dicksee – Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

Home » metaphor

Free Radicals by Alice Munro

free radicals

My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.

Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.


The structure of this short story is exquisite: a metadiegetic narrative within a dream sequence within a framing story.

Before diving deep into “Free Radicals”, refer to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, especially as adapted for Story. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for her research into grieving and end-of-life psychology. Her stages of grief have since been mapped onto a narrative arc. (This psychology applies to anything major and shocking in our lives.)

Kubler-Ross Change Curve for Story

There are various versions of this chart because psychology has changed over the decades. Here’s another one adapted for the Shawn Coyne way of looking at story:

Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne
Kubler Ross Shawn Coyne

Alice Munro lost a baby daughter soon after giving birth in her early twenties. By the time Munro published “Free Radicals” in February 2008, she was no stranger to ageing, ill-health and grief.

The interaction in the kitchen between Nita and the intruder forms a mini-grief story in its own right. Refering to the chart: At first Nita is Shocked by the man as he stands in the doorway. She is shocked again when he demands something to eat, but she plays along with the situation, trying to tell herself — and him — that she’s not scared. Denial.

There’s a metadiegetic narrative nested one level deeper in the kitchen scene, when Munro transfers the Anger stage of Nita’s grief onto the (imaginary) intruder, who has just murdered his own family.

Why did he murder his family? Because he couldn’t face the care responsibilities imposed upon him without warning. It wasn’t what he was expecting as ‘part of life’s deal’. So he abdicated his responsibility entirely, as Nita perhaps feels her own husband did to her.

Nita feels residual guilt about what happened with her husband’s first wife. Thus, due to the ghost set up in the first section of the story, Nita imagines herself as this man. It is easy for her to imagine she is just like him. She tells him they are as bad as each other.

She also imagines this man as her husband who, likewise, took off without hanging around to fulfil his obligations of care (to Nita, rather than to the disabled sister).

See how Alice Munro masterfully achieves both proxy amalgamations at once?

This is how Nita works through her grief — imaginatively. This melodramatic kitchen incident is our explanation for why she is so scared to go down to the cellar — terrible things come up from there.

In the symbolic dream house, the cellar is a place where dark things happen. As the dream house predicts, bad things come up the stairs from the cellar. The cellar is the housing equivalent of the fairytale forest — it is the subconscious. It’s all very Freudian. But Gaston Bachelard is the go-to guy for reading all about that.


Nita is grieving and that is her main psychological shortcoming. It is kept as a reveal that she herself is dealing with cancer and will be dead within the year. Her much older husband, who just received a clean bill of health at the doctor’s, has died suddenly. She is therefore in shock. She feels betrayed.

Off the page but important: Nita’s husband is not going to be around to take care of her now. Nita will face the worst of her illness completely alone. Unlike her husband’s swift death, her demise is a slow one. Unlike Rich, Nita needs to find a way to cope with all that fear.

We are offered a few clues about Nita’s vulnerable psychological state. I’ve written separately about my theory that she’s a candidate for hoarding disorder. But this is not a story about that. And really, the hoarding disorder interpretation is a bit of a stretch on my part because it tends to come on a year and a half after a sudden and expected loss, not immediately. I still find it fascinating and, in some counter-intuitive way, an intruder coming to take Nita’s husband’s car might actually be an easier way to get rid of the darn thing rather than her having to sell it herself, thereby offering up for sacrifice yet another remnant of him.

Nita is immensely vulnerable now. She can’t drive, for example. She no longer has a driver in her husband. Worse, there are places in her own house where she won’t even go. Nowhere is safe. Life itself is not safe.

She doesn’t even consider this her own house anymore. She came by it in a slightly underhanded way, she feels. We learn this via backstory — she was the other woman who broke up her husband’s first marriage. Especially in earlier eras, ‘the other woman’ was always blamed in such situations.

Munro reminds us of that, but doesn’t parse the unfairness of it. That’s up to us. Munro simply tells the reader that Nita lost her office job because of it. Rich kept his job, but — perhaps only in his head — he feels he missed out on a promotional opportunity that was owed to him. (This is how we know he’s a white man — his sense of entitlement.) Important to remember: It wasn’t young Nita who cheated. It was the husband, who betrayed the trust of his first wife.

This relationship history (her moral shortcoming) is Nita’s ghost — an event from the distant past affects her psychology in the present. Munro weaves this backstory concisely throughout the story of the present. (Is there such a word as frontstory?)


In a bereft state does anyone truly desire anything, other than to reverse time and get their loved one back? Since no one can do anything about that, this deep desire doesn’t make for a satisfying story.

As for the surface level desire, living from day to day, Nita would like to clean up the house. She knows she needs to deal with the logistics of losing her husband. She needs to sell his car, for instance.

Clearing out his stuff means she has to go into parts of the house that scare her, which neatly joins ‘desire’ to ‘shortcoming’. (All of the best stories do this.)

This is what she wants to do in this particular story, or rather in the second portion, when she’s starting to come out of her Shock.


Nita’s husband has let her down. He was supposed to stick around and take care of her. Rich is her opponent.

But rather than be angry at Rich, who is dead, and who didn’t die to spite her, Nita invents a proxy upon which to paste the Anger stage of her grief.

Perhaps within the real world of the story a man does come to check the meter and then leaves. I think Nita makes up the story about the serial killer intruder. She either imagines this scenario while the man is down in her cellar, or she imagines it later, after the police officer tells her that her husband’s car has been stolen. Perhaps the police officer and the stolen car is imagined as well. But since it’s not melodramatic, I decode that section as real.

The main clue: Nita feels vulnerable in her own home, ‘unable to sit down until he’s gone’. When this meter reader arrives and apologises for startling her, insisting on removing his shoes, this is completely at odds with the man he reveals himself to be. That’s not to deny that trickster criminals exist, of course. Besides that, I find this story implausible on a literal level. And a crime story about an encounter with a psychopathic murderer doesn’t fit well into Munro’s oeuvre. An imaginary encounter fits much better.

In fact, I believe Nita is a fairytale trickster and the intruder is a fairytale fool. Poison itself is very fairytale, harking back to stories of witchcraft. Hence, I propose the incident is imagined.

In case we missed that Nita has invented this story for the (imaginary) intruder, she makes sure to tell us, which is an interesting choice. Some critics have said that if she hadn’t told us, we’d never have known.

But the very idea that it would be easy to kill someone with rhubarb leaves is a bit of a stretch in itself. Sure, they are poisonous, but you’d have to eat a LOT of it. So much that you’d definitely know you were having it:

The chemical villain in rhubarb leaves is oxalic acid, a compound also found in Swiss chard, spinach, beets, peanuts, chocolate, and tea. Chard and spinach, in fact, contain even more oxalic acid than rhubarb—respectively, 700 and 600 mg/100 g, as opposed to rhubarb’s restrained 500. Rhubarb’s killer reputation apparently dates to World War I, when rhubarb leaves were recommended on the home front as an alternative food. At least one death was reported in the literature, an event that rhubarb has yet to live down.

Oxalic acid does its dirty work by binding to calcium ions and yanking them out of circulation. In the worst-case scenario, it removes enough essential calcium from the blood to be lethal; in lesser amounts, it forms insoluble calcium oxalate, which can end up in the kidneys as kidney stones. In general, however, rhubarb leaves don’t pose much of a threat. Since a lethal dose of oxalic acid is somewhere between 15 and 30 grams, you’d have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves at a sitting to reach a toxic oxalic acid level, which is a lot more rhubarb leaves than most people care to consume.

National Geographic

(Did the guy who died on the war front really die from rhubarb leaves? Or was it perhaps something else entirely…?)


Imaginatively, Nita’s plan is to convince the murderer that she is also a murderer. If they each keep the other’s confidence, he may choose to let her live for a while longer.


As I’ve already proposed, the kitchen is the Battle scene, but it’s a proxy for the psychology of grief.

(The real Opponent is Nita’s dead husband, who isn’t there and so cannot take the blame.)


Nita realises how very much she misses her husband. This probably marks the moment where Nita moves past Anger into something darker but more real (Depression).

I found myself lingering on the following sentence, absorbing the weight of it:

Rich. Rich. Now she knew what it was to miss him. Like having the air sucked out of the sky.


Unless we interpret the intruder as a dream sequence, how to explain why Nita wouldn’t tell the police about him?

The policeman (who I interpret as real within the story) gives Nita a ‘stern lecture’ about leaving keys in a car. He puts the wind up her, when she really doesn’t need that. He has underestimated how vulnerable she already feels. The story ends with “You never know”, repeated.

Then again, perhaps Nita finds it comforting on some level to imagine the worst almost happened to her in her own kitchen, yet didn’t.

Imagining worst case scenarios is one common way of coping with fear. I notice it especially when women are advised to buy weaponry for self-protection. People are quick to suggest this, thinking a gun in the handbag can save you. The statistics don’t hold up. Your own gun is far more likely to get you killed than to kill your assailant. Yet we like to imagine that if we only concoct a strong enough plan, then that plan will protect us, if worst comes to worst.

If only. If only. Stories about the ‘if only’ are emotionally resonant.

Likewise, Nita has a plan for living in her house as a single, ailing old woman. If this meter reader who startled her at the door does turn out to be a psychopathic murderer on the run, she’ll tell him she is, too. She’ll draw on a past event and tell him as catharsis. They’ll build empathy, she’ll give him the car (because she needs to get rid of it anyhow) and he’ll leave her be.

That’ll definitely work.

We know our worst-case-scenario imaginings won’t work, yet we imagine them anyway.


the narrative pause

Apart from the story nested inside a dream, there’s an especially noteworthy technique Munro uses in this story. She speeds us up then applies the brakes.

A little while ago I started looking more carefully at how stories are paced. I’d read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode.

According to that continuum, the slowest pace a narrative can achieve is the Pause. In a film, that’d be a freeze frame. But how is the ‘freeze frame’ achieved in the case of the written word?

Alice Munro uses two separate techniques for achieving the Pause in “Free Radicals”.

  1. She describes what is Not rather than what Is. Nita walks into the rooms of her house and all she notices is that her husband is not there.
  2. The intruder has a photographs. Well, two photographs actually — the second is gruesome and produced as a jump scare. When the narrator describes that photo, the narration is now on a different kind of Pause. (This is a technique known as ekphrasis — writing about art used to be very popular and a subgenre in its own right. Before artworks and photographs were commonplace, that is.)

These deliberate pauses slow the story right down to a standstill, yet at other parts of the story we get summary. This is Munro speeding the story up then slamming on the brakes. Psychologically, Munro is replicating the feeling of grief. At times there’s the never-ending weight of it, the feeling it will never leave you. Then there’s the looking back in time, realising how fast life seems to have passed you by.


Which brings me to trains. Alice Munro is a big fan of trains. A writer can eke a lot of symbolism out of trains, for sure.

What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.

“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)

It is comforting, sometimes, to think that certain events set our lives in motion and that there was nothing we could possibly have done to change them. I watched an episode of Insight (with Jennie Brockie) once in which mothers talked about losing their young children. One woman stood out as different from the others. She appeared to be dealing much better than they were with the loss of her daughter, who was pushed off some train tracks into the path of an oncoming train. She reasoned it like this: The child was only given so much time on earth. And when her time was up, it was up.

I wish I could believe that. I think that view would be helpful, more than the view that our choices determine everything, in which case our decisions could imaginatively extend our own lives, or the lives of our loved ones. If only we had lived life differently.


Its title suggests an additional version of the operations of possibility-space and its constitution. These radicals are highly reactive, which makes them likely to take part in chemical reactions, but only in so far as they do it according to their own pre-coded set of possibilities. Being an atom with unpaired electrons, the radicals seek balance by stealing an electron from another atom that then becomes a free radical. A chain reaction is caused. As the metaphor for a story that features a woman visited by a dangerous murderer, there seems to be a chain reaction caused by a miserable childhood. However, it is suggested in the story that bad or good are not features so easily dug out, and as the metaphor suggests chemical reactions can be both bad and good.

Ulrica Skagert

The health significance of this title will probably get lost over time, but I definitely remember a time when health media was all about avoiding free radicals. Certain wonder foods would get rid of them. Nobody but scientists actually knew what they even were, except we knew they were very bad.

Then there was an about face, as with all dietary messages. Now we were told that a certain number of free radicals are essential for human health. (The same applies to cholesterol, viruses and a bunch of other ‘bad’ things.)

Free radicals have long been associated with tissue damage. A new study shows that they also promote regeneration.

an article from 2018

Antioxidants may encourage the spread of lung cancer rather than prevent it

Science news from 2019

As part of all this scaremongering, the public were told that free radicals cause cancer. Hence the cancer link in this story. But there’s also the feeling of betrayal at work here, I think. Nita was betrayed by by the message that red wine is good. She still got cancer. (This explains the constant reference to drinking, too.)

In the early 2000s, Alice Munro herself underwent major heart surgery. She came through it well, but has said in interview that she couldn’t understand why a major artery was fully blocked. She’d done exactly as she thought she was supposed to — she ate well and exercised daily. Her doctor told her she was simply old. She had to face up to the fact of ageing. I hesitate before mapping an author’s life too closely onto a the life of their fictional inventions, because it’s never a one-to-one correspondence. But I feel that experience of heart surgery must have partly inspired this story.

We are all betrayed eventually, even if we manage to avoid health news parsed by the media. Old age is one long betrayal. We are betrayed by loved ones dying around us. We are betrayed by our own bodies. Long before that, we are betrayed by this message that if only we are sufficiently well-behaved, if only we can control ourselves, then we can dodge death.

See how this all links up to the kitchen scene? Nita dodged death. But only for now.


  1. I’m Sorry You’re Suffering, from Persephone.
  2. When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers from AlterNet
  3. What To Say and Do For The Recently Bereaved at Medium, who recommends this book:
  4. Joan Didion’s essay on grief


A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased.

from Here on Earth (by Tim Flannery)

A Very Brief History Of Science Fiction



Along with fantasy, horrors and Westerns, science fiction is one of the highly metaphorical categories of story.


Science Fiction is about human evolution, literally the universal epic.

Science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions. What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?

Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time.

Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.


Howard Suber points out that science fiction is the modern ‘prophecy’ story, which has been popular forever.

As is true for any prophecy, one must understand not only the specifics of what is predicted but also the yearnings and fears they express.


Ray Bradbury broadly defines science fiction as ‘the fiction of ideas’. He also thinks science fiction as a genre is not taken seriously enough.

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. […] Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible. […] The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery. […] I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

Ray Bradbury


A typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.


Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements.


Sci Fi is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. But these settings are not limited to sci-fi. In war films, also, the setting takes place on ‘a front’ — in sci fi and Westerns it takes place on ‘a frontier’. Dramatically, these are equivalent places. At the front/frontier, the organised forces of society are weak, get in the way, or trap the hero.

Technology is a major component of the setting.


Sci Fi requires an extrapolated or theoretical future science in order to fit the genre.

Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Predicting The Future



As long as there is science, technology and a future/alternative history, the conventions of almost any other genre may be blended, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery.


An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here. 

Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.The Digital Reader explains that SF written by women is more likely to be called fantasy:

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.


The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

John W. Campbell (1910–1971), American science fiction writer, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Many disagree with this distinction. That was written in the 1960s and speculative fiction has come a long way since then. Obviously this explanation has implications for the gender divide described above.

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The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics

C. Coles Phillips (American artist and illustrator, 1880-1927) stairs


Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

stairs from Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.


Stairs as Ascent into Terror and Imagination

I like drawing staircases, so it seems. There’s nothing like a steep staircase to add some tension and drama to an illustration.

Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes
Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes

Stairs As Eavesdropping Spaces

The staircase in the horror comedy Courage The Cowardly Dog. A camera tilt makes an ominous staircase seem even more ominous.

A struggle scene in 101 Dalmatians (1963) features a chase and dodge sequence which takes place on the stairwell of a big, unwelcoming, aristocratic house. Staircases allow for a variety of angles.

Baddie ascends the stairs, where he is close to discovering the puppies.
The nice thing about stairs is, the space beneath offers shelter and hiding place.
A top down view of the baddie sprawled across the landing shows that he has been defeated.
From ‘When the Sky is like Lace’ 1975 Written by Elinor Lander Horowitz Illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917 – 2000)
Angela Barrett, from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories
Angela Barrett. from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories

Speaking of ominous staircases, you may have seen this picture on the Internet:


Over at Messy Nessy is an explanation:

“The Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is a series of 3,922 steps in Oahu, Hawaii on the Koolau Mountain Range. The staircase was built by in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and its scenic views made it a popular tourist attraction. The Stairway to Heaven was closed off in 1982, and scheduled to re-open in 2001 after an $875,000 renovation but local residents opposed access in a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) move. Hikers ignored the signs placed by the city, the city hired security guards to block access, so hikers then accessed the Stairway to Heaven in the middle of the night.”

Some stairs are fantastically long.

Some stairs are hidden, functioning as a labyrinth just beyond the familiar walls.

The Hidden Staircase


The stairs leading to the turret are narrow, which forces physical proximity.

Frederic William Burton - Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)
Frederic William Burton – Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)

Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Does anyone else find it ironically hilarious that the steps are made of anti slip metal? I mean, it’s necessary and all, and probably better than nothing, but that, folks, is what you call a death trap. Safety tread or no safety tread.


Wolves In The Walls is a contemporary story, but ‘living beings in the walls’ has a real-life history when we think back to the relatively recent Edwardian era, in which well-to-do houses kept a staff of services who lived, like rats, ‘behind the scenes’. Behind the green baize door. These servants had their own stairways, and were expected to keep apart from the owners and ‘proper residents’ of the house as much as humanly possible. If they were to ever meet their superior in the house, the most lowly of staff were expected to turn away, pretending not to have seen or heard a thing.

Behind the Green Baize Door

In order that the frenzied activity of the servants didn’t impinge on the peace and quiet of the household, there was a second staircase, unlit, between the attic where the maids lived and the basement where they worked. The servants’ stairs were behind the … green baize door, and led to a network of tunnels and passages few from the other side would ever need to see. The servants’ entrance was around the back of the house and, in town houses, was below ground level. It was considered a heinous impertinence for anyone of servant or tradesman class to call at the front door.

Along with the kitchen and scullery, the basement housed the sleeping quarters for the male members of staff as well as the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where the preserves and pickles would be kept. If the housekeeper was lucky she would have enough room there.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen

Stairs = Descent into terror

the dark stairs

Geronimo Stilton

In this humorous series we have a mouse who is terrified of entering an attic. This is a small inversion on the norm, which is to be terrified of entering a basement.

Geronimo Stilton staircase_600x911

Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress (1999)

a great high angle view of a staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2013)

Stairs = descent into dreamlike other reality

midnight feast stairs

David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts (1977)

At various other points in this picture book we see the young David gazing out at the reader from the second-storey bedroom window.

We don’t find out what it is David is waiting for until the end of the book (when we learn he has been waiting for his mother to come home with a new baby.) In the meantime, there is a deliberately ominous mood to this book, depicted here by the staircase in silhouette and backgrounded in black. David doesn’t know what’s going on. The mysteries of childbirth are kept from him. David is The Boy Upstairs.

David's Waiting Day staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2014)

I am a big fan of stairs in picture books — here, in the wider story, Stairs = economic hierarchy.

Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948

What is a metaphor for?


Metaphors help readers see the world in a new way. Below are some hints for creating a resonant metaphor.


Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

The metaphor is a fabricated image, without deep, true, genuine roots. It is an ephemeral expression. It is, or should be, one that is used only once, in passing. We must be careful, therefore not to give it too much thought; nor should the reader think too much about it.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

“Metaphors matter”, as Bernard Bailyn has reminded us, for “they shape the way we think” — all the more when they make sense in the light of actual experience.

— A. Roger Ekirch

The Difference Between Imagery and Metaphor

A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Don’t Hate On The Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is defined as ‘a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors’.

Actually, there is a way in which mixed metaphor is perfectly logical, and not an aberration at all. … In contemporary parlance, what people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different cliches, as in, say, “out of a sea of despair, he has pulled forth a plum.” The metaphorical aspect is actually dimmed, almost to non-existence, by the presence of two or more mixed cliches (which be definition are themselves dim or dead metaphors).

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

In other words — a mixed metaphor is fine. Cliches are bad.

The Secret Of Powerful Metaphor

Often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor. […] Obviously, whenever you liken x to y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however […] estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

(I’ve heard that ‘surprise plus feeling of inevitability’ combo before, elsewhere, in describing ‘the perfect ending’ to a story. So metaphors and endings have a few things in common.)

Metaphor In Children’s Literature

Maurice Saxby tells us that metaphors in children’s literature need to be on the child reader’s level for them to work:

When the image or metaphor is within a child’s range of sensory, emotional, cognitive and moral experience and is expressed in linguistic terms that can be apprehended and comprehended by young readers, a book becomes classed as a children’s one.

— Maurice Saxby, Give Them Wings

Black Dog by Pamela Allen Analysis

Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)


If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.


The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509
Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01
Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553


It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.


Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062


After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.


The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

For more: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.


But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.


We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

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Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.


The relationship ‘between texts’.

“No poet, no artist of any art, has its complete meaning alone.”

T.S. Eliot

Works of art don’t exist in isolation. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the word ‘rhizone’ which maps onto the literary concept of intertextuality.

Rhizone: In botany and dendrology, A rhizome is the main stem of the plant that runs underground horizontally. (And sometimes above the ground, but let’s not confuse matters.) Ginger is an example of a rhizone.

How is literary intertextuality like a stem-like root-type of thing?

Think of fairytales. There is no single ‘original’ version of an oral fairytale, only endless permutations which evolve over time and change a little each time someone tells it anew. There is no beginning and no end to a fairytale. Each tale has endless repetitions, giving birth to endless differences.

A rhizome is also multiplicitous in form. The rhizome symbolises a unity that is multiple in and of itself.

Deleuze had thoughts on the task of writers:

“The task of the writer is to establish non-preexistent relations between … variables in order to make them function together in a singular and non-homogeneous whole, and thus to participate in the construction of new possibilities of life”. (Quoted in Daniel Smith.)



The boy is lonely without his father.

Lightning scene from Into The Woods by Anthony Browne
Lightning as portrayed in picture books and comics is often a very different kind of zig-zagged yellow shape, but when an illustrator chooses realism, the lightning bolt takes on a different level of scary.
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew


We get a hint about the desire before the story even starts, in fact, on the internal title page, where there’s a sign pasted to the window saying ‘Come home Dad’.


In “Into The Woods” there is an unseen opponent. The boy’s own anxieties about his father at war are preventing his happiness.


To take his mind off the loneliness, the boy’s mother asks him to take a basket of goodies to his grandmother’s house. She tells him to go the long way round to avoid the forest. But the boy plans to ignore this advice for the first time ever, in case his father comes home early.

Big Struggle

This is a mythic journey through a forest in which a boy encounters a variety of characters then ends up back home, having changed fundamentally as a person. The big struggle is a psychological one, symbolised by the increasingly knotted and gnarly trees and the worsening weather.

Hansel and Gretel from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
The tree looks as if a clawed hand waits at its base — at least, you think it might look like a clawed hand, but not quite. Can you trust your own imagination? Are you meant to think that?

The real life big struggle is off the page — only in the illustrations do we get hints that the father is a soldier off at war. There’s the soldier in the boy’s bedroom, missing one leg, and the light over the dinner table shaped like a hard helmet, with its bulb melting into the shape of a tear. The empty chair casts bar-like shadows against the wall suggesting lack of freedom and imprisonment. This is all postmodern stuff.


In this highly metaphorical story, the boy learns that although being lonely and worried about your father is scary, it is possible to make it through a forest of anxiety and come out all right at the other end.

New Situation

The boy is safe in the comfort of home, along with both parents there to protect him. The child reader is given not one but two reassuring images at the end — first the scene at grandma’s house, then again when the boy returns home with his father. This double reassurance compensates for the scary images on the previous pages.



This particular book is a great look into how black and white mixed with vibrant colour can be used to create a certain effect.

Browne plays with different ambient effects in his Into The Forest, shifting from colour to black and white for the setting at the point where the protagonist enters ‘the woods’ of a fairytale world where he encounters characters from rhymes and tales. Browne incorporates many ‘hidden’ characters and objects in the shapes of the environment in these pictures, and the reader explores them in a different way from the emotionally compelling coloured pictures that open and close the story. […] In general then, picture book artists will only ignore the rich meaning of colour choices and their capacity to work on the reader’s emotions when they wish either to avoid that emotional engagement or else to invoke our feelings, particularly a sense of the uncanny or sinister, specifically by drawing attention to the ideational content of the images.

Reading Visual Narratives, Painter, Martin, Unsworth

Below, the goodies are wrapped up in a tea towel with the flag of England — a patriotic gesture in time of war?

Jack and the Beanstalk from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Little Red Riding Hood scene from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Red is a commonly utilised accent colour when illustrations are mostly black and white.
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
In the forest (1950)
In the forest (1950)

Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature

sunny home literature film

Homes are an outworking of the characters who live inside. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For my notes after reading Gaston Bachelard, see Symbolism of the Dream House.


The famous Farnsworth House is a square construction made mostly of windows and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It’s in Plano, Illinois.

In real life, people who build these houses tend to be well-off and have environmental aspirations. When a house has this much glass you’re living ‘at one with nature’. You’re also respecting the environment by refusing to build something garish. From a distance, the house hardly interferes with the natural landscape, with the trees reflecting off the windows, and the lack of a pretentious, gabled roof. (I’m not sure about their energy efficiency rating, though.)

In fiction, however, the glass house generally spells doom for you and your family. If you are a fictional person reading this, I advise against purchasing a house made mainly of glass.

Farnsworth_House_by_Mies_Van_Der_Rohe_-_exterior-8 1
Illustration by Bertels in Saturday Evening Post 8 April 1961 glass house
Illustration by Bertels in Saturday Evening Post 8 April 1961


The glass house in the movie Lake House (with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) is based on the Farnsworth architecture. The character who lives in this house is an architect, and in movies, architects can’t live in ordinary houses. Here, the house is ‘at one with the water’.

Lake House house


One of the families in The Ice Storm — The Carver family — live in a very nice house with a lot of glass. They could be enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner, at their beautiful table with lots of food, under the cover of glass but still enjoying the late autumn scenery. But the 14-year-old daughter is far too astute to be fooled by appearances — on the other side of that ‘glass’ people are starving. The meaning of Thanksgiving is built on abuse, she points out.

In the following clip, we hear how Connecticut was the first place to really embrace the glass house, but a lot of the time they weren’t ‘beautiful’ — they simply functioned like fish bowls. In the glass house, the irony is that the family can’t see each other. This glass house juxtaposes with another main house, which is a 1950s colonial house. This was also an archetypal architectural time, but would be a little less cold. The colonial house is the key party house, which makes the key party seem even dirtier.


Into The Forest (2015) is set somewhere in Canada, but more ‘correctly’ somewhere in fairytale world. Viewers who expected mimesis were utterly disappointed that these young women were able to sustain themselves by finding berries in the woods over a long winter. This is the stuff of fairytales, and I code it as such.

The difficulty is, these girls live in the present, or actually in the near future, probably. The father has purchased a partially finished house with large, glass walls and transplanted his daughters to their forest haven. Then the outside world breaks down — a Doomsday Prepper’s dream.

The girls are suddenly alone and vulnerable. The house which seemed like a haven is now a target for predators. They end up boarding over those massive glass walls, first putting makeshift curtains up, then realising this will never be enough.

This house is an interesting mixture of ‘cold glass house’ and ‘warm, cosy house’. The house itself is a character in the movie, and therefore has its own ‘character arc’. For the house, the film is a tragedy along Gilbert Grape lines.

Into the Forest glass house

For a similar film about a family who must survive in a kind of fairytale utopia after calamity hits Earth — or America — see A Quiet Place. One garnered excellent reviews; the other did not. I have my own feminist theories about why.

Apartment Dwellers on New Year’s, 1948, John Falter; 1910-1982
Apartment Dwellers on New Year’s, 1948, John Falter; 1910-1982


Wiener-dog (2016) is an indie film which connects four short stories via the travels of a dog who never finds a permanent home. The first household we meet is desperately unhappy. Sure enough, they live in a house with walls made mainly of glass.


Bruce Wayne’s residence is also a big glass thing. You can explore it using Google Street View. In the film there is an underground lair where criminal activities occur.



The vampires live in a glass house in the middle of the forest. You’d think they’d want a bit more privacy, wouldn’t you? But the forest itself provides the walls and curtains. In contrast to the more homely vibe emitted from Jacob, the Cullens are a cold, stand-offish clan, and so the house made of glass is fitting.

If you’re wondering where the house from the films is located, it’s a slightly complicated story:

The Cullen House is supposedly located in Forks Washington.  But as we have learned, most of the filming for the original Twilight movie was done here in Portland and the surrounding area.  For New Moon and Eclipse they used another home in Vancouver BC area. For Breaking Dawn 1 and 2 they broke down the house in Vancouver and loaded it on semi-trucks and transported it to the Louisiana sound stage where those films were made. It’s amazing that it is still so easily accessible for Twilight fans.


Because a house made of glass is such an ostentatious statement — while ironically seeming to fit into the surrounding landscape unobtrusively — this building, which exists only to house cars, is comedic in itself.


Annie Proulx’s short story “Negatives” is another example of the ostentatiously glass house used to symbolic effect.


Illustrations for Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov
Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ painted in the 1950s by Soviet artist Andrey Sokolov


Despite their terrible sleep hygiene, you won’t find light-filled rooms in House Of Cards.


Mad Men is equally dark as House of Cards in many ways, but well-lit rooms are quite usual in this series. Mad Men is an snail under the leaf setting. Don Draper has everything he could possibly want… from the outside looking in.

California is the flip side of New York — New York is wintry and studious while California is light-hearted and beachy.


But even on the East Coast, the light-filled kitchen scene here only highlights how down-and-out Betty Draper seems. Her mood contrasts equally with the upbeat innocence of their children.



Krystin Ritter is actually the perfect fit for dark stories and her look has been utilised thusly in Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones. You won’t find many light-filled homes in those series. But here she is in a light-hearted comedy, bathed in a white, welcoming glow.



Here’s another Pinterest-worthy white kitchen in a light-hearted series.

Trophy Wife kitchen


Though the title of this series suggests a kind of hell, the home is filled with natural light. This is a safe house in some well-off suburbs.

Suburgatory living room


The opening of Gilmore girls shows the main characters drinking coffee inside Luke’s, but at night, with all those fairy lights. In that case, the dark forms a cloak of reassurance and cosiness. During the day, Luke’s is always a place of refuge, even when he goes out of his way to be gruff.


Emily and Richard’s house has no natural light at all — a cold house from another age. What age is that, exactly?

The Centennial encouraged the founding of many so-called patriotic societies, such as the Sons (now defunct) and the Daughters (still active) of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants. This new interest in genealogy was due partly to the Centennial itself, and partly to efforts by the established middle class to distance itself from the increasing number of new, predominantly non-British immigrants. This process of cultural authentification was fortified by furnishing homes in the so-called Colonial style, thus underlining the link to the past. Like most invented traditions, the Colonial revival was also a reflection of its own time–the nineteenth century. Its visual taste was influenced by the then current English architectural fashion–Queen Anne–which had nothing to do with the Pilgrim Fathers, but whose cozy hominess appealed to a public sated by the extravagances of the Gilded Age.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski

Emily Gilmore belongs to Daughters of the American Revolution. She herself is clearly racist and her big, cold, Colonial home is an outworking of Emily herself.

In contrast we have Lorelai’s house, which we often see from the outside bathed in sunlight. The contrast between Emily’s house and Lorelai’s house is the archetypal cold colonial vs warm and sunny dichotomy. We are meant to feel at home in one and not in the other. The expectation that warm, cosy houses are full of food is overturned by the writer in (what I believe) to be an attempt at subverting the patriarchal expectation that women must be good at cooking.


In Emily’s house there is plenty of light, but it comes from those Gothic chandeliers and expensive mood lighting, not through the windows. This house is an island unto itself. Nothing’s coming in that Emily hasn’t put there her very self.

Emily and Richard dining room table

What is also striking about these handsome interiors is the absence of so many of the things that characterize modern life. We look in vain for clock-radios, electric hair dryers, or video games. There are pipe racks and humidors in the bedrooms, but no cordless telephones, no televisions. There may be snowshoes banging on the cabin wall, but there are no snowmobile boots by the door.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski


The difference between the ‘cosy, colonial’ house and the cold, inhospitable house made mostly of glass is exemplified beautifully in Nashville, TV series, written by Callie Khouri.

(I’ve only seen the first two seasons, so my commentary is only on that…)


Here’s Juliette’s house from the outside: square, modern, white. Perfectly manicured. Juliette is nouveau riche but she grew up in a trailer with an exploitative mother. This ghost continues to haunt her into the present.

Juliette's house

Though these windows are covered in net curtains (probably to diffuse the light for the sake of filming), it’s significant that Juliette lives in a glass house. The whole world is watching her every move. There is no real boundary between Juliette and the public.

Juliette herself is small in stature, but her house is enormous. This juxtaposition emphasises her loneliness.

Juliette is young and so her tastes are modern.

Juliette's living room

This house is basically a modern castle. Where else do we find castles? In gothic fiction. These traditional castles have dungeons and hidden passages and are surrounded by gloomy forests and this isn’t that kind of castle, but it is still almost part of the female gothic tradition, in which the character inhabiting the space graduates from adolescence to maturity.

The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts. It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute “features of the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture”.

Does that sound like Juliette? Another feature of the female gothic is the threatening control of a male antagonist.

Jeff Fordham_600x378

The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore, prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the disability of being female.

Juliette is definitely vilified due to her gender — the way she is set upon by the public when she is implicated in the Wentworth break-up is one example.


Rayna's house

Rayna has plenty of money, though it’s clear from the pilot that she is ‘cash poor’. She has married a ‘trust fund boy’ and lives in a house typical of the one percent. Exactly the sort of house we’d expect a middle-aged country singer from Nashville to live in. But this is a warm house compared to the white cube owned by Juliette.

Rayna's kitchen_600x446
Rayna's bedroom_600x394

Inside Rayna’s house we see Maddie’s bedroom. Teenage bedrooms are easy for set designers to get wrong — there’s too often an unlikely mixture of fan posters on the wall. But the set designers have avoided that altogether with Maddie by hanging up some artwork — perhaps her own as a child, which has been framed?

Maddie's Room
Maddy's room 2

The Bluebird Cafe is another example of the ‘Warm House’, and the cafe, too, can be warm or terrifying.


Deacon is your archetypal difficult man, the silent type with addiction issues but brimming with talent. Deacon, we are led to believe, would rather be living in the woods, just him and his guitar. This personality type — reflected in his niece — explains the backstory of why he never sought fame when he was younger, riding on the coat tails of Rayna.

Deacon's house
Deacon's living room_600x449


Okay so the feminist in me wants to say that two young men lived here too, but I only ever see Scarlett cleaning the kitchen, so I’m calling the sunny, warm and retro-vibe kitchen an outworking of her.

Scarlett's kitchen_600x386


How much would fictional houses cost in real life? from CNN Style

Houses which inspired writers from Poets and Writers

At TV Tropes:

  1. Big Fancy House
  2. Big Fancy Castle
  3. Cool House
  4. Old Dark House
  5. Horrible Housing
  6. Cardboard Box Home
  7. Bad Bedroom, Bad Life
  8. Lonely Bachelor Pad
  9. Non-residential Residence


Unique 143-year-old listed home in concrete and glass seeks new family

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Symbolism Of The Dream House, Cottage, Bungalow and Cabin

House symbolism is an interesting way of looking at a story. Have you noticed that houses as depicted in Western picture books tend to look the same? Two storied, bedrooms upstairs, slightly untidy but still Pinterest-worthy? There’s a reason for this. Each part of a house is symbolically unique. Gaston Bachelard talks about this in his famous book on architecture and philosophy, The Poetics of Space.

house symbolism
Ben Rea Cross Section of Dennis Severs House

House As Human Body

Some commentators (e.g. Scherner) interpret houses in dreams as stand-ins for the human body. The windows, doors and entrances are the entrances into the body cavities. The facades are smooth or provided with balconies and projections to which to hold. In anatomy the body openings are sometimes called the body-portals.

Buildings As Characters In Fiction

There is a problematic trope in which the large house correlates to a large, overbearing woman. The trope intersects with fatphobia and misogyny. For an example of this trope see the children’s animated feature film Monster House. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is another example of the same trope.

The mind itself is often imagined as a house. Korean writer Kim Hee-kyung took this metaphor and created a picture book which won the 2011 Bologna Ragazzi Award.

I thought our minds are very much like a house. That’s the metaphor I used for this book.

Kim Hee-kyung

Home As Metonym For Family

In the middle ages houses were simply places to seek refuge and sleep. There was no conception of children, and no concept of family in connection to this place of crude shelter. Today we think of home quite differently. We strive to make it comfortable (another newish concept) and we strive to fill it with the people closest to us.

만희네 집 (Man Hui’s Home) is a Korean picture book (1995) by Yoon Duck Kwon. The book shows how home is not just a place to live but a place which connects you to your history, heritage, friends, family and memories.

Off-kilter Houses

Tumble Timbers Wanda Gag
Tumble Timbers Wanda Gag

Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.

For example, Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.

Heath Robinson The Folding Garden Date- 1933

Another example of extreme oddity is the Gingerbread House of Hansel and Gretel.

The Cosy Picture Book House

Do you have a dream house that exists only inside your head? Perhaps it’s somewhere you hope to build one day, or a mixture of great spaces you’ve been to in your lifetime. If you were asked questions about this dream house, I wonder how specific you could get?

floor plan of Midnight Feast
  • How many bedrooms does it have?
  • How does one get from one bedroom to another?
  • Where do the inhabitants keep their clothes?
  • Their shoes?
  • What would I find in the larder?
  • Which direction does it face?
  • If I flew into the air above your dream house, what does the surrounding area look like?

As Gaston Bachelard says, quoting Rilke in The Poetics of Space, those of us who keep dreamt-up houses in our heads haven’t worked out the details. Details such as: How does one get from one room to another without a connected corridor?

[The imagined dream house] is not a building, but is quite dissolved and distributed inside me: here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor which, however, does not connect the two rooms, but is conserved in me in fragmentary form. Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me, the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness, others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.

Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in The Poetics Of Space

The house I had imagined inside my head wouldn’t necessarily work. And the architecture of the house is essential to the plot, which is certainly not true of many other picture books.

I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper.

Once I’d sketched a layout of the apartment, illustrations progressed at a faster pace*. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.

(By the way, I decided the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)

Header illustration is the classic picture book house, from The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion, 1959; illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham.

The Gothic House

When storytellers take the dream house to its horror extreme you get the terrifying mansion which features heavily in Bluebeard stories and its descendants.

The dark, terrifying house contrasts the warm, welcoming house important to children’s stories with a home-away-home structure. Without a home base, modern stories cannot have happy endings.

Interestingly, a Medieval audience wouldn’t have thought in this way. In Medieval Europe, the house did not equal the home, and shelters were just that — places to sleep. If there was furniture, it wasn’t made for comfort. The very concept of comfort is a modern one. Even until Jane Austen’s time, ‘comfort’ as a word was used quite differently and meant strengthening, support and consolation rather than the modern experience of sitting in a nice, padded chair. The concept of ‘child’ is also modern. In the Medieval era, offspring were sent out into the world as apprentices from about the age of seven. Most people lived in shacks but not houses; houses were not used as metonyms for family as they very much are today.

Scary houses are not always dark. White gothic exists, such as depicted in the cold house below — opulence without comfort. Modern films and TV shows achieve a similar effect by making use of large houses made largely of windows.

The Ice Palace in David Lean’S 1965. Film ” Doctor Zhivago

However, if you take the coldness and put it outside, the cosy house becomes even more cosy. It is now an oasis of warmth.

James Hope – Winter House


The dream cottage exists near woods, in that liminal space between forest and savannah.

Peter Bagin
The Little House
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
Susan Blair Holt, 1964 little red riding hood cottage
Susan Blair Holt, 1964. For Little Red Riding Hood.

The house suppresses Fanny’s dreams and tries to force her to settle in marriage. Once Fanny is in the house she finds out that her immediate family is dirty chaotic and classless. Fanny is left in conflict over whether she should rush to marry her suiter Henry or wait for her true love Edmond. The house represents Fanny’s past and future if she is to move forward Fanny must endure the uncomfortability of living in the house.

The symbolism of the cottage in Mansfield Park from Objects of Romanticism

Which of the following cottages would you like to sleep in under moonlight and why all of them?

Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906
Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906
Ray Hendershot b.1931 American  watercolor
Ray Hendershot b.1931 American
Ray Hendershot, b.1931 American  watercolor
Ray Hendershot, b.1931 American
John Mckinstry - British
John Mckinstry – British
Peter Sculthorpe, b.1948 Canadian  watercolor
Peter Sculthorpe, b.1948 Canadian watercolor
Carol Collette night tree farmhouse
Carol Collette night tree farmhouse
Heinrich Gogarten (German, 1850 - 1911) night
Heinrich Gogarten (German, 1850 – 1911)
Sophus Jacobsen, (Norwegian, 1833 - 1912)
Sophus Jacobsen, (Norwegian, 1833 – 1912)
From Lucy and Tom from A to Z Shirley Hughes
From Lucy and Tom from A to Z Shirley Hughes
Anton Franciscus Pieck - Dutch 1895-1987 ‘Moonlit Night’ 1941
Anton Franciscus Pieck – Dutch 1895-1987 ‘Moonlit Night’ 1941

When you think of a cottage today, you’re probably thinking of a smaller than average house which charming, rustic decoration, perhaps honeysuckle grows outside. There’s probably enough land outside for a well-tended garden. But the word cottage hasn’t always referred to the size and mood of the house. First cottages were small, then they were quite large, now they are small again.

late 14c., “a cot, a humble habitation,” as of a farm-laborer, from Old French cote “hut, cottage” + Anglo-French suffix -age (according to OED the whole probably denotes “the entire property attached to a cote”). 

Etymology Online

The main thing about those really old cottages: cotters lived there. Cotters were farm labourers or tenants who occupied a small house on a larger property in return for labour.

The term ‘cottage industry’ later meant an industry run from home. In order to run a business from home, the house has to be pretty large, actually.

Later, in America, ‘cottage’ referred to how many servants were employed at the house. From there, the word ‘cottage’ once again became associated with ‘small’:

In 1870, fully 60 percent of all the gainfully employed women in the United States worked as servants. Andrew Jackson Downing differentiated between houses and cottages according to the number of servants that they contained–anything with less than three servants was a cottage. Nevertheless, as early as 1841, Catherine Beecher was arguing that more compact houses were necessary since “as the prosperity of this Nation increases, good domestics will decrease.” Indeed, this is what happened, and by 1900, there were less than half as many servants in the United States as in England; more than 90 percent of American families employed no domestics.

Home, Witold Rybczynski

Cottages traditionally have thick walls, well suited to cold climates but not to hot, humid ones as they’re inclined to trap the air inside. Unlike a cabin, which is made of wood (probably logs), cottages are made of a variety of different materials, depending on the region and economic situation.

Barbara Cooney cottages

People from far away, from Boston and Philadelphia, discovered the beautiful bay. They bought up land near the water and built large houses that they called cottages.

Barbara Cooney, Island Boy

Cooney demonstrates in the passage above that the cottage — the true cottage, not the grand house disguised as cottage — is the picture book ideal. Happiness is found in a cottage. Whereas the large house is often cold and lonely and scary, the cottage is never so.

In a cottage you can achieve the Christian ideal of making do with little. A cottage is unable to house superfluous possessions.

The Birthday by Hans Fischer
Brambly Hedge, illustrated by Jill Barklem. Mr. and Mrs. Apple, Wilfred and Dusty are renovating Mayblossom Cottage to be a new home of Dusty’s family.
Peder Mørk Mønsted
Peder Mork Mønsted
William Stephen Coleman - Children Playing on a Path, Cottages Beyond
William Stephen Coleman – Children Playing on a Path, Cottages Beyond
Peter Rabbit cottage by Beatrix Potter


A bungalow is a low house having only one storey or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof, typically with dormer windows. However, the word came from South East Asia (Bengal, to be specific), where it actually means a detached house with more than one storey. Unlike a cottage, they don’t have those thick walls. You might say a bungalow is a subcategory of cottage but for tropical climates.

Within Britain, you’re more likely to find cottages inland but bungalows beside the sea.

The Bungalow Mystery

Here in Australia, the California bungalow was popular after the first world war, when Australians started to watch Hollywood movies and obviously liked the look of this kind of house. Both California and much of Australia are well-suited to this design, with its verandah stretching most of the way around the building.It is raised above ground by a metre or more so that the dwelling does not easily flood. Steps lead up to the front door, and in most cases a large veranda surrounds the exterior of the home so you can sit on the porch to catch a tropical breeze. The interior only uses one level adorned with wide hallways and large windows to help distribute air throughout the home.

Some of them have attics, but they’re just as likely to have a dormer window, or just a vent designed to look like one. (That’s why they’re called one and a half storey houses.)

New Zealand has a lot of California bungalows, too, built around the same time.

California Bungalow

But a luxurious house like the one below is also called a bungalow.

California Bungalow expensive


The log cabin is an American symbol.

Uncle Remus Stories from the Disney Giant Golden Book by Disney illustrator Albert 'Al' Dempster (1911 - 2001)
Uncle Remus Stories from the Disney Giant Golden Book by Disney illustrator Albert ‘Al’ Dempster (1911 – 2001)
Thornton Utz, Saturday Evening Post cover, July 19, 1958
Thornton Utz, Saturday Evening Post cover, July 19, 1958
Odd Brantenberg, 1952 from 'Christmas'
Odd Brantenberg, 1952 from ‘Christmas’

Cabins can be rustic and simple or they can be luxurious. The most luxurious are luxurious in a very specific kind of way: luxury reminiscent of turn of the (20th) century wealth, especially the decades between 1890 and 1930.

The log cabin setting…has the affected, cedar-stump rusticity that used to characterize rich men’s hunting lodges at the end of the [19th] century.

Home, Witold Rybczynski

Rybczynski noted that that the 1980s version of a luxurious cabin left out the mounted animal heads on the walls. More lately, the stuffed mounted head on the wall is a feature of horror and comedy settings — and best of all, horror comedies.

Comically terrifying mounted sheep heads on the wall of a farm house in the New Zealand horror comedy Black Sheep
The Artifacts cabin in the woods


The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close hurtles the reader through personal and global history – eerily reflecting modern life today.

What Would Be The Houses Of Filmmakers If They Were Based On Their Own Films

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