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


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.


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.


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

Symbolism Of The Dream House

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

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

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


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
The Little House
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
Tumble Timbers Wanda Gag
Tumble Timbers Wanda Gag
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.


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.

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


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

Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling

Charles Robert Leslie - The Miniature

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

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

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


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

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

It was understood that the microcosm represents the macrocosm.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Illustrator Gennady Kalinowski
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Illustrator Gennady Kalinowski


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

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

Emma Donoghue

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

Susan Jeffers – artist & illustrator Thumbelina

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

An illustration from “Through The Fire” by Hilda Boswell

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

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

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

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

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

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

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

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman


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

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

Goodreads marketing copy

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

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

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

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

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

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

Further Examples of The Miniature In Storytelling

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


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


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

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

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


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

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

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman

Townsend also enjoys The Borrowers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

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

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

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Film Adaptations of The Borrowers

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

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

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

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


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

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


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

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


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

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

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children



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


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

Header painting: Charles Robert Leslie — The Miniature

Airships And Hot Air Balloons

Dreams of My Childhood oil and tempera on canvas painting

Flight is highly symbolic in children’s literature. The airship, dirigible or hot air balloon is another means by which writers can take their characters into the sky, varying the topography and the view.

The title of the new Disney/Pixar movie “Up,” as well as its signature image of a house floating beneath thousands of tethered balloons, reminds us how frequently the theme of Lightness appears in children’s literature. From Mary Poppins to Peter Pan, from Tarzan swinging on vines to Harry Potter scooting on his broomstick, children’s stories seem to feature the quick, the lithe and the aerial. Maybe that’s not surprising. While adults seem earthbound, youngsters zoom by on skateboards or jump from heights as caped incarnations of Superman.

Jerry Griswold, Literary Antecedents To The Movie Up
  1. What do you know about airships?
  2. Have you seen airships before, in the sky or in certain types of stories?
  3. What does the presence of an airship add to the feel/mood/setting of a story?

What is an airship?

Airships are also called ‘blimps’ and are seen quite often at sporting events as advertising vessels. Airships are also called ‘dirigibles’.

In fiction, airships are a common sight in alternative superhero depictions of New York. You may recognise the airship from DC’s Batman series.

The GCPD Blimp from Batman

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s most internationally renowned animator of children’s films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro seems to enjoy animating airships in his un-Japanese, European-esque worlds of films such as Castle In The Sky. Steampunk fiction is also a fan of the dirigible.

An airship crashes in Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service
An airship crashes in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service

Airships were once a fairly common sight in Northern skies.

The Legacy Of The Hindenburg

The most famous real-life airship is The Hindenburg, which caught alight during an electrical storm while trying to land on May 3, 1937. Due to a limited supply of helium (mainly in America), hydrogen was used to give airships lift. Hydrogen is lighter than air but is highly flammable.

The Hindenburg was a massive airship — perhaps the airship equivalent of The Titanic — affordable only to the super rich, because a one-way ticket from Europe to America cost the equivalent of a car. Flight was brand new to humans, and it’s easy to forget that the passengers had never seen the world from a bird’s eye view before.

Everybody looks up and they see this graceful, slow moving, big object, and that seems to be something people are just fascinated with.

Mark Kynett (Senior pilot, Goodyear Blimp) speaks on the documentary When Weather Changed History: The Hindenburg Disaster.

The fact that documentaries are still being made about this disaster shows that we are still fascinated by airships.

If the Hindenburg disaster had never happened, history would have played out differently. We would be living in a slightly different world as a result. No doubt a Hindenburg-type disaster would have happened at one point or another, but it’s fascinating to consider how the history might be slightly different. Airships are often used in fictional worlds which are basically real, but are slightly off-kilter. The presence of an airship helps to create such a setting.

The Airships In Hilda Bewildered

The Hindenburg was thought to be infallible. The vessel was referred to as “Queen Of The Skies”. This connection to royalty is fascinating because the airship as metaphor for royalty and celebrity is a good one. When common people see celebrity it’s easy to forget that these are human beings who are really not infallible at all. Often, celebrities die younger than they should, in ‘fiery’ events which captures the media’s attention.

The metaphor of height differential and flight is common in fiction. Altitude is also reflected in English idioms. We say ‘rise to the occasion’ or ‘look up to’ someone. In this story, a Princess is aware of the world that surrounds her. She can’t understand why she has been born into royalty when the role could just as easily have been given to some other girl. This doesn’t exactly fill her with confidence, as she prepares to deliver her first significant speech as a princess who has recently come of age. In an attempt to elevate herself in her own mind, she imagines herself on an airship, looking down on the world. Common wisdom about calming nerves before a presentation or speech often includes metaphors of lightness and flying: We are often advised to fill our lungs with air by taking deep breaths. We attempt to ‘rise above it’, to ‘glide’ into a room. We may feel ‘light-headed’. All of this relates to the metaphor of the airship. Princess Hilda’s freckles, which she considers proof of her ordinariness (despite being covered in makeup for the cameras), are now lights on the landscape; freckles make the landscape beautiful and therefore she must be beautiful. Or so she tells herself. By looking down on the landscape from high above, she is also trying to regain perspective on her own place in the world; a speech to open winter (a season which will happen with or without her blessing)seems less significant when she looks down on the world from high above, and realises she is not the center of the universe. There is a whole world besides, and not everyone is listening.

This includes the commuters who dash home to their own houses after a working week. These people are not royalists. They are busy with their own lives, and pay her little heed. It helps the Princess to remember these people. To them, she is invisible.

Because Hilda starts her imaginary journey in an airship, this allows for a dramatic and obvious change in altitude  over the course of the story. After emerging from the underground, Hilda instructs the taxi driver to ‘take the low road’ into the woods, prompting further descent. The imaginary airship sequence is thereby complemented with the alternative trick of spiriting her mind away to a dark basement in an abandoned hotel at the bottom of the deep, dark woods. All the while, Princess Hilda imagines she is not a princess at all — she is just an ordinary girl — an ordinary girl with ‘real problems’ — no loving mother, not enough to eat, no warm clothes, who is on the run from the police, to boot.

Illustrator unknown, 1909 airship
Illustrator unknown, 1909

The Long-Lost Home

In number six (and final) of the Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place series, the main character is stuck in a Russian village but must make her way home to England. I’m guessing it involves a hot air balloon. Publication due end of 2017.

Patrick Woodroffe (1940 - 2014) 1971 book cover illustration for The Warlord Of Air by Michael Moorcock airship
Patrick Woodroffe (1940 – 2014) 1971 book cover illustration for The Warlord Of Air by Michael Moorcock
'The Golden Mountain' with 22 watercolors by Corrado Sarri, 1911
‘The Golden Mountain’ with 22 watercolors by Corrado Sarri, 1911

A miniature air balloon is also used in this episode of  Wallace and Gromit.

Header illustration: Dreams of My Childhood, oil and tempera on canvas painting