As a writing exercise, describe your own living room, or the living room of someone you know. For inspiration, I offer the following examples from literature.
EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY DAPHNE DU MAURIER
We were all sitting in the long, low room at Farthings, darker than usual because of the rain. The french windows gave very little light, chopped as they were in small square panes that added to the beauty of the house from without, but inside had all the appearance of prison bars, oddly depressing.
The grandfather clock in the corner ticked slowly and unevenly; now and again it gave a little cough, hesitating momentarily, like an old man with asthma, then ploughed on again with quiet insistence. The fire in the basket grate had sunk rather low; the mixture of coke and coal had caked in a solid lump, giving no warmth; and the logs that had been flung carelessly on top earlier in the afternoon smouldered in dull fashion, needing the bellows to coax them into life. The papers were strewn about the floor, and the empty cardboard covers of gramophone records were amongst them, along with a cushion that had fallen from the sofa. These things may have added to Charles’s irritation. He was an orderly man, with a methodical mind.
— from the opening scene of The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, 1949.
In the short passage above du Maurier conveys a lot of information.
The reader learns right away that this house — and the people who live there — are not like the landscape outside. The house looks good from the other side but when you’re in it, not so much. The snail under the leaf setting, symbolised by a single house.
The house is compared to a prison
The grandfather clock is personified, which in turn makes the actual people seem part of the room. Since the clock is ‘like an old man with asthma’ we know something is about to end and another thing begin.
We know the temperature of the room
We have a sense of the light
We have enough detail to place this room in its approximate time period — the bellows, the open fire which uses coke and coal for fuel, and the gramophone records all indicate this setting is mid-20th century
Words such as strewn, flung, empty, smouldered and coax work together to not only describe the room but some of its occupants.
The room is juxtaposed with the first character introduced — the orderly Charles. This is the story’s initial conflict.
EXAMPLE OF A LIVING ROOM DESCRIBED BY ALICE MUNRO
Alice Munro focuses first on a single aspect of this space — the soft furnishings. Why is the carpet daunting? Perhaps because white carpet shows up stains. But because this is a Munro short story, we know that the ‘stain’ is heavily symbolic, beyond the actual carpet.
Grant caught sight of two layers of front-window curtains, both blue, one sheer and one silky, a matching blue sofa and a daunting pale carpet, various bright mirrors and ornaments. […]
Kitchens are great because everything in them feels symbolic. Knives are especially foreboding, even if they’re not used to murder anyone in the end.
On the kitchen counters there were all sorts of contrivances and appliances—coffeemaker, food processor, knife sharpener, and some things Grant didn’t know the names or uses of. All looked new and expensive, as if they had just been taken out of their wrappings, or were polished daily.
The viewpoint character’s response segues nicely from the thumbnail description, telling us more about him:
He thought it might be a good idea to admire things. He admired the coffeemaker she was using and said that he and Fiona had always meant to get one. This was absolutely untrue—Fiona had been devoted to a European contraption that made only two cups at a time.
We also learn about the woman he has come to visit:
“They gave us that,” she said. “Our son and his wife. They live in Kamloops. B.C. They send us more stuff than we can handle. It wouldn’t hurt if they would spend the money to come and see us instead.”
Grant said philosophically, “I suppose they’re busy with their own lives.”
— “The Bear Went Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro
My favourite detail comes further down, when Munro describes an ordinary kitchen object in gruesome terminology:
She poured the coffee into two brown-and-green ceramic mugs that she took from the amputated branches of a ceramic tree trunk that sat on the table.
All it took was that one word — amputated. Grant feels entirely cut off from his wife, who has dementia, and who is also having an affair inside the care facility.
Header painting: Henry Wallis – The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born 1853
We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).
A well-known island from Greek mythology is Ogygia, considered ‘navel of the sea’. This island is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as the home of the nymph Calypso. This isn’t your typical rugged island where inhabitants must fight for survival — Ogygia is more like Calypso’s own English country estate where Calypso is an upper class maiden who spends her days singing while she weaves. The island is her house and she is a little housewife.
Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.
Island stories often involve a shipwreck.
They also generally involve fire building. Fires are a sign of culture, dividing humans from other animals (who cannot deliberately make fire).
An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
Although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread. This plays into the Protestant idea that hard work brings good things.
Islands in fiction are often depicted as liminal sites. (Liminal = relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.)
Islands are “fertile spaces for the exploration of the shifting sands of identity”. (Mary Thompson)
Island exploration could be a metaphor for childhood and adolescence itself. Island metaphors have made it into English idiom: ‘feeling unanchored, adrift’, being swept away on ‘the rising tide’, ‘turbulent waters/adolescence’.
On islands in children’s stories, the division between fantasy and reality is frequently erased. The island itself is a portal as well as a destination.
To use Foucault’s terminology, the island is a heterotopia.
Islands are, by their definition, separate from the land-mass termed the ‘mainland’. Codes of behaviour acceptable on an island can be viewed as ‘outside’ the norm. This results in a different kind of community and different attitudes about in-group and out-group individuals.
Characters can often feel very possessive about their own island and hostile to newcomers. This makes the island a good setting for exploring themes about homogenous communities and their attitudes to outsiders. Island settings often explore sameness/difference, power/control, order/chaos.
This is why the island setting is often an arena of imprisonment rather than liberation.
Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.
The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.
R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.
Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.
Making The Most of Island Settings
In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.
Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it.
Send the characters to an island. This plays into a widely shared wish fulfilment of self-sufficiency (also at play in reality TV shows such as Doomsday Preppers.)
Create a new society based on different rules and values. For a standout example of that see Lord of the Flies. The children are now in charge instead of the adults, in a dystopian carnivalesque tale.
Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)
Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)
Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or anagnorisis)
Well-known Dystopian Island Settings
Lord Of The Flies (not written as children’s fiction — it was never originally written nor marketed for a young audience. )
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Bridge To Terabithia
The Shipping News
The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)
Well-known Utopian Island Settings
Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
Robinson Crusoe — The most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primitive. It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story.*
Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created a snail under the leaf setting in her award winning children’s novel.
*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
The Light Between Oceans
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.
The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived there and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.
Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.
At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.
ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS
The Island by Armin Greder
The Swiss-Australian writer and illustrator Armin Greder’s picture book The Island (2007) focuses on the arrival of a stranger, who washes up on an unnamed island only to be confronted by the townspeople’s harsh and prejudicial treatment. The illustrations explore this dynamic in a particularly harrowing manner, with Greder’s expressionistic drawings referencing, in one haunting frame, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893). The picture book explores fear and hatred of the Other, and collective behaviour in relation to island communities. Perhaps inevitably, there are also potential discussions stemming from this work in relation to migration and the treatment of refugees, and it has been used as a text to facilitate such dialogues in classroom contexts in both Australia and the UK. The theme of prejudice is particularly pervasive in this book, and even individuals who, we might assume, would be figures of decency, for example, the priest and teacher, become complicit in the cruel treatment of this stranger on the island. Not a single islander decides to break rank and come to the aid of the stranger, who is taunted, bullied and, in the final sequence, rejected fully and banished, once again into the ocean.
Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.
Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.
Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)
Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.
The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.
The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.
When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)
Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.
Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”
Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.
But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.
The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry (ie. by us)
In our picture book app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.
A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.
ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.
In pulp fiction for kids islands are a recurring setting.
The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave — Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped. When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart. But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.
Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk — This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the real-world Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — a snail under the leaf setting, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.
There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.
CITIES AS ISLANDS
The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.
It can be a city.
The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.
The ocean contains multivalent symbolism — the known and the unknown; surface versus deep.
The Ocean Surface
The thing about the ocean surface is, unlike a landscape equivalent, the desert, you should be a little worried about what’s hiding underneath. That’s because humans are terrified of isolation, and through fable and folklore we populate every imaginary space with creatures and critters: Forests with fairies, homes with hobgoblins, outer space with little green men. We populate our watery depths with mermaids, Lochness monsters and Sponge-bob Squarepants.
Examples of Ocean-Scapes
Moby-Dick — a great example of a character who the author sets us up to believe is going to be the hero, but then kills him off for some weird reason. Moby Dick has also been rewritten for children, as many of the classics have. See, for instance, the version by Geraldine McCaughrean.
Like deserts, ocean-scapes take you outside society, magnifying your loneliness and vulnerability.
Titanic — based loosely on historical events, with a great example of a refrigerator ending (you realise afterwards, when you’re looking in the fridge for a snack, that Rose probably could have saved Jack.)
Jaws — the film which revolutionised movie merchandising
Dead Calm — the Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill thriller
Bloodline — Cissy Spacek’s TV series about a black sheep brother who returns home
All Is Lost — the Robert Redford (almost) wordless movie
Open Water — a 2003 American psychological horror drama film loosely based on the true story of an American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went out with a scuba diving group, Outer Edge Dive Company, on the Great Barrier Reef, and were accidentally left behind because the dive-boat crew failed to take an accurate headcount.
For each of the manmade features, there is a naturally occurring symbolic equivalent. Oceans are connected to cities across storytelling. This is especially so in certain genres — the scary ones. We started out in the sea, and I’m sure there was a scary reason for making it onto land because the imagery of something big and scary floating towards us continues to haunt. Literally — when I think of monsters floating through space I not only think of bigger fish in a sea, but of ghosts. Why do ghosts tend to float? I believe that, too, derives from how ocean creatures move. The slow, floaty monster is almost more scary than the monsters with leonine speed and agility.
The following music clip is an excellent example of the floaty city-ocean link we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are fish swimming through water.
Ocean Metaphors In Horrors and Thrillers
Broadchurch — The introductory imagery of Broadchurch melds sea and (not-so-) cosy cottage together. Post-processing has given the scene a bluish hue, not only to replicate night-time but also to emphasise the underwater blues of the sea.
Another early sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.
In this clip the fish (camera) follows one of the main characters creepily down the street, offering contrast with the friendliness of the storybook village. The camera might be a fish or might equally be an invisible ghost.
Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.
The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.
And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:
British detective series is an interesting case. Below is a clip from the pilot episode, in which the camera is positioned from the point-of-view of an omniscient eye (as given to the audience) but moves like a predatory fish underwater. Note that the camera is following the villain in this case, not the potential victims. That’s because The Fall is not a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit. Suspense for the viewer in this case relies upon watching how the hero detective (Stella) solves the mystery of a serial killer. (In a genre which historically relies upon the rape and murder of women, this switch-up makes the detective series feel a little more feminist.)
CITY AS OCEAN IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN
Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.
Others have done similar:
The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)
These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.
Though not specifically for children, artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.
Sometimes the excitement of the ocean can be achieved in a swimming pool which, to a child, can seem just as scary.
Ocean As Utopia
In stories for children, the underwater world is most often a type of utopia.
The Stream That Stood Still by Beverley Nichols
Modern audiences may not have heard of this story, the second of Nichols’ Magic Woodland trilogy, as it was first published in the 1940s, and hasn’t been made into a movie. The main message in it is that concerted action and goodwill of many weak creatures will sometimes overthrow a single, strong, well-armed tyrant. The underwater world is obtrusively humanised: the sticklebacks belong to a regiment, the minnows are a ladies’ finishing school. The fish have police and magistrates.
The comedy in this TV series works (for both children and adults) because the social structure is mimetic of (North American) human society. The underwater setting allows for wacky characters, a novel setting and lots of gags based on sea creatures.
The music video today blends an underwater setting with reggae culture and also Western tropes.
THE SEA CAVE (LITTORAL CAVE)
Another wonderful advantage of sea settings is that the writer might make use of the caves formed by the nearby wave action to turn the ocean into a vast labyrinth where characters can easily get lost both laterally and vertically. One of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in fiction is the scene in The Beach by Alex Garland where the main character is swimming underground and almost runs out of breath while lost in the network of sea caves.
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 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.