The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARK?
As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:
Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”
In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)
On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.
The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.
Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.
But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)
Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):
In The Dark we have:
You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.
Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.
We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.
The dark can be kind, helpful even.
The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.
‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’
We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.
Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:
The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?
— from We Were The Mulvaneys
Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.
It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.
As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.
(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.
Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.
This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.
The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
It creeps all over the house.
I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.
The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.
Some (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.
Dwellings in fantasy don’t always look like the rectangular structure we know and love.
Bilbo’s circular house feels particularly cosy, in stark contrast to the jagged mountains in the distance.
Dollhouses in fiction serve various main functions:
Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
Girlhood and naivety
The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.
However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.
The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls
Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps her mother disapproves of and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.
Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.
— Gilmore girls wiki
Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents — and the big fancy dollhouse — represent.
Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends
The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.
Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.
Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series
Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family — a typically Mormon aspiration — is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.
But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an apparent utopia.
A dollhouse is meant to be looked at — at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative — and they are storybook in their nature; staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side of the house.
Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.
The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.
Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.
All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.
My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film
My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.
Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.
The Doll’s House, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield
This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.
“The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.
The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”
“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.
Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.
“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.
The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.
Tom’s Midnight Garden
This story is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:
[T}his was a great disappointment to him–he found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could nto push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.
Within romantic comedy, the setting of the beach has come to function as a highly potent and privileged setting, evolving into a generic ‘magic space’ that sanctions and protects those desiring love, while allowing for certain forms of speech involving intimacy and the (sexual) self that cannot be uttered elsewhere.
Time and again, the sea functions as an alternative, liberating space away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city, constituting an arena where characters can find intimacy and give themselves over to love in ways impossible elsewhere.
The sea also suggests the elusiveness of everlasting love. The meaning of the sea in romantic comedy is not entirely stable. It is used to endorse romantic notions about ‘authentic’ love and natural ‘soulmates’. But that’s not all: a certain paradox is at play in the genre’s use of the shoreline, since the liminal space of the sea/beach stands simultaneously both for enduring natural wonder that will outlast each of us, and the very essence of evanescence. Always changing, never fixed, inescapably different from one day to the next, it is a reminder of the capriciousness of love and life, an expressive signifier which by its very nature reminds us of the transience of all things.
— notes from the abstract of Sea of love: place, desire and the beaches of romantic comedy by Deborah Jermyn; Janet McCabe
There are also obvious connections between swimming in the water and being housed safely inside your mother’s body. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the sea can transgressively return us to a primitive time:
In the womb we swim in salty water, sprouting residual fins and tails and rudimentary gills, turning in our little oceans, queer beasts that might yet become whales or fish or humans. We first sense the world through the fluid of our mother’s belly; we hear through the sea inside her. We speak of bodies of water, Herman Melville wrote of “the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin”.
And when we return to swim beneath that skin, our identities and stories are blurred and reinvented. Jellyfish – ancient evolutionary survivors that predate and may yet outlive us – change sex as they mature; cuttlefish and moray eels slip from one gender and back again, shape-shifting in the alien deep. Ever since we began, we have found an affinity in this mutative place and its sense of the sublime.
In a young country like New Zealand there are no medieval castles. However, there is always the beach. The beaches of NZ have a haunted history which takes the place of Europe’s castles and dungeons.
The beach can therefore function as a gothic setting in its own right.
The coast can have a binar yrole:
be home to all sorts of strange creatures and happenings
In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.
These novels are about men who retreat to the coast. The atmosphere is dark and brooding. They have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. The landscape feels evil.
Because the beach is such a symbolic place, ending a character’s journey beside the sea is left with the audience as a proxy for so much more. Katherine Mansfield does it in “The Wind Blows”. After a long, windy day, the teenage girl ends up looking out at the sea.
Richard Ayoade has his main character run to the seaside and there he is joined by his problematic girlfriend. They stand in the water together.
This isn’t so dissimilar to Thelma & Louise, who end up in the canyon, but together. (The canyon was itself created by a body of water.)
The French Film 400 Blows also ends with the main character running to the sea. The outtake is a freeze frame of his face.
My interpretation of this rush-to-the-seaside as a story ending: The seaside is functioning similarly to how crossroads function narratively. The main character has come to the edge of a chunk of their life just as they have come to the edge of the land, things are about to change completely and the flat bed of the ocean afford them a view of the grand scheme of things. And since the sea is scary, we are left with the sense that their life from here on will include danger — storms, choppy waters and no guarantee that they will get to where they want to end up.
Some of the oldest tales about miniature creatures living in oversized land come from fairytales: Thumbelina and Tom Thumb are the first that come to mind.
My method was mostly metaphorical: what if Thumbelina wasn’t actually small, she just felt small?
— Emma Donoghue, explaining how when rewriting fairytales she took tales from the oral tradition and simply considered them in metaphorical terms.
A useful term here is ‘homunculus‘, which means a very small person. The plural is homunculi. This was originally a medical term which comes from alchemy. By the nineteenth century we knew a bit more about how humans come about, so now the homunculus was a fictional character.
Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party” on her 32nd birthday in 1921. She took a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay” before embarking upon this one. She felt that The Garden Party was better than “At The Bay”, ‘but that is not good enough, either…’ It is apparently based upon an actual incident.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.
The Garden Party is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; Prelude and At the Bay are more explorations of milieu (storyworld), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.
SETTING OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
KM presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.
Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.
THEMES OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Most stories have several themes.
Remember: A theme is always a full sentence! ‘Party’ cannot be a theme, for instance. ‘Party’ is ‘subject matter’. When you write themes as a sentence they often sound simple or trite, but that’s okay. The stories themselves are much more subtle.
Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.
The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.
Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.
People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.
Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.
The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.
[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]
CHARACTERS OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected KM’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.
The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).
This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps KM chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason?
Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this storyworld through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.
At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters. She finally reaches her own personal understanding of life, which is left ambiguous in the final sentence. She does not reject the social life of the upper-class but comes to her own serious kind of maturity.
Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.
When the carter dies, again, Laura sees him as another human, with the frivolity of their party exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to the true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she is going to do much about the income disparity.
Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat.
Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.
Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.
Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.
Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict.
SYMBOLISM IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class – superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it.
‘Forgive my hat.’
Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.
Birds and Flight
Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough–she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”
— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster
That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’.
This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.
Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)
Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. This is, as John Truby would tell you in his book Anatomy of Story, an ‘apparent utopia’. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end:
This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
— John Truby
There are a number of different words you might use when describing something like utopia:
Nostalgic — can have a negative connotation, meaning a kind of ‘homesickness’, where nothing can ever be as good as you think it was (and it never was that great anyway).
Topophilia — this is a term coined by Gaston Bachilard in his book The Poetics of Space. It means simply ‘love for a place’, free of the negative connotations associated with ‘nostalgia’.
Arcadian — Another word for Utopian. Arcadia is the name of a Greek province. Utopia also comes from Greek and literally means ‘nowhere/not a place’, though this might be a somewhat simplified etymology. But in some ways, Arcadia and Utopia are opposites — Arcadia is thought of as a garden full of good fruits for humans to enjoy whereas Utopia can be considered a place which has been shaped by humans, in which the environment is as much a construction as the society itself. Utopia in its purest form is a spaceship in a futuristic science fiction story.
Pastoral — when referring to land, it means land for raising cattle or sheep. But when referring to literature, pastoral means ‘portraying an idealized version of country life. But if you look for ‘pastoral books’ you’ll probably find books relating to the Christian church. The Wind In The Willows is pastoral, though also treated as nostalgic and Arcadian, depending on the critic.
Prelapsarian — characteristic of the time before the Fall of Man; innocent and unspoilt.
If the garden is an apparent utopia, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:
fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
pomegrante-seed monkey business
six-month growing season
happy parties all round
they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.
The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)
Darkness and Shadow as Death
KM does a great job of describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.
NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay
DESCRIBE AN IDEA THAT INTERESTED YOU IN EACH TEXT. EXPLAIN WHY THESE IDEAS INTERESTED YOU.
AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield
TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party
An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, The Voyage and The Garden Party, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.
The Voyage is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents. As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone. The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.
Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity. Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’. At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it. Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:
“You’ve got my –“
“Yes grandma”. Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.
This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.
In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood. Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story. For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp. The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness. On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows. In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail. “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”. As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’. These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life. This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.
The Garden Party also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves. Unlike Fenella in The Voyage, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence. When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”. This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.
The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue. When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family. Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion. She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over. At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence. She does not need to, as Laurie understands her. This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.
Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death. Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves. This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.
Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
high desert landscapes
buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.
As Rene Welleck and Warren Austin suggest, in Theory of Literature, ‘domestic interiors may be metonymic or metaphoric expressions of character’.
The comforting image of an idealized maternal figure and environment are produced in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Carrie and her little brother Nick are evacuated to Wales during World War 2. They are billeted with a rather strange couple whose house is cold and austere. But they derive much comfort from visiting Hepzibah whose kitchen is “A warm, safe, lighted place … Coming into it was like coming home on a bitter cold day to a bright, leaping fire. It was like the smell of bacon when you were hungry; loving arms when you were lonely; safety when you were scared.’ Thus, the kitchen is a maternalized space, a place where warmth, the promise of food, bodily contact, and security conflate to produce feelings of comfort. When the children first meet Hepzibah she is “smiling. She was tall with shining hair the colour of copper. She wore a white apron, and there was flour on her hands. She has “a rather broad face, pale as cream, and dotted with freckles. Carrie thought she looked beautiful: so warm and friendly and kind.’ The feelings of homely, maternal comfort evoked by the descriptions of the kitchen and of Hepzibah herself are embellished and reinforced by sensuous descriptions of food. Carrie is shown the dairy where “there were speckly eggs in trays on the shelf, slabs of pale, oozy butter, and a big bowl of milk with a skin of cream on the top.
— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Do you have a favourite picture book kitchen? What does it say about the character who lives in it?
from one of the Brambly Hedge books
The smaller, working-class Victorian kitchen or parlour would appear, to a modern child, to have all the warm, dark earthiness of rabbit hole or badger sett.
The cosy kitchen is often chaotic, overflowing with food (and love and happiness).
Bush Picnic by Eveline Dare and John Richards (1970)
Here we have a happy nuclear family, but with a modern and sleek kitchen (1970 version). This appears in a picture book, but might just as well appear in an advertisement for stainless steel kettles or kitchen design.
Courage The Cowardly Dog (Horror Comedy TV Series 1999-)
Generally speaking, a lot of thought goes into choosing character names. Sometimes a name is chosen because it is appropriate to the age of the character, culture and era. Sometimes the name is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes the name is symbolic.
NEW NAME, NEW SELF
When Walter White changes his name to Heisenberg, he has created an entire alter ego. Breaking Bad is a modern superhero story. We are familiar with superheroes, ever since Super-man/Clark Kent. This is such obvious symbolism it doesn’t hold up to much more scrutiny than that.
LOSS OF NAME, LOSS OF TRUE SELF
This is a pervasive idea throughout literature, even though we obviously don’t subscribe to it in real life. Women in the West are still largely expected (and do) change surnames when marrying a man, yet we don’t believe she has lost a part of herself. When Chinese speakers immigrate to English speaking countries they quite often adopt a name which is pronounceable and memorable for native English speakers. Do those immigrants with several names feel they have lost a part of themselves? Or do they feel their name is simply the label they attach to themselves in certain contexts?
How many names do you have?
My name (Lynley) is a ridiculous tongue-twister to native Japanese speakers, so while I lived in Japan my name was switched to my last name (Stace). It’s common for even young Japanese people to go by their last name in Japan — it seems to be a bit of a lucky dip whether you’re known by your first or your last name, whereas in my home country (New Zealand) young people very rarely go by their last name, unless there’s a specific reason for doing so. (One of my brothers made friends with all of the Davids in his year so he, too, went by the name Stace for clarity purposes.) I have never gone by our last name Stace outside Japan, though I like to keep it for use online. I felt nothing about me changed when my moniker changed.
That doesn’t tend to be true when it comes to fictional characters.
Take the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away. Chihiro becomes Sen — the Chinese reading of a shortening of her Japanese name — until she can escape from the enslaving world ruled by the bath woman.
After Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, Haku warns Sen not to forget her former name or she will be trapped in the spirit world forever. Sen must remember the qualities that make her who she is and remain true to them, even though her name, the one word that defines her, has changed. Sen succeeds in keeping her identity and also helps Haku regain his, ultimately freeing them both. Haku is living proof of the dangers inherent in forgetting one’s true identity. Names are of fundamental importance in the spirit world, and those in power keep their control by stealing and changing names. Only those characters with the inner strength to hold onto their names and identities can free themselves.
— Spark Notes
After The First Death is young adult thriller from the 1970s by Robert Cormier. This story contains similar name symbolism — characters forfeit their names.
Part One opens with a first person narrator who feeds us his name in dribs and drabs.
Part Two switches point of view. These Middle Eastern terrorists have lost their names entirely, trained to forget them by means of dedicating themselves to the cause. Cormier is careful to emphasise that these terrorist, foreign boys have names — or had them. This turns them into individuals. The sociopathic terrorist among the group shows us his true colours by angering a waitress when he chooses to ignore her wishes to be called by her own name rather than one he has designated. By taking her name he demonstrates his ability to turn off empathy. This guy is therefore posited from the beginning as a cold-blooded killer.
“That will be all, Myra,” Artkin said.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘That will be all, Myra.”
“My name’s not Myra,” the girl said.
Artkin smiled at her. “Of course it isn’t,” he said. But his voice suggested the opposite, his voice and his smile. They hinted wickedly of deep secrets.
“Well, it isnt,” she said. “My name’s Bonnie, although the priest didn’t like it because there’s no Saint Bonnie.”
“Please give us the check, Myra,” Artkin said, voice cold now, uninterested.
“I said my name’s not Myra,” she muttered as she totaled up the bill.
“Myra’s a nice name. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Artkin said.
Her face reddened, accentuating the acne, the pimples and small scabs. Artkin could do that to people, intimidate them, draw them into conversations they did not want to be drawn into, force the into confrontations.
“Think about it, Myra. How old were you when you were baptized? Two weeks, two months? Do you remember being baptized with the name Bonnie? Of course not. It’s what people have told you. Have you ever seen your birth certificate? Not he thing they give you when you go to City Hall for a copy, but the original? The one that says your name is Myra. You’ve never seen it, have you? But that doesn’t mean it does not exist. You have never seen me before but I exist. I have existed all this time. I might have been there when you were baptized, Myra.”
She stood there for a moment, the check in her hand, hesitant, doubtful, her eyes wary, and Miro knew that this was what Artkin had worked to do: create this split second of doubt and hesitation. He knew that he had reached his mark, drawn blood. Then the moment vanished. The girl flung the check on the table.
“You’re nuts,” she said, and turned away, shaking her head at all the strange people loose in the world.
— After The First Death by Robert Cormier
NAMES AS CHARACTER SYMBOLS
A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/story world/plot. A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.
A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis (realism). In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer and your dermatologist is called Dr Healsmith, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)
Also known as:
a label name
When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym. Or sometimes aptonym (without the ‘r’)
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Enid Blyton loved label names — think Watzisname, Dame Washalot, Silky and Moonface. from The Magic Faraway Tree series. These names were very literal. Blyton steered clear of ironic symbolism.
The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp features some farmers called Mr and Mrs Sandal, who happen to be vegetarian. This is a symbolic name for the adult co-reader, as I’m not sure young readers would always know how heavily sandals are associated with vegetarianism — mostly because this was true back in the 1970s, I think.
The entire cast of Mr Men and The Smurfs
Beautiful Bella from the Twilight series
Some names are symbolic mainly because of the history of stories that precede them. In children’s literature, having Little before your name means chances are slim of you ever becoming Big. You’ll probably die.
DO SYMBOLIC NAMES COMPROMISE REALISM?
The middle grade novel A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is filled with characters with colourful names. Early in the story we meet the Cowgills. The child narrator lampshades the symbolism of the name by writing: “It may have been just a coincidence that a family named Cowgill owned the dairy. I never knew.” This lampshading is necessary because Peck is basically going for nostalgic historical realism. It also leads to some humour.
It works because sometimes a real person does seem to have a symbolic name, in which case it’s comically coincidental. Donald Trump springs to mind. I do know a teacher called Mrs Bellringer.
Writers of popular adult stories seem to subscribe to this view, though symbolic names for adult characters tend to take on a different form — the main characters in True Detective are called Hart and Cohle, which is symbolically linked (Heart and Coal) to their personalities and character arcs. This weaker connection is safer if you’re hoping to avoid metafiction.
Another very similar example occurs in The Sixth Sense, starring a main character called Malcolm Crowe. Crowe is dead, so one could argue Shyamalan is giving us a big clue in with the character’s name. Cole Sear: “Cole” compared to “coal” which is black like death. “Sear” compared to “seer,” someone who has keen insight. Of course, Cole has the insight that Malcolm is a ghost (“I see dead people”).
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN STORIES FOR ADULTS
Stories for adults also feature characters with symbolic names, especially if they are comedies. Will Freeman of About A Boy is one example. Tied down to no one, this man-child really does live under the illusion of free will.