Snow White and Rose Red Fairytale Analysis

Richard Doyle - Snow White and Rose Red 1877

“Snow White and Rose Red” exists in many forms but I’ll refer to a version set down by the Grimm Brothers. This is the story of a lesser known Snow White, and her sister Rose Red. There is indeed a dwarf, but he’s a different sort of dwarf from the crew we encounter in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

James Sant - A Thorn Amidst the Roses
James Sant – A Thorn Amidst the Roses

SETTING OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”

How big is this utopian forest? The girls keep running into the dwarf. I put it to you that this is either a tiny forest (more like a spinny) or they meet a different dwarf each time. (Turns out dwarves keep changing in size.)

Either that or the girls are stalking the dwarf. Perhaps they are not as stupid as they appear on paper, and were in on the bear’s plan from the get-go, hoping to kill him themselves, but only after he reveals his store of treasure.

None of this is on the page, of course, because fairytales as recorded by the Grimm Brothers rendered girls and women innocent naifs who required rescuing by men.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED”

Snow White belongs to a category of stories in which girls are taught self-sacrifice in order to better serve men. These stories didn’t stop appearing in the 1800s. More recent examples:

In “Snow White and Rose Red” an ursine prince asks to come in and warm by the fire. Of course the women let him in, as Mrs Tittlemouse let in the toad, also to sit in front of her fire. Because he wanted to. Because he believed he had the right to her space, her time and her attention. And because the girls fulfilled their feminine roles of caring, all worked out in the end.

SHORTCOMING

This is the story of sisters, presented as different sides of the same coin. Any personality difference is symbolised by the contrasting colour of their hair.

These archetypes have been recycled in many stories, for example in Laura and Mary from the Little House series, or Anne and George from The Famous Five series. One is quiet, the other active:

Snow-White was more gentle, and quieter than her sister, who liked better skipping about the fields, seeking flowers, and catching summer birds; while Snow-White stayed at home with her mother, either helping her in her work, or, when that was done, reading aloud.

These are the Ideal Girls, at one with nature, loving each other deeply. They always share everything and are perfectly clean and tidy. They have no moral shortcoming at all.

In a way, Snow White and Rose Red have superpowers. They are high mimetic heroines according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. Their superpower is a specifically feminine variety. These girls are so well connected to Earth and nature that nature cannot harm them. The idea that women are close to nature both elevates and hinders women. If you’re close to nature, you can’t rise up to become one with God, unlike men, who are Gods of their own domains.

Because these girls are so Good, ‘no mischance befell them’. This exposes a problematic ideology in which bad things happen to bad people. So what, exactly, is their story worthy problem? How do we make a story out of that? When the main characters of a story are Mary Sue archetypes, all the interest must come from the opponents. What tends to happen is, the main characters are so boring the contemporary reader ends up empathising with the opposition, simply because they’re not boring. This is partly why Mary Sue characters are a bad idea in modern stories, except in parody.

by Eric Winter for Snow White and Rose Red by Vera Southgate (1969) for Ladybird
by Eric Winter for Snow White and Rose Red by Vera Southgate (1969) for Ladybird

DESIRE

Snow White and Rose Red live in Arcadia, where even at night in the surrounding woods are perfectly safe, and berries available whenever they’re hungry. What more could these characters want? They want for nothing, of course. This is part of what makes them so Very Good.

(It’s easier to want for nothing when all is provided for you.)

So any desire must come from other characters. The bear is the character with the strong desire for change, so the story kicks off when he enters the story.

OPPONENT

Alphonse Mucha- a sketch

Adventure comes to the door of their idyllic, cosy cottage, inhabited only by three women (the sisters and their mother).

One evening, as they were all sitting cosily together like this, there was a knock at the door, as if someone wished to come in.

All but the youngest audience will understand that this is not a bear but a prince. He’s a talking bear. (The film Brave takes the bear transformation plot and inverts its gender by turning a queen into a bear. ) Readers convince ourselves we don’t know if he’s a goodie or a baddie, though his royalty status is telegraphed when he rips his fur on the lintel and a little bit of gold shines through. This is supposed to be a reassuring tale.

The dwarf is clearly a baddie from the start. If you’ve only ever read modern, illustrated versions of this story it’s a surprise to read the Grimm’s version and learn how very small he is at times. Case in point, the girls mistake him for a grasshopper at one point. In my childhood picture books he is almost half the height of the girls.

If you met someone cranky but they were not much bigger than a grasshopper, their rage wouldn’t really scare you, would it? On the other hand, the dwarf is able to pick up ‘a sack of jewels’. In fairytales, dwarves are as big or small as the story requires them to be at any given time.

THE SIZE OF THE DWARF
Snow-White and Rose-Red Illustrated by Rie Cramer
Snow-White and Rose-Red Illustrated by Rie Cramer
Arthur Rackham for Snow White and Rose Red
Arthur Rackham for Snow White and Rose Red

On that point, how big were fairies, dwarves and other small fantasy creatures really meant to be? That depends on where you come from and in what era you lived.

Elizabethans loved miniature creatures, and the Jacobeans even more so.

Take a creature like Oberon (fairy king). In one story he is three feet tall, in other he is the size of the King on a playing card. Take another fantasy creature, the witch’s familiar. In England the witch’s familiar is a very small creature like an insect or a bee, but in Scotland, familiars are also attached to magicians and are bigger, more powerful creatures. Take fairies. Before Shakespeare they are about as big as insects, similar to the English witch’s familiar. Shakespeare himself made his fairies ‘in shape no bigger than an agate-stone’.

In this old tale, the dwarf is small enough to be picked up by a large bird.

The trope of the human picked up and carried away by a bird clearly plays into ancient fears.

PLAN

With no plans of their own due to living in a forest utopia, agency comes from the bear. Clearly he didn’t need to warm himself beside the fire. Bears are capable of thriving in very low temperatures. His plan from the start, revealed later, was to spend time next to the girls so that they’d fall in love with him. He is rewarded with rough and tumble and close physical affection.

From Josephine Pollard‘s children’s book Hours in Fairy Land: Enchanted Princess, White Rose and Red Rose, Six Swans (1883). Artist unknown.
Harper's Weekly 1885 Christmas bears
Harper’s Weekly 1885 Christmas bears. What is our interest in young women frolicking with bears?

Scenes of pretty young women taking care of hirsuite beasts in front of the hearth is a common scene across fairytale. Below, an illustration for a Scandinavian tale. And because it is Scandinavian, the beast is translated into English as ‘troll’.

The Princess picking Lice from the Troll 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
The Princess picking Lice from the Troll 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
She put her hand upon the beast's shaggy head from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
She put her hand upon the beast’s shaggy head from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
Luck Loo on her way to the North Pole to warm the polar bears with her red blanket. The drawing by Florence Harrison was for her book of poems, A Rhyme of a Run,1907
Luck Loo on her way to the North Pole to warm the polar bears with her red blanket. The drawing by Florence Harrison was for her book of poems, A Rhyme of a Run, 1907

BIG STRUGGLE

Making use of the Rule of Three, the girls keep rescuing the angry little dwarf. The reason they do this has been proposed in the first section of the story: They help someone out of trouble because they are Good. They are basically Goodness Automatons. These girls have never considered ethical dilemmas such as The Trolley Problem, in which we sometimes help more people by sacrificing one.

Eventually the bear turns up to save the girls from the dwarf’s wrath. The dwarf tries to convince the bear to eat the girls instead.

ANAGNORISIS

“I am a king’s son, who was enchanted by the wicked dwarf lying over there. He stole my treasure, and compelled me to roam the woods transformed into a big bear until his death should set me free. Therefore he has only received a well-deserved punishment.”

SPELLS BROKEN AT DEATH

The idea that a spell can be broken once your oppressor is dead can be found across various superstitious cultures. Most disturbing is that of the houngans in Haiti, origin of zombie mythology.

A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. In this community, if you want to take revenge on someone, you pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed — they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave.
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.

Although the supernatural parts of that story are not real, the zombie status of certain ostracised people is completely real. That’s what disturbs me the most. Imagine visiting a community in which someone is ignored, because everyone believes they’re the walking dead.

The living person who thinks they are really dead is utilised in the comic book series House of Whispers, written by Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born Canadian author). Jamaica is very close to Haiti, and Hopkinson has clearly made use of ancestral belief in her original additions to the Sandman universe.

NEW SITUATION

There is only one happy ending for girls in fairy tales — marriage to royalty. The prince regains his rightful treasure. (I doubt it was rightful.) They end up with even more treasure than before. Instead of trying to return it to its owners, they keep it, because they are royalty.

Snow White marries the prince and Rose Red marries his brother.

EXTRAPOLATION

The mother moves out of the cottage and presumably into the palace with her daughters.

RESONANCE

Probably because of the Disney film, Snow White from the story with the seven dwarves is the more famous Snow White. This remains a tale for those who read fairytale collections. I think “Snow White and Rose Red” would’ve been much better known 100 years ago, which is why a soap advertisement like below worked for an earlier audience.

Erasmic Peerless Soap - Advertisement - art by Lewis Baumer - 1929
Erasmic Peerless Soap – Advertisement – art by Lewis Baumer – 1929
1931
Nell Brinkley, cover for the Sunday Dayton Journal. July 26, 1936
Nell Brinkley, cover for the Sunday Dayton Journal. July 26, 1936
Willy Pogany

But the trope of the female duo (twins, sisters, friends, enemies), each with a different colour hair, remains a staple. TV Tropes call one iteration the Betty and Veronica trope. On film, TV and in illustrated books, it’s really handy to give two girls different coloured hair — the audience won’t get them mixed up. This is why the actress who plays Paris on Gilmore girls was asked to colour her naturally brown hair to blonde, to make her visually distinct from Rory Gilmore.

More widely, we seem to have a bit of a thing for dangerous bears and pretty young virgins rubbed up together. I theorise this is because the bear symbolises brute masculinity, and the virginal young woman is peak femininity, and we traditionally like to see those particular outworkings in the same room.

In this case, I don’t think for a second that a veiled sexual reading of this fairy tale is the modern one; I suspect the inverse is true — bowdlerised versions of Snow White and Rose Red have tried (with only moderate success) to erase the sexual nature of a bear coming to visit maidens in their home. However, contemporary writers such as Margo Lanagan did bring the full force of bestiality back into it, where it actually always was.

The imaginative connection between women and bears goes way back into antiquity. The Roman/Greek goddess Diana/Artemis’s spirit animal was the bear. This character is goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity.

Then there’s Callisto, Artio, Ildiko and Mielikki. All coded femme, all associated with bears.

Bear and the maiden fair 1899 by Franz Hein 1863 to 1927
Bear and the maiden fair 1899 by Franz Hein 1863 to 1927

Header illustration: Richard Doyle — Snow White and Rose Red 1877

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

George William Joy - The Baywater Omnibus 1895

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place.

On Trains You Lose Your Regular Self

The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.

Secrets of the New York City Subway

The Train As Heterotopia

Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease - The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease – The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927

Trains are an example of a heterotopia. For more on that see this post. French philosopher Michael Foucault had quite a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because [1] it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which [2] one can go from one point to another, and then it is also [3] something that goes by.

Foucault

Some modern kids might not know what’s going on in the painting below, partly because children are more supervised these days and mostly advised against playing around train tracks.

The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
Train track in Tokyo Drifter
Train track in Tokyo Drifter

Trains Are Masculine-coded Spaces

Modern audiences are unlikely to feel this way, but trains initially excluded women.

Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, says the burgeoning use of the steam engine in the early 19th century incited an unusual panic. Some “experts” believed that women’s bodies weren’t fit to travel at 50 mph. “They thought that our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as the train accelerated to that speed,” says Bell.

Women’s Day
Augustus Leopold Egg – The Travelling Companions 1862

Trains Are Multi-layered, Liminal Spaces

Multi-layered places and objects are especially useful for creating a symbol web. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

Epiphanies Happen On Trains

Trains have a special position outside other forms of public transport. It’s no accident that Neal of Planes, Trains and Automobiles has his epiphany while riding a train. Compared to planes and automobiles, trains provide a meditative calm.

Neal has his epiphany on a train

This is why here in Australia, The Indian Pacific: Australia’s Longest Train Journey proved such a hit for SBS, and led to a flurry of train bookings from enthusiastic viewers. The show is 3 hours of footage out a train window.

In her 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhaven bookends the story of a young woman trying to get over a recent breakup with scenes on a train. It is difficult to show epiphanies on screen. A lot relies on the skill of the actor, but the setting also helps. The train journey shows that the main character is ‘moving on’, but emotionally.

Trains As Metaphor For Passing Time

Lior’s song below is a love song, assuring the object of affection that “We’ll grow old together.” Lior also tells us that “time moves like a train”.

In fact, time moves nothing like a train. That is simply our human experience of it. For more on that read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

Symbolically, we think of rivers in the same way we think of trains. When it comes to love and fate, it seems we like to think time moves forward in one inevitable line, and that our lives will look just like that long, smooth, uninterrupted train track that lies ahead.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Included in this symbolism: The idea that the past is the past, and it’s time to let the past go.

A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it.

Ray Bradbury, “The Lake”.

The classic poster art illustration below is from a time when three competing technologies of rail transport served as clear reminders of the rate of human progress. The artist Leslie Ragan juxtaposes human technology against nature’s beauty.

Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer  (1896–1942)
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer (1896–1942)

Trains In Utopian Fantasy For Children

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatisation of spiritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphorical as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson

Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings (Hellos and Goodbyes)

Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Matthew’s moral dilemma: Does he take home this girl when he and his sister really needed a boy?

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is often the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform. You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations. A bus station marks the end of a student-teacher relationship in Mr Holland’s Opus. A bus station makes the end of a housekeeper’s employ with a problematic man in Hud. There is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life. Symbolically, these platforms are functioning as crossroads.

Another resonant parting of ways (largely inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret with no hope) is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Trains As Temporary Home

Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya
Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya

Ghost Trains

Like motels, trains are a little bit like home, but not your home. They therefore fall into the uncanny valley of home, and we can’t help but think of all the other people who have been in our seat before us and after us.

Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw win a radio contest for tickets on The Ghost Train, a passenger train traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans over a 6 day period with a promise that passengers will “see the ghosts of the dead men found in the locomotive!”. As it is summer, they get permission to travel unaccompanied just as long as they agree to obey the train personnel.

The trip begins inauspiciously with a badly-performed disappearance of the rear locomotive, and seems to go downhill for the boys after that.

Trains As Contra-Symbol

The symbolism of a train can be milked any which way by a storyteller. The train can feel at once oppressive but also afford freedom. The best example of this contradiction in action is perhaps Japan.

Oh to be on a train, travelling to who knows where…

Originally tweeted by Ghibliotheque – A Podcast About Studio Ghibli (@ghibliotheque) on May 12, 2020.

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Japan is famous (infamous?) for its pushers, but pushers also existed in New York:

In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour. A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”

NYT

Trains are thereby seen as oppressive, but also afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

For passengers inside, trains are a safe form of travel. But in Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

The image of the body tied to a train track reminds us that trains are in fact dangerous, if you’re near the tracks. When characters walk down the tracks our blood pressure rises a little. The audience doesn’t know when a train is about to turn up.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

Trains As Dangerous Monsters

Illustration by Italian artist Waltz Molina (1915-1997).

Sometimes trains seem like dangerous monsters because they travel above us, on elevated tracks.

John Sloan, Six O'Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
John Sloan, Six O’Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman cover
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway

But trains can also feel menacing and ominous when we see them from worm’s eye view.

Take Me To the Flying Scotsman leaves King's Cross at 10 am every weekday
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track.

For passengers, trains are one of the safer forms of transport. But trains pose a danger for anyone crossing their path. Like a mechanical horror monster who just won’t stop, a train literally can’t stop at short notice.

The New Yorker Magazine - December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a 'power shot' with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.
The New Yorker Magazine – December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a ‘power shot’ with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.

Trains As Loneliness, Though Surrounded By People

The worst kind of loneliness is when you’re surrounded by people. On a crowded train, etiquette dictates we avoid others’ gaze, don’t speak unless necessary.

Cartoon by Saul Steinberg

Trains Are Fast

Contemporary travellers won’t associate trains with speed. The bullet trains in Japan are pretty fast, but planes are always faster. Earlier audiences didn’t feel this way about trains at all. For them, over a fairly brief period of human history, trains were the epitome of speed.

The 1923 advertisement below is selling a super-fast Olivetti typewriter by comparing it to the speed of a train.

Trains As Symbols of Socioeconomic Class

There’s no better modern example of a train used to highlight social inequality than Snowpiercer, first a film, now a TV show.

Apart from trains, other forms of public transport push rich and poor people together onto the same small vessel, most notably planes and ships. This turns the vehicle of transportation into a microcosm of society.

Rapid transit to Sheol--where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888)
Rapid transit to Sheol–where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888). This “Sheolic Motors” train has special cars for lawyers, journalists, clergy, artists, theater people, literary people, members of “sassiety”, and even the “Dem. & Rep. combine”. There are “no return tickets”.
MIND THE GAP

In Western Australia a man managed to get stuck in the gap. There was a happy ending — he was freed after about 15 minutes, without injury. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really think about all those echoey announcements warning us to mind the gap, and you may have even peered at the gap at one point, wondering how anyone could possibly get their foot stuck down there, except for maybe a toddler.

Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes … it was an impressive feat because the gap between the train and platform was less than five centimetres.

Warnings to ‘Mind The Gap’ are so well-known that the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to other things.

In my own story Hilda Bewildered, the signs warning ‘Mind The Gap’ refer equally to income inequalities.

This is not an original metaphor. Scientific American has used it, for instance, as have many others.

Do you know how this ‘Mind The Gap’ warning is announced in other languages around the world? Wikipedia has a list of translations.

Can you think of any other phrases like this which have become part of popular culture, commonly used to refer to other things? Wikipedia offers ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ as another example.

How many of these do you recognise?

Trains as Symbols of Expansion Into The American West

Ships are metonyms for England in stories about colonisation. Trains work similarly.

This poster is English, but trains were a necessary tool of American expansionism into the American West.

Trains As Symbols Of The City

Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city
Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city

Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children’s literature. In Holman’s Slake’s Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel “Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency”. Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake’s personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: “Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points”. Comparatively, in Robert Munsch’s picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city’s subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan’s living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and “all kinds of people came out of Jonathan’s wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door.” A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the “great and powerful Oz” behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does “everything for the whole city”. The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor’s office instead. Through Jonathan’s imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.

Naomi Hamer
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler. The subway entrance can serve as a metaphorical cave entrance.

Case Study: Trains in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories

You’ll find the most dense symbolism in lyrical short stories, so let’s take a closer look at some stand-out examples.

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape“, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

Another story, “Something Childish But Very Natural” is an excellent example of how the movement of a train is symbolically representative of fate.

The train of “Something Childish” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).

Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

The trains of “Something Childish But Very Natural are also useful for symbolising the iterative nature of our daily lives — trains basically do the same things every single day, turning up at the same places at the same times. This gives a sort of Groundhog Day vibe to a story, before an author switches readers to the singulative (but on this particular day…)

Trains and tunnels go together.

MEMORIES OF MURDER BONG JOON-HO (2003) tunnel
MEMORIES OF MURDER BONG JOON-HO (2003). See also: The Symbolism of Tunnels.

Something Childish But Very Natural” is also an excellent example of how tunnels are used symbolically. Two young lovers ride a train, falling more and more in love as their journey progresses. But their dreams of love are punctuated by tunnels, foreshadowing the darkness of their emotions at story’s end.

Also in “Something Childish But Very Natural”, Mansfield matches Henry’s excited, elevated heart rate to the sounds of the train moving over the tracks. She describes how the train smells — wet india-rubber and soot. We really do feel transported to the era of steam engines.

Case Study: Trains In Alice Munro Short Stories

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, one of my favourites being “Chance”.

Free Radicals” is another interesting example.

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

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

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

Case Study: Trains in a Robin Black Short Story

The following is the opening paragraph from”A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black. It demonstrates perfectly the way in which trains signify the passage of time. Notice, too, how Black is saying something about ‘train window scenery’ as well:

It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London tot he village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much father than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken ff all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two. […] It’s a fantasy landscape, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.

Robin Black
Virginia Lee Burton's futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Virginia Lee Burton’s futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 - 1927) inside a train
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 – 1927) inside a train
Jugend magazine, 1927 train
Jugend magazine, 1927

Trains as Portal To Luxury

Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
There’s no subtly to this. “If you’re rich, you can afford to buy more space and a more luxurious travelling experience, away from the plebs.”

Symbols of Perseverance

We tend to personify vehicles, so the sight of a heavy train making its way up a hill can be a gratifying sight.

Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972 train uphill
Richard Scarry’s Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972

The standout picture book example of a train trying its best is The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper cover
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, with the repeated phrase of “I think I can! I think I can!”
Tootle Little Golden Book
Tootle Little Golden Book

A Train Bisects A Town

Train carriages themselves divide passengers by socioeconomic status.

Also, the English language idiom ‘wrong side of the tracks‘ describes the part of town that is not inhabited by the wealthy; an area where the working class, poor or extremely poor live. 

Lewitt-Him, 1942
Lewitt-Him, 1942
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 - 1981)
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 – 1981)

Even when the socioeconomic division is not implied, a railway line does function as a noisy, dangerous (but necessary) presence which runs through town, bringing inhabitants to a standstill whenever it rumbles through.

Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children's Land), c1920s and 30s train miniature
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children’s Land), c1920s and 30s. Here we have a miniature version.

The Train Unites and Divides Families and Lovers

Poster Art 1934 Sydexpressen (Danish Film)

Trains As Setting For A Crime Story

Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie is a standout example. Trains make good settings for murder mysteries for a number of reasons. The game Cluedo works with the same advantage: a limited set of suspects. This is called a locked-room mystery.

The “lockedroom” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.

Locked Room Mystery, Wikipedia

With a train we also have a ticking clock device, because the train will eventually reach its destination and the murderer will then have the opportunity to walk away free.

In The Highland Falcon Thief: Adventures on Trains #1, a middle-grade series starter from MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, a young boy is swept up in an investigation to uncover the perpetrator of a jewel theft.

When eleven-year-old Harrison Hal Beck is forced to accompany his travel-writer uncle on the last journey of a royal train, he expects a boring trip spent away from video games and children his age.

But then Hal spots a girl who should not be on board, and he quickly makes friends with the stowaway, Lenny. Things get even more interesting when the royal prince and princess board for the last leg of the journey–because the princess’s diamond necklace is soon stolen and replaced with a fake! Suspicion falls on the one person who isn’t supposed to be there: Lenny.

It’s up to Hal, his keen observation, and his skill as a budding sketch artist to uncover the real jewel thief, clear his friend’s name, and return the diamond necklace before The Highland Falcon makes its last stop.

In this second book of the middle-grade Adventures on Trains series, amateur sleuth Hal Beck travels to the U.S. with his uncle to ride a famous train—the California Comet—and stumbles on a new mystery to solve, in M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s Kidnap on the California Comet…

After his adventure on the Highland Falcon, amateur sleuth Hal Beck is excited to embark on another journey with his journalist uncle. This time, they’re set to ride the historic California Comet from Chicago to San Francisco.

Hal mostly keeps to himself on the trip, feeling homesick and out of place in America. But he soon finds himself drawn into another mystery when the young daughter of a billionaire tech entrepreneur goes missing!

Along with new friends—spunky 13-year-old Mason and his younger sister, Hadley—Hal races against the clock to find the missing girl before the California Comet reaches its final destination.

Join Hal and Uncle Nat as they plunge straight into an exciting mystery – this time while on Safari!

All-aboard for the third amazing journey in the bestselling Adventures on Trains series from M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated throughout by Elisa Paganelli.

Uncle Nat is taking Hal on the journey of a lifetime – on a Safari Train from Pretoria to Victoria Falls. Drawing Africa’s amazing wild animals from on board a spectacular steam train described as a luxury hotel on wheels, should be enough excitement for anyone. But something suspicious is happening on board the Safari Star and when a passenger is found mysteriously killed inside a locked compartment, it’s up to Hal, along with his new friend Winston and his pet Mongoose, Chipo, to solve the murder mystery.

RAILWAY SYMBOLISM

A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker.

Robert Aickman, from “The Trains”, a horror short story

The illustrations below are less-seen perspectives of railway tracks, defamiliarising the train for us, offering a worm’s eye view perspective.

1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance train
1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance
1939 May, cover by John O'Hara Cosgrave
1939 May, cover by John O’Hara Cosgrave
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train
HEAT, MICHAEL MANN (1995)
HEAT, MICHAEL MANN (1995)

The Ticking Clock is a tool often used by storytellers to add narrative drive. Anytime characters venture near railway tracks our heartrate increases as we know (or suspect) a train will be coming along soon.

Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics

Trains And The Miniature

Humans love to mess around with size and scale.

We also love to create miniature versions of the things important to us. Model trains have long been associated with boyhood.

Andrew Scott Eidson model trains
Andrew Scott Eidson model trains

OVERVIEW OF TRAIN SYMBOLISM IN STORIES

by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940 train
by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940
  • When characters meet someone on a train they could so easily not have met them. This makes any encounter seem serendipitous.
  • This connects to a fatalistic view of the world (and perhaps of love), and the idea that ‘two souls were meant to meet’. The straight line of the tracks is a symbol of fate.
  • Tunnels (which are literally dark) can foreshadow emotional darkness to come.
  • Trains represent how humans experience time even though this is not how time actually works.
  • When we think of time in terms of straight, inevitable lines, we are drawn into a fatalistic view of the universe.
  • Trains are a part of the real world but work differently from the real world. We talk to people we might not otherwise have the chance to talk to. This is what makes them a heterotopia.
  • Trains can stand in for society, conveniently pushing rich and poor together, highlighting the divide.

Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895

FURTHER READING

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

What is a heterotopia?

heterotopia

I have previously written about utopias, snail under the leaf settings, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that, now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something.

But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork.

This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

  • The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
  • The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.

So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. The word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.

Welcome To The Good Place Everything Is Fine What The Fork

Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.

The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature and pop culture.

WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?

Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.

In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:

  1. sacred places and profane places
  2. protected places and open, exposed places
  3. urban places and rural places.

In cosmological theory, there were:

  1. the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
  2. the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.

(Galileo put an end to that. Galileo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that separation still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)

HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL

  • Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
  • The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
  • A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
  • Time works differently in a heterotopia.
  • Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
  • A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
  • Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.

EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.

Crisis Heterotopias

There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.

retirement village heterotopia of Ponyo
The retirement village of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo soon turns into a genuine utopia where all the old people regain use of their bodies.

We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.

Boarding Schools

Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:

  1. 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
  2. The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
  3. The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper.  Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.

Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.

Train And Steamships

Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.

See also: The Symbolism of Trains

When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:

  1. Establish the logic of this new universe
  2. To subvert it
  3. To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.

(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)

steam ship heterotopia in The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Anne With An E, the Netflix miniseries based on Anne of Green Gables, also features a steamship during the episode when Anne is sent away from Prince Edward Island.

The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Foucault

Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.

Honeymoon Destinations

In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.

The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.

Libraries and Museums

A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.

A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.

Cinemas and Theatres

Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.

These are sites of temporary relaxation.

The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.

Foucault

Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.

In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)

Forcible and Spink from Coraline

Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.

Gardens

Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).

Foucault

Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.

Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.

Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.

The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.

Cemeteries

A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.

Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.

Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Foucault

Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Fairgrounds

[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.

Foucault

Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.

Madeline and the Gypsies heterotopia of the circus
In this carnivalesque story Madeline gets stuck at the top of a ferris wheel at the heterotopia of a ferris wheel.
Malls

Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:

Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.

Philosophy Now

In  our local mall we have:

  • Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
  • The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
  • Music which is different depending on the store
  • Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
  • Lighting which highlights some features over others
  • Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
  • A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
  • Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
  • Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
  • Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.

While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.

Vacation Villages

Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.

Foucault
Gated Communities

Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.

The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.

Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.

Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.

Harlen Coben Safe gated community
Religious Spaces

There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.

Foucault

In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.

Religious Communities

The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.

Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.

The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.

young adult novel cult as heterotopia

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—who already has six wives—Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

Brothels

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.

Foucault

In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.

‘Love’ Hotels

There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.

For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.

BEAUTY PAGEANTS

I would include the world of beauty pageantry as a heterotopia. This world is explored in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It! and Dumplin.

IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.

The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:

[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.

When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.

Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?

All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.

Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.

It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?

Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’.  Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.

Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism,  magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.

ISLANDS

Islands in children’s literature are often considered a heterotopia — both a fantasy portal and a fantasy destination rolled into one.

PRISONS/JAILS

From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.

Alan Bennett from Untold Stories
John Piper, (English, 1903-1992), Stonehenge, watercolor, ink and chalk on paper, 1981 rock stone
John Piper, (English, 1903-1992), Stonehenge, watercolor, ink and chalk on paper, 1981

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Heterotopian Studies, an entire website

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Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review
Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, the moon on this cover would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

Continue reading “Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study”

The Snail Under The Leaf Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

 Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.

The best visual representation of this concept is by Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan:

Shaun Tan

But in this post I feel a little bad about dismissing snails, so I include art in which the beauty of snails comes to the fore:

I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.

Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.

Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)

Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.

This is a scene from a completely different story — Hell or High Water. The horror comedy cartoon series utilises a scene highly recognisable from other types of story.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.

Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of young adult books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.

The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

Get Out, a 2017 film. A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.

The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.
The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.

Anyway, if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

SUBURGATORY

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

GILMORE GIRLS

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

SCHITTS CREEK

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf

Everyone knows that magic and trouble go hand in hand…

A dangerous spell cast over an unsuspecting village.
An enchanted painting locked in a hidden room.
A desperate race against time to break the spell before it’s too late…

It should have been a fresh start for the Widdershins. Finally free from the misty gloom of Crowstone and beginning a new life. But all is not as it seems in their postcard-pretty village. Their neighbours are acting strangely, and why do they flinch at the mere mention of magic?

The Widdershins sisters have their own secret: a set of enchanted nesting dolls with the power to render their user invisible. The sisters must use their wits – and their magic – if they’re to break the dark hold over the village, and save one of their own . . . but have they met their match this time?

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

RELATED TO SNAILS

If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). 

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT
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Storytelling Tips From Anne Of Green Gables

Revisiting Anne Of Green Gables as an adult reader, several things stick out:

  1. The influence of Cinderella, the rags to riches story which is often counted as one of the ‘six basic plots
  2. The influence of Pride and Prejudice
  3. Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
a 1945 hardcover edition

THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA

In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.

THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.

L.M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.

In no particular order:

  1. Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
  2. Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
  3. Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
  4. Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
  5. These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female shortcoming was well understood, and made for a good psychological shortcoming. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological shortcoming is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
  6. Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
  7. For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
George Clausen - A School Girl 1889
George Clausen – A School Girl 1889

THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES

It has been argued that Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice, just as many other modern YA novels have been influenced by Twilight (not even considering the vampires).

For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:

  1. Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
  2. Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
  3. There is a Josie Pye character in almost every popular middle grade novel aimed at girls, although these days the little enemy girl is less likely to be rich and dressed in frilly dresses but more likely to be a class president, by-the-books type. (I don’t think this is a great development in children’s literature.)
  4. Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
  5. I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly —  nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
James Guthrie - Schoolmates
James Guthrie – Schoolmates

SETTING OF ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favourite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.

Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.

It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.  Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.

Catherine Reid

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES STORY STRUCTURE

Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

PARATEXT

…illustrations in children’s books contribute to our perception of character, giving an instant and immediate external portrait. Even when a novel is not illustrated, a cover picture may be revealing enough. Even a very brief examination of a number of covers to classics such as Anne of Green Gables shows how a visual portrait of a character can influence our expectations. In existing covers, Anne is portrayed sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes very pretty, which contradicts the text, and sometimes plain, in consistency with the text. In any case, the cover signals that the protagonist is a young white female. This may make adult, male, and non-Caucasian readers reject the novel.

How Picturebooks Work by Scott and Nikolajeva

There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don’t pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children’s books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.

What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books Are Still About White Boys? by Soraya Chemaly

SHORTCOMING

Anne has the same shortcoming as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.

  1. She’s a destitute orphan
  2. A girl
  3. Red hair

As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog.

Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.

Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.

Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s shortcomings has a flipside strength:

  1. She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
  2. She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
  3. She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
  4. She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
  5. She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.

DESIRE

Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:

  1. Stay at Green Gables
  2. Grow darker hair

Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.

The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.

OPPONENT

On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.

Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.

The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in