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 spinney) 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.
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.
A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because  it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which  one can go from one point to another, and then it is also  something that goes by.
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.
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 Are A 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.
Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.
Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopianfantasies; 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
Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.
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.
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.
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 ChildishBut 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. “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”.
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.
OVERVIEW OF TRAIN SYMBOLISM IN STORIES
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.
Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895
I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, 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.
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. Whereas 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.
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.
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.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”