‘The Snail Under The Leaf’ Setting

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.
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.
  • 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 YA 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.

So 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

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.

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 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.

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.)

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
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.