The Symbolism Of Windows

Many children’s stories feature windows, whether it’s children gazing from windows, opponents framed by windows, yellow squares of light offering the solace of civilisation. Windows can be important to a plot but are also symbolic.

They quite often function as a visual motif to show the audience what a character wants.

WINDOW AS VEIL

Symbolically, windows are the architectural equivalent of the veil. Their double duty is to shield the ‘wearer’ from outside forces while also keeping the outside world away from the wearer. Also in common with the veil, the window is diaphanous (modern windows are completely see-through), so when behind a pane of glass, we are physically shielded but remain psychologically exposed; we see the exact horror playing out on the other side.

Below, the audience gazes through the window. We know we will never be admitted. This is a separate world.

Avril Paton ‘The Gathering’
Avril Paton ‘The Gathering’

WINDSHIELD BIAS

Psychologists who study driver behaviour use the term ‘windshield bias’ to describe the condition in which drivers prioritise travel by car while becoming annoyed with cyclists and pedestrians.

Sitting behind their windows, drivers feel removed from ‘the collective ‘(people just trying to get from A to B) and lose empathy. Drivers tend to treat others with less consideration than if they met them face to face, without the ‘protection’ of the windshield.

THE WINDOW REFLECTION

This is a screen trope. Below is a screen capture from The Homesman. This is a trick often used by film directors as a way of showing an actor’s face and what the character is looking at simultaneously.

CHARACTER GAZES FROM WINDOW

by Gyo Fujikawa for Escape at Bedtime from A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1957
by Gyo Fujikawa for Escape at Bedtime from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1957

This often indicates the beginning of a character arc, possibly a journey away from the house.

At other times the characters are hiding from the outside world, because the outside world is dangerous.

Many children’s stories open with a character looking out the window. In these stories the main character’s Desire Line will involve the pursuit of freedom.

Picture book version: The carnivalesque desire to have fun for a while without adult supervision/interference

The concept is taken most literally in the picture book Window by Jeannie Baker.

Middle Grade version: To solve problems on one’s own, outside the safety of the house

Dear Reader,
If you have not read anything about the Baudelaire orphans, then before you read even one more sentence, you should know this: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are kindhearted and quick-witted; but their lives, I am sorry to say, are filled with bad luck and misery. All of the stories about these three children are unhappy and wretched, and this one may be the worst of them all. If you haven’t got the stomach for a story that includes a hurricane, a signalling device, hungry leeches, cold cucumber soup, a horrible villain, and a doll named Pretty Penny, then this book will probably fill you with despair. I will continue to record these tragic tales, for that is what I do. You, however, should decide for yourself whether you can possibly endure this miserable story.
With all due respect,
Lemony Snicket

Young Adult version: To separate from parents and find true self.

A girl looks out a window on this retro cover of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice. Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed.

Awaiting trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have led them to these bleak cells: eighteen-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an “honor killing”; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, a teen runaway who stays because it is safe shelter; twenty-year-old Mezghan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for a court order to force her lover’s hand. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, like them, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment; removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.

The following is a passage from Carrie, a young adult novel by Stephen King, describing Sue as she is about to join the fray, where Carrie wreaks havoc.

The town hall whistle went off every day at twelve noon and that was all, except to call the volunteer fire department during grass-fire season in August and September. It was strictly for major disasters, and its sound was dreamy and terrifying in the empty house.

She went to the window, but slowly. The shrieking of the whistle rose and fell, rose and fell. Somewhere, horns were beginning to blat, as if for a wedding. She could see her reflection in the darkened glass, lips parted, eyes wide, and then the condensation of her breath obscured it.

The outside world of 101 Dalmatians (film adaptation is from 1961) is also dangerous for dogs whose hides are wanted for coats.

Scene from 101 Dalmatians, in which main characters hide from villain.

The window allows the framing of Cruella as she drives past in her Rolls, dangerously close to capturing them.

The audience also sees her two hapless baddies framed by the broken window, highlighting all of their brokenness. Note that this is the climax, in which the Dalmatians successfully escape death. The view of the opponents through the broken window foreshadows this happy outcome.

The brokenness of the glass not only frames the character as psychologically broken but also removes what little distance there might be between heroes and opponents. The baddies are dangerously close to finding us. (The only need to move their eyeballs…)

AUDIENCE GAZES FROM WINDOW

When the audience is gazing through the window we emotionally identify with the character on the same side as we are. Sometimes we’ll be looking over the sympathetic character’s shoulder and other times we’ll be looking out as if we are them. This can happen after the characters have been introduced.

The cover of Pax does not feature a window per se, but when an animal looks through a frame of foliage across a landscape, this is the animal equivalent of a child gazing out a window.

WINDOW AS PORTAL

In The Cat Returns, Haru sees the Baron before she meets him. She’s about to be transported into a miniature world. By allowing this slower meeting, the creators let the audience dwell for longer on the transition. In portal fantasies, transitions are important.

The Cat Returns window

WINDOWS AS VULNERABILITY

An important feature of windows is that, even if they don’t open, they expose occupants of a house to vulnerability.

In movies especially, the house made of big windows is almost always a cold, unwelcoming place — never a warm, cosy ‘home’. Thrillers and horrors especially utilise the big, glass house as a setting. Intruders can see you, and plot bad things based around your schedule.

Humans have known how to make glass for a very long time. It took much longer to work out how to make sheet glass suitable for windows. Before windows, Europeans lived in houses with a different kind of vulnerability: Doors could be locked, but chimneys were always open.

We see evidence of this vulnerability in fairy tales such as The Three Little Pigs. The pigs turn that vulnerable opening to their advantage by coaxing the wolf down the chimney, where he will fall to his death in their cooking pot.

Coaxing a Minotaur Opponent down your chimney in order to cook them in your pot is a trope with a long history. The early to mid 14th century marked the beginning of the witch craze across Europe. Many people really did believe that witches lived in their village. This accounted for the crop failures and starvation. (The culprit was in fact climate change in the form of a little ice age.) To regain a sense of control, people blamed witches. You can’t do anything about climate, but you feel you can do something about an opponent in human form. For example, you could surround your house in witch marks, perform counter magic and force witches down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.

The idea that entering homes via the chimney is possible has been recast as a pleasant story in the narrative around Santa Clause. This is the version we tell to children.

Jantzen Sweater Advertisement, Christmas,1948. Illustration by Pete Hawley
Jantzen Sweater Advertisement, Christmas,1948. Illustration by Pete Hawley. Voyeurism or exhibitionism?
James Avati (1912 - 2005) 1964 illustration for an edition of Margaret Long's 'Louisville Saturday' (1950)
James Avati (1912 – 2005) 1964 illustration for an edition of Margaret Long’s ‘Louisville Saturday’ (1950)

The composition of Snow White’s pregnant mother below is an especially interesting depiction of vulnerability. Using the ‘split screen’ technique, illustrator Angela Barrett chops the head off the vulnerable mother-to-be. Notice also, in close up, the slipper stuck in the wall. The viewer gets a simultaneous view of the safe, cosy inside of the castle and the snowy, bleak outside.

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, ‘If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.’

Brothers Grimm
Angela Barrett (English, b.1955) - Snow White window
Angela Barrett (English, b.1955) – Snow White window
Paul O Zelinsky Rapunzel prince coming through window
Paul O Zelinsky Rapunzel, prince coming through window. However hard you try, you can’t keep a beautiful princess ‘safe’.

WINDOWS TO LET OUT THE DEAD

Another medieval belief was that if someone died in bed, you needed to open the window in order to let their soul escape. If you could no longer look after your elderly relative, you might leave the window open hoping they would die. If this worked, it was probably because opening a window also let in the cold. It was probably quite effective in winter.

WINDOWS AS ESCAPE

Percy Tarrant (British,1855 - 1934) Leaving by the Window
Percy Tarrant (British,1855 – 1934) Leaving by the Window
Toad's Escape from his own mansion in The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Toad’s Escape from his own mansion in The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame, beautifully illustrated by Inga Moore.
Gaston and Josephine window escape
Gaston and Josephine window escape

YELLOW WINDOWS AS SAFETY

The Cavalier 1909
The Cavalier 1909

A chase scene from 101 Dalmatians starts to feel safer when the puppies approach a window with warm yellows emanating from it. We are reassured that safety is imminent.

101 Dalmatians warm window

In the scene below, our 101 Dalmatians make it home to safety. Their howling wakes up the entire town. We see the lights flick on one by one. Plotwise, these dogs are waking neighbours up, but symbolically, the yellow squares turning on reassure the audience that ‘this is civilisation and our dogs are safe now’.

In most illustrated versions of “The Town Musicians of Bremen” there is a picture of the yellow window of the robbers as seen from a distance. My Richard Scarry edition was one of the resonant illustrations from my childhood.

But adults as well as children appreciate a yellow window in the distance. Alice Munro writes beautifully about cosy, yellow windows in “Fiction“:

There was the one special thing Joyce loved to see as she was driving home and turning in to their own property. At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly. Full-length people cooking or watching television — scenes which beguiled her, even if she knew things would not be so special inside.

Rilla Alexander
Rilla Alexander inverts the welcoming yellow window by making these windows blue. There’s something eerie about this building.

WINDOWS AS TOOLS OF SURVEILLANCE

Windows don’t always exist for the benefit of people living behind them. In Michel Foucault’s panopticon, prisoners are afforded windows not so they can enjoy a view, but so that they may be constantly observed by the guard, who sees everything from the tower.

In this way, windows are multivalent in their symbolism: If you have the freedom to see out, others can also see in. The window can therefore function as a symbolic inverse of the veil, which performs a different double duty, both to do with separation. A veil is both revealing and concealing. The window can never conceal, and is about revealing rather than concealing.

WINDOWS AS TOOLS OF DIVINATION

Certin Rabbinic scholars (AlshichAlboAbarbanel, Saba) interpreted Biblical passages about women looking through windows as attempts at divination. Examples are Sisersa’s mother looking through a window (Judges 5:28) and Abimelekh looking through a window (Gen. 26:8).

In earlier eras, women (and other disenfranchised people) were at risk of being accused of witchcraft and similar, and these interpretations by Rabbinic scholars during the eras of the witch craze are evidence of that. Because some light particles go through a pane of glass while others bounce back, windows took on some of the mysticism of mirrors.

By the way, physicists still have no idea why some photons go through glass while others bounce back. Each photon appears to be identical. For more on that, see Marcus Chown.

WINDOWS AND LONGING

Josef Lada Christmas Tree window
Josef Lada
Ruth Newton (1884-1972), American doll illustrator and designer. Nursery Book, 1952
Ruth Newton (1884-1972), American doll illustrator and designer. Nursery Book, 1952
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1971)
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (1971)

WINDOWS AND MAURICE SENDAK

[In the 1950s Sendak] was serving his apprenticeship illustrating the stories of others or creating his own stories and pictures about daydreamers and introverted loners who stare out the window (Kenny’s Window) at life taking place over there (Very Far Away). The breakthrough came with The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), when Sendak went through the window and (in his words) “outside over there” to create Rosie — an irrepressible Brooklyn kid who swaggers on stage in a boa and her mother’s high heels and whose infectious manner shows that she is daring personified.

Jerry Griswold

I noticed that a lot of the translations of Outside Over There have ‘window’ in the title, even though there is no ‘Window’ in the English language title. Here is a blog post from the translator of the Spanish edition of Outside Over There, called Sendak’s Windows.

For a case study in the various ways windows can be used symbolically, expanding upon the psychology of character, read “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield.

  • As in many children’s books, Kezia looks out of the window of her old house, which marks the end of her early childhood. She’s looking forward to a new section of her life in a new house.
  • Her mother’s feelings towards her husband are clear when the husband craves intimacy, but Linda goes to the window and closes it because she’s cold.
  • The open window (and the vase of flowers inside) downstairs at the new house signals to the reader that the inside meets the outside this is ultimately a story of transitions on all the various levels.
  • Alongside windows, “Prelude” also makes much symbolic use of mirrors a more reflective kind of window.

SEE ALSO

A slideshow of windows in paintings by Larry Groff

RELATED READING

Wine windows, aka buchette del vino, are little windows carved into concrete walls. They allow beverage merchants to keep selling their goods during a pandemic, and maintain a safe physical distance.

Many mirror shots in movies are actually done using windows. The audience sees the back of the character’s head on the near side of the mirror, played by a body double. If you’ve ever taken a selfie in the mirror you’ll know why mirrors are no good for mirror scenes on screen: The camera ends up in the picture.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The photo in the header is by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash