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 are important to plot but are also symbolic.
THE WINDOW REFLECTION
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
This often indicates the beginning of a character arc, possibly a journey away from the house. Or, as in Anne of Green Gables, the story might be a domestic one, governed by the seasons in which the character (usually a girl) returns home each day, but undergoes a character arc nonetheless as a ‘journey’ which takes place in the local surrounds.
The cover below, tied to the major 1980s TV adaptation, features the same symbolism except the window is in the background.
At other times the characters are hiding from the outside world, because the outside world is dangerous.
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.
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.
YELLOW WINDOWS AS SAFETY
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.
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’.
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.
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 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 slightly more reflective kind of window.
A slideshow of windows in paintings by Larry Groff