The Gothic Home as Symbolic Space for Self-definition

The Gothic Home as Symbolic Space for Self-definition
© Photograph by Jesse Gourgeon

According to Nodelman, in children’s fiction, “Home is a metaphor for childhood as adults invent and sustain it”, and most often its meaning is explored by opposing it to its antithesis, the concept of “away” (2008: 80).

Echoing the Grimms’ fairy tales ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Little Thumb’, Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’ leaves her own home only to end up in another home where danger awaits her in the shape of an emotionally hungry mother figure.

Gaiman, however, blurs the boundaries between home and away by constructing “away” as an uncannily similar place to home, a resemblance that is gradually effaced as the other home becomes darker and more hostile. In this section, I examine how the representation of childhood is partly dependent on how Gaiman constructs two different paradigms of home, each standing for different notions of family, adult and child relationships, individuality and power.

By means of Gothic motifs, the other home is constructed as undesirable, yet necessary for the child to learn to appreciate her real home and the acceptable position of the child within the modern family. I argue that choosing “real” over “other”, the child protagonist aligns herself with the implied author’s norms. Moreover, I also examine how the home can be read as a metaphor for the child’s mind, like the haunted houses and labyrinthine castles of Gothic fiction that mirror the disturbed psyches of their inhabitants.

Several scholars have identified home and family as central themes in children’s literature. Exploring the meanings of home and away is, according to Nodelman, one of the identifying qualities of a children’s text. He adds that these two opposing concepts are central to children’s literature “as they seem to be central to cultural ideas about childhood in the time in which a specific children’s literature has existed, ideas that tend to separate children from other human beings by imagining a space in which it is safe to be childlike and thus also a less safe space beyond it” (2008: 59).

Similarly, McDowell affirms that the literary theme of the quest is “a favourite” (2006: 61) in children’s fiction. ‘In The Family in English Children’s Literature’, Alston explains that “Children’s literature and the mythology of the perfect sanctuary of the home grew up together during the nineteenth-century” (2008: 70).

It was also at that time that traditional European fairy tales were adapted for children, and their influence on children’s texts started to be noted. The circular home/away/home pattern of many children’s stories, for instance, is clearly indebted to the fairy-tale tradition. Tatar describes it thus: “Home, normally the locus of stability and security, becomes the abode of powers at once hostile and sinister. […] the child-hero stands as a victim of parental malice; he has been neglected, chastised, or abandoned by one of his parents. […] Escape from home becomes his sole hope and source of consolation. Yet his flight takes him not into a magical kingdom where every wish comes true, but rather into a world peopled by villains with powers far more formidable than those of the villains left behind him.” (2003: 72)

As going away becomes a journey for many children’s fiction protagonists to come to terms with and learn to appreciate home, “the word ‘home’ becomes culturally loaded as it invokes nostalgia for warmth and comfort” (Alston, 2008: 70).

The ideal of home and the longing for this ideal are, thus, an intrinsic ingredient of children’s fiction, as in classics like Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900), Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (1908), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ (1910), J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ (1911), J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ (1937), or Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ (1952).

In one way or another, all these novels represent home as the antithesis of away, and the child protagonists’ sense of a stable identity, in the end, is inextricably linked to its return home. According to Nodelman, “the pattern is worth paying attention to exactly because of the ways in which it works to attach opposing values to home and to being away from home, forcing child protagonists to confront the difference and make choices between the opposed values in terms of how they understand what they mean and, consequently, which of the two places they would rather be in.” (2008: 61)

Similarly, McCallum examines how the quest as a plot device parallels the representation of the character’s identity: “Central characters are represented as internally fragmented and/or solipsistic, and their stories articulate a quest for a sense of identity which is stable, coherent, unique and whole” (1999: 68). Although McCallum refers, mostly, to adolescent fiction, this assertion can be applied to children’s fiction as well.

The home/away/home or quest pattern is recurrent in Gaiman’s fiction. Apart from ‘Coraline’, we find it in short stories like ‘Troll Bridge’ (1999) and ‘October in the Chair’ (2002), his poem ‘Instructions’ (2000), and novels like ‘Stardust’, and ‘The Graveyard Book’. Some of these works stick closer to the fairy-tale pattern: ‘Instructions’, for instance, describes a journey that ends back home, but home is now perceived differently by the traveller — it seems “much smaller than you remember” (Gaiman, 2008: 249).

On the other hand, Gaiman’s young adult novels do not have this circular pattern; they end with the characters leaving the place where they were raised as children to immerse themselves into a world that is full of perils but also of new opportunities for life. In Stardust, Tristan eventually stays in the land of Faerie where he rules like a king, instead of returning to the town of Wall which was his home at the beginning. Similarly, in ‘The Graveyard Book’, Nobody Owens gradually loses his ability to see ghosts as he grows up, and he leaves home (the graveyard) to live in the world of the living.

In ‘Coraline’, the circularity of the home/away/home pattern is maintained; yet, according to Gooding, Gaiman transforms it. Gooding affirms that “In the pattern’s simplest form the border is very strict […]. The gateway is typically stable, though only intermittently open” (2008: 393), and Gooding exemplifies this by referring to Carroll’s Alice going through the mirror into Looking-glass House, Storr’s Marianne being transported by sleep to the house she has drawn, and Lucy walking into Narnia through the wardrobe in Lewis’s novel.

I would also add two other recent portal narratives that are similar to ‘Coraline’: Penelope Farmer’s ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ (1969), about a girl who finds herself transported to the past; and, especially, Clive Barker’s Gothic novel for children ‘The Thief of Always’ (1992).

In Barker’s novel, “away” is also a house, the Holiday House, where children’s wishes come true. In these narratives, the real and fantasy worlds are clearly differentiated, and the portal connects and separates both worlds. In contrast, “While conventional deployment of this pattern usually imposes strict boundaries between real and fantasy worlds, thereby containing uncanny effects within the fantasy realm, Gaiman begins to blur these boundaries” (Gooding, 2008: 393).

It would not be accurate to say that the two worlds in the other novels are completely separated and do not affect each other, for it is always the apparition of an element from the other world in the real world that lures the child, and the fantasy world always mirrors the real world, more or less closely. Yet, it is true that the boundary between both worlds is especially blurred in Coraline, as the resemblance between the real home and the other home is emphasised.