Ghosts of Romanticism in Neil Gaiman's Children's Fiction

By Padma Jagannathan
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

From the point of view of childhood, modern Western society shows many parallels to the Romantic Age. While the industrial economy caused rapid changes to the landscape and lives of children, forcing millions of them into labor, the informational economy is similarly having a tremendous impact on children’s lives. Never before has a generation found so much freedom in the virtual world while at the same time having real-life experiences so tightly controlled by parents and society. Some social scientists argue that kids in the West suffer from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and will grow up to be ‘Alone Together,’ while others are starting movements for ‘Free Range Kids,’ encouraging exploration of the physical world around them.

Tumultuous changes, like the ones during the Industrial , have always provided rich fodder for writers. If one traces the development of children’s literature one finds that an inflection point happened during the Romantic period. A new aesthetic was born, wherein literature moved out of the realm of simple moralistic stories into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. It was around the same time that Gothic fiction emerged, advocating reading for pleasure, a new concept in late 18th century. Both fairy tales and Gothic fiction offered an escape mechanism, a public method of validating personal fears, helping to democratize reading and shift the balance of in society. Given that today’s childhood is in its own way trapped in fears and anxieties, it is no wonder that leading authors who write for children follow the aesthetics of fairy tales and Gothic fiction, seeking to transport children to fantasy worlds. One of the leading artists of this genre is Neil Gaiman.

Three of Gaiman’s works targeting children, The Wolves in the Walls, Coraline and The Graveyard Book are written in the finest tradition of fairy tales and Gothic fiction, encouraging imaginative escapism through the simple act of reading for pleasure. Through these works Gaiman addresses very specific fears of childhood - abandonment, loneliness, not fitting in, the pressure to conform, and highlights the limitations placed on children’s creativity, physical space, and freedom to explore.

The Gothic tradition offers a template and Gaiman effectively uses and adapts this template to get his message through to his readers. Spooky settings, an outsider hero, scary villains, locked down spaces with multiple realities, dreams, a dangerous but successful quest are just some of these elements we find in the three works. In this process, he leads kids into a different world, explores their fears, both real and imagined, and invites the reader to make meaning together. His tales are scary, but he uses fear to animate his readers and expand their imagination and creativity.

Just as the heroes of his tales find liberation from fear and oppression, he liberates his readers by shaking the balance of power between author/reader, adult/child, control/creativity and real/imaginary. In other words, Gaiman’s modern Gothic novels offer rich psychoanalytical insights about children in modern Western society, and a pathway to the redemption of childhood, not an innocent one, but one “rich in adventure, and opportunities for self-exploration and self-determination” (Zipes, “Sticks and Stone”).

Before we delve into the three chosen works of Gaiman, it is useful to outline some of the characteristics of Gothic fiction and set context around the Grimm’s fairy tales as they are two important influences seen in these three works. Gothic fiction first exploded into the literary scene in the 1790s when Europe was reeling from the effects of the French and Industrial Revolution. Many scholars have argued that “Gothic fiction and drama performed important cultural work in these years by allowing British readers to satisfy private desires and anxieties while participating in collective narrative fantasy” (Gamer 45). Publicly vilified for morally corrupting its readers and for combining history with supernaturalism, Gothic fiction was shunned by social conservatives but found a strong readership base among women and younger readers. Arriving at a time when women’s literacy was being strictly policed, Gothic fiction democratized reading by advocating reading for pleasure and escapism and became a “mediator between high art and mass culture” (Gamer 28).

Jane Austen parodied the popularity of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the high-browed critical reactions to Gothic novels, in her novel Northanger Abbey. Her heroine, Catherine Morland is an unabashed fan of Ann Radcliffe and is not sure if Mr.Tilney shares her taste as she believed “gentlemen read better books.” Mr.Tilney on the other hand defends the Gothic novel when he replies “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again” (Austen). Reviewers of Ann Radcliffe’s works like The Romance of the Forest helped define some of the critical elements of this genre. “We have the ruined abbey, a supposed ghost, the skeleton of a man scarcely murdered, with all the horrid train of images which such scenes and circumstances may be supposed to produce” (Gamer 70) was how the Critical, reviewed the novel. Comic books and graphic novels have had a similar reception in the 21st century.

Comics especially have long been “decried for fostering illiteracy” (Gaiman, “A View from the Cheap Seats”) and like Gothic fiction found little favor among conservatives and critics while appealing to children and a small segment of adults. Gaiman is a strong advocate of comics and fiction and calls them the “gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to turn the page, the need to keep going… that’s a real drive” (Gaiman, “A View from the Cheap Seats”). He argues that, “well meaning adults can destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books ... the twenty-first century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature” (Gaiman, “A View from the Cheap Seats”). This defense from Gaiman could just as well have been written in the 18th century in support of Ann Radcliffe’s novels!

The second influence in Gaiman’s works is the Grimm’s fairy tales. The Romantic era was known for its glorification of the common folk, their lives and stories. The emphasis was around senses and “nature” as opposed to rational or well-defined ideas. In this context, the Brothers Grimm’s collection of common folklore lends credibility to the knowledge and wisdom seen in the average man and is often viewed as an important work of the Romantic era. Despite the gloom and grimness associated with these tales, they have become widely popular because their tales were “precise and striking. Transformation and diversity were needed to disclose the truths that the tales conveyed” (Zipes, “Grimm Legacies” 156). Jack Zipes believes that some of the best modern interpreters of Grimm tended to “share a feminist perspective, tend to be politically more secular or multicultural, are artistically experimental, and endeavor to address contemporary sociopolitical problems in light of the deleterious changes...that have occurred throughout the world” (Zipes, “Grimm Legacies” 158).

Neil Gaiman’s stories borrow a number of ideas from these tales, but unlike the modern day sugar-coated versions he retains the dark elements. His stories are considered too scary for his audience, namely young children. His protagonists are often forced into positions of powerlessness that can be extremely scary especially for a young child. Neil Gaiman, in the tradition of the Grimm brothers does not shy away from exploring these fears. The darkness is an essential ingredient even though it leads to traumatic confrontations for their protagonists because in that catharsis, both the reader and the protagonist expand their imagination and creativity.

Although the three chosen works are each targeted at a slightly different audience within the age group of five to twelve, and each is unique in format (picture book, graphic novel, full length novel) there are some common themes to consider. The three protagonists, Lucy (The Wolves in the Wall), Coraline (Coraline) and Bod (The Graveyard Book) are knowingly or unknowingly put in risky situations by the adults in their lives, very much in the tradition of the Grimms fairy tales. According to Zipes, “More than seventy five percent of Grimms’ tales involve the manipulation and exploitation of young people whose lives are put at risk because of their parents or other adults” (Zipes, “Grimm Legacies” 172).

Gaiman’s stories are not different. Lucy’s mother in The Wolves in the Walls, is busy “putting homemade jam into pots” and makes light of her concern about wolves in the walls. Her father who spends more time with his tuba than with his family does not heed her warnings either and claims that Lucy has “an overactive imagination” instead. Coraline’s parents are depicted in the graphic novel in front of their computers, physically present but mentally absent which seems to be a commentary on parenthood today where most parents are unable to sever the connection to their devices and their work. Coraline is often asked to “go away,” “draw something” “read a book, watch a video,” or “count all the doors and windows” so that her parents can get on with their work. Bod, in The Graveyard Book of course has a more traumatic childhood as his parents are brutally murdered at the start of the book, and his adoptive parents are ghosts of the graveyard, not ‘normal’ parents by any means.

Absentee parenting naturally leads us to question the emotional development and identity of the three protagonists. All three of them are precocious, naturally curious to explore and question all aspects of life around them. The appropriateness of these protagonists and the subject of Gaiman’s books in general, are debated by both parents and critics alike. However, others have argued that children not only “want to, but need to explore matters that affect their lives, albeit in their own time and fashion (issues to do with death, sex, ontology, evil, desire, violence and so on)” (Rudd 160). Coraline, David Rudd says, follows in the tradition of fairy tales in exposing children to a wide range of issues, some of which are deemed inappropriate by adults and is centrally concerned with “how one negotiates one’s place in the world; how one is recognized in one’s own right rather than being ignored on the one hand or stifled in the other” (Rudd 160). This analysis can also be extended to the other two works, The Wolves in the Walls and The Graveyard Book. Gothic fiction in late 18th century focused on fears, mostly external - ghosts, vampires, murderers etc. In 19th century the focus shifted to internal fears, fears originating in one’s psyche. Lucy, Coraline and Bod face both external and internal fears and in that process find out for themselves who they really are.

At the start of their respective stories they are only a reflection of the society around them. Their identities are defined by their parents or other adults and they are not recognized for who they truly are. Truth is often shielded from the children because the adults, in their intention to protect their wards end up offering unreal identities to them. Lucy is never offered an explanation for what it means when her parents say “it is all over” when the wolves come out of the walls. Coraline’s parents are disengaged, unimaginative and did not bother to explore their own home and neighborhood so they could help their daughter navigate the ‘Other World’. When Bod wants to go to school to learn survival skills for the human world, Silas his guardian, refuses. “Out of the question. Here we can keep you safe. How could we keep you safe out there? Outside, anything could happen” (Gaiman, “The Graveyard Book”) is Silas’ response to Bod’s request. In Lacanian terms, these children are kept at an infantile stage and are not yet allowed to encounter the metaphorical mirror which would give them their identity.

Lacan urges us to “understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (Lacan 442). The quest for selfhood and identity is precipitated by a crisis in all three works. Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces outlines the Hero’s Journey, which is a universal motif of a quest that culminates in a major transformation - literally and figuratively. Every quest begins with a “call to adventure” and is usually associated with a “blunder.” In Grimm’s fairy tales, this could be dropping a ball into a pond as in The Frog Prince, or jumping into a well after a dropped spindle as in Mother Holle. In the three works chosen the children respond to the “call” in a similar way. Coraline opens the door that leads to nowhere, Lucy goes back to fetch her puppet from the house.

“I don’t want to live anywhere that isn’t my house” said Lucy.

“And I’ve left my pig-puppet behind”

“We can get you a new one, wherever we’re going” said her mother.

“She’ll be all alone in that house with the wolves” she thought.

“They could do dreadful things to her” (Gaiman, “The Wolves in the Walls”)

Bod’s call to adventure happens when he falls asleep atop the ghoul gate and is woken up by the ghouls. “ ‘So. You game for adventure?” asked the Duke of Westminster. ”Or do you want to waste the rest of your life here?” and with bony fingers he indicated the graveyard and the night”’ (Gaiman, “The Graveyard Book”). By responding to the call for action, the children are led on a ‘Hero’s Journey’. The children blunder and make mistakes but that mistake leads them to a better place eventually. In this quest, they are torn away from their mothers/ mother figures and this separation in Lacanian terms is similar to the infant encountering the mirror for the first time. In Coraline, Gaiman literally employs this metaphorical mirror when he says

Coraline pulled away from the other mother, left the drawing room, and passed before the mirror in the hallway. There was nothing reflected in it but a young girl who looked like she had been crying, but whose eyes were real eyes, not black buttons. “I will be brave. No I am brave!” (Gaiman, “Coraline” 69).

Only the brave can answer the call of the quest. The quest by its nature is full of challenges and can be very frightening. Gaiman once said, “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again” (Gaiman, “A View from the Cheap Seats”). He has argued that children would much rather prefer the truth even if it was scary rather than be fed a lie. His protagonists are therefore truth-seekers and truth is the objective of their quest towards selfhood and identity.

What makes these children in Gaiman’s works special? Once again, we can find parallels in Gothic fiction. Martin Schafer claims that the hero of a Gothic romance is essentially an “outsider-hero,” heroes who have a complex inner life with contradictory impulses. The three protagonists in Gaiman’s works are isolated, do not get the attention from their own families and are not like other ‘normal’ kids of their age. In some sense these children, despite their age, are brooding Byronic heroes. Lucy, in The Wolves in the Walls, is often by herself wandering around her home, listening to sounds and talking to her puppet. Her brother, in contrast is a ‘normal’ child playing video games or doing his homework. Coraline is an only child and is surrounded by eccentrics - old ladies who read tea leaves, the old man who trains mice, not to mention her workaholic parents. She is comfortable as a loner. Coraline tells her mother, “Nobody’s got green gloves at school. I could be the only one” (Gaiman, “Coraline” 25), unlike most kids who conform to fashion standards for the sake of fitting in. Bod by being the only living among the dead is the very definition of an outsider. When he steps out of the graveyard to a human school these differences become magnified. “No one noticed the boy, not at first. No one even noticed that they hadn’t noticed him. Bod was used to being ignored, to existing in the shadows” (Gaiman, “The Graveyard Book”).

Lucy, Coraline, and Bod are often left to their own devices to deal with conflicts and confront trauma in true Gothic fashion. “Both trauma and the Gothic are concerned with violence, fear, hauntedness, stasis and entrapment, memory and the past, and emphasize the role of the unconscious” (Nadal 180) making Freudian analysis perfectly suited for Gothic fiction. The protagonists similar to the ones seen in Poe’s Gothic tales “experience the desire to know and the fear of doing so - the basic dilemma at the heart of the traumatic experience” (Nadal 178). Whether it is the world outside the graveyard, or the other home beyond the locked door, or the space between the walls, all three protagonists experience fear co-mingled with curiosity about this forbidden space and are eager to find out more. This fear manifests itself through the concept of Uncanny. Although Freudian concepts were not available for the original Gothic writers, Freudian criticism has been used to interpret these works and modern day writers like Gaiman effectively use psychoanalytical insights to add to their characters’ depth.

The word heimlich, which Freud uses to explain the concept of Uncanny “belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other that which is concealed and kept out of sight” (Freud 420). Freud offers two conditions that result in Uncanny. The first is, not knowing where one is or being disoriented in space. Gaiman plays with this concept in all of the three works. When Bod leaves the safety of the graveyard for the first time and is kidnapped by ghouls on their way to the “nightmare city of Ghulheim” (Gaiman, “The Graveyard Book”) he encounters Uncanny. In this unfamiliar environment, “he was in utter darkness, feeling himself being pitched forward in a sequence of jerks and rushes, the wind rushing past him. It was frightening, but it was also exhilarating” (Gaiman, “The Graveyard Book”).

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