Today in my module Children’s Fantasy Fiction since 1900, we discussed Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman. In this seminar, we are generally given a set text as well as some secondary material to read, as well as a theme to aid our discussion, which this week was ‘Fantasy and the Uncanny’. As well as Coraline, there was a second set text, a short story called ‘The New Mother’ (1882) by Lucy Lane Clifford. You can read it here. The secondary material consisted of the good ol’ classic, ‘The Uncanny’ (1912) by Sigmund Freud, which you can read here, a response to this by Rosemary Jackson, aptly named ‘The Uncanny'(which I could not find online but there is an excerpt of her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981)here, and an article by David Rudd, ‘An eye for an I: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Questions of Identity’ (2008) which can be read here. If you don’t want to read all of that, the main two would be Coraline and ‘The Uncanny’.
The basic plot of Coraline goes like this: Coraline Jones, bored and unsatisfied with the lack of attention she receives from her parents, finds a door in her flat that leads to another flat, almost exactly like hers. In this flat she meets her ‘other mother’ and ‘other father’, who, again, are almost exactly like her parents, but with a significant difference: buttons for eyes. However, they want to give Coraline everything she wants and tell her she can stay with them as long as she, too, sews buttons onto her eyes. Coraline is (understandably) not thrilled at the prospect and the situation comes to a head when the Other Mother manages to kidnap Coraline’s parents to make Coraline think they have abandoned her. Although sinister, the story has great messages for kids reading it, like being brave but also appreciating that you can’t have everything that you want.
Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ was clearly a huge influence on Gaiman’s work. For example, as I have mentioned above, encountering something familiar but also different features in Coraline. The idea of losing one’s eyes relates to castration anxiety which he discusses in the text.The idea of the double also features, with the two mothers, one who is caring yet absent, and one who is attentive yet restricts Coraline. This could be Gaiman’s way of teaching children that their parents are complex people who aren’t always loving and attentive, which is something that they will learn as they grow up. Gaiman uses Freud’s theory in a modern way by using generally masculine-centred ideas that he restructures for female development.
‘The New Mother’, which Gaiman has said in an interview was an influence on his novel, also features a doubling of mothers. Written in the Victorian period that was known for its sometimes wildy inappropriate morality tales for children, this tale would have definitely been enough to get me to behave as a child. Two children with bizarre names, the Turkey and Blue-Eyes, meet a strange girl who has a kind of music box. When played, two little people will come out and dance. But the girl says she will not show them this until they are naughty. They relay this to their mother, who warns them that if they are naughty, she will have to leave and let the new mother take her place, who has glass eyes and a wooden tail. Despite this, the children start to exhibit naughty behaviour and eventually their mother leaves, the new mother arrives and the children are forced to flee to the forest where they must seemingly live forever more. Another didactic tale in which the child is led to realise that their mother could be a lot worse! This one I would argue is more terrifying as the children never properly see the new mother and I always think that imagination is worse than the real thing.
I really enjoyed discussing Coraline and its influences; Gaiman tackles a genuinely creepy story with humor and makes it thrilling and fun. It also has a lot of potential for further scholarly research. For my essay for this module that I am currently planning and researching, I am considering writing on mothers in Coraline and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Thanks for reading!