Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a children’s story about a girl who’s ordinary and imperfect, yet cast in the role of a hero on a quest.

This combination is pretty rare. There are a number of good girl characters in literature, but the ones who get to go on adventures tend to be either very very perfect (Nancy Drew, the original Mary Sue) and/or accompanied by boys (Meg, in the A Wrinkle In Time series). I’m not going to spoil Coraline for those who haven’t read the book and/or are waiting for the movie. The story follows the classic pattern of a quest story, with plenty of interesting and imaginative twists on the genre. But it’s the character of Coraline I want to talk about, and to do that I don’t need to reveal what happens.

Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home. She’s not gifted at solving mysteries or riding horses or playing with dolphins. She doesn’t have any outstanding personality traits, like shyness, insecurity or extraordinary kindness. She’s just a kid who happens to be female, whose curiosity leads her to an adventure, the consequences of which demand heroics from her. She makes mistakes, and she also has flashes of brilliance, as people generally do.

The hero’s journey – or any sort of heroic quest containing any of its elements – was developed for men. Its whole purpose was to show cultures how great men distinguish themselves from ordinary men.Those cultures didn’t want to believe women could find greatness through the same journey, and neither did Joseph Campbell, who taught lots of female students at Sarah Lawrence how going on the hero’s journey would make them “pseudo-male.” We could debate for days where this fear of women doing “men’s work” comes from, but my guess would be it’s rooted in the belief that the way men get sex from women is to beat off male competitors (at which point the woman automatically grants sex as a reward), so if women become competitors with men, how on earth does the social order work then? It sounds silly now – tons of individuals now realize that women who don’t need male partners frequently still want them. And yet echoes of the old way of thinking, of the negation of female drives to achieve and desires for sex, show up every time a TV show or book reminds us that Career Woman still isn’t complete without a man. We’re a long way from being truly past all that crap.

A book like Coraline, aimed at children, can actually have significant impact on the culture (who doesn’t remember a book from childhood that shaped our world view?). It normalizes the idea of a girl on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest. This girl does.

Comments

  1. gategrrl says

    I read from a link on Gaiman’s own blog that the film writers/producers added a male character into the movie which had not been there before. Since I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have no idea how large of a role, or *what* role he plays in the plot.

    It would be a huge shame for Coraline’s bravery and accomplishments to be even partially coopted or minimized by the presence of a male boy character.

  2. says

    I’m unconvinced that Campbell knew what he was talking about. There are all manner of Heroine’s Journeys in literature after all — dozens in Grimm’s alone. If they don’t follow the Campbellian Hero pattern, it might be that the Campbellian pattern is a fairly artificial construct to begin with: very few Heroes actually go on a full Campbellian Hero’s journey, after all.

  3. says

    Thinking about it, Coraline follows an older female heroes journay–that of the goddess Innana. She’s the template for Isis, and is from Sumeria (and probably earlier). She goes through the gates of the underworld, stripping off her clothing, jewelry and symbols of power as she goes through each gate. Her sister was Queen of the underworld. It’s not clear exactly why she descended into that realm, but since Inanna was the goddess of love and war (NOT childbirth or fertility) she might have wanted to conquer that realm, as well. She emerges from the underworld as strong as she ever was.

    Here’s the wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna

    Coraline goes on a similar journey. Coraline’s other world is very much an underworld of death.

    One aspect of many contemporary fantasy books that irritate me is how often the protagonist, boy or girl, has their memories wiped of their amazing adventure. What’s the point of that? Luckily, Coraline retains her memories. That’s a big check mark for me.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Neil, I agree with your assessment of Campbell. He ignored certain things and stretched others to create the illusion of a grand unifying theory. However, I think the idea that quests and hero journeys are strictly for men was something Campbell tapped into, rather than something he created. For the most part, he propagated the idea by simply excluding discussion of female heroes. And when pressed for his take on their existence, he spouted the crap quoted in the article I linked above.

    Which was when, to be honest, he lost all credibility with me.

  5. says

    re: Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template.

    I always found it ridiculous the way Campbell and Moyers in _The Power of Myth_ (filmed at Skywalker Studios, naturally) tried bending and contorting Star Wars into Campbell’s rigid outline of what a Hero does, and when. They were both clearly reaching during the filming of the series.

    And Campbell’s opinion of women’s journeys…I have no polite words. He saw what he wanted to see, and no more.

  6. says

    Jennifer, I’d been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who *don’t* have magical powers, and your comments made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I *do* like heroines like that.

  7. Scarlett says

    *She’s not gifted at solving mysteries or riding horses or playing with dolphins. She doesn’t have any outstanding personality traits, like shyness, insecurity or extraordinary kindness. She’s just a kid who happens to be female, whose curiosity leads her to an adventure, the consequences of which demand heroics from her.*

    *who doesn’t remember a book from childhood that shaped our world view?*

    A bit OT, but this is exactly why I must’ve read Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden fifty times each. There’s nothing hugely special about either, save for the sympathy factor of being orphans. They both have obvious personality flaws – Anne is highly opinionated and doesn’t know when to shut up or reign in her imagination, Mary is a right royal brat – but it’s their very realism that leads them into advantures and facing the consequences that I love.

  8. Daomadan says

    “One aspect of many contemporary fantasy books that irritate me is how often the protagonist, boy or girl, has their memories wiped of their amazing adventure. What’s the point of that?”

    I’d also add that in contemporary science fiction this happens as well. I wrote a long post about how I was extremely unhappy with the season ending of Doctor Who and the fate of Donna. I won’t spoil it here, but may post it publicly if anyone is interested.

  9. says

    I’m not thrilled with what happened with Donna (my favorite Doctor’s companion) BUT at least there was an “explanation” for why.

    But with children’s fantasy, or children in other fantasy, there is no reason given, no why–even Stephen King and Peter Straub do it to Jack, their child protagonist from “The Talisma”, who’s grown up and stars in “Black House”. He just “forgets” all his adventures in an other world.

    I even caught myself doing it to a child protagonist of mine in a sequel novel until I realized that’s what I essentially hated about it-I’d fallen into a dreadful, unnecessary trope. It’s equivalent to the horrible “it was only a dream!” trope.

  10. says

    And new Doctor Who has been pretty fascinated with giving characters some form of closure, so I hold out hope that Donna will be revisited. There was a deleted scene in which, at the very end, there was a moment in which there seemed to be some recognition there, and I am pretending the deleted scene is official.

    The dream trope is *awful*. So much about fantasy is bringing something back to the mundane world – knowledge or understanding or ability or just a sense of wonder – whether for the characters or the reader, and ending with a dream or enforced forgetting strikes at the heart of that.

  11. says

    I’m happy to report that, upon seeing the film version of Coraline, that the newly inserted male character does *not* take over any of Coraline’s role in the story. He fits in organically, and is actually a tragic figure. It’s no wonder his grandmother wouldn’t permit him in the apartment house. (you’ll understand if you see the movie) Coraline is completely herself. Which is to say, she’s *exactly* like a regular girl her age.

    It was terrific.

    • =Tamar says

      Five years later… no, the part right at the end, where the Boy comes swooping in to Save The Day – that was added for the movie. In the book, he isn’t needed for that because Coraline succeeds all by herself.

  12. Daomadan says

    “There was a deleted scene in which, at the very end, there was a moment in which there seemed to be some recognition there, and I am pretending the deleted scene is official.” But remember, if Donna ever remembers she will die. So they either need to write an explanation for why she would survive if she remembered.

    I’ll post it sometime today and let you know, Kathleen!

  13. says

    And I goofed majorly on post #8. It was not *Coraline* that won the Newberry–it was The Graveyard Book.

    I keep wanting to say it was Coraline, but, ah well.

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