In this paper, I am going to look at two of Neil Gaiman’s children’s novels, Coraline and Mirrormask, which use the Alice books as a textual reference.
When Alice wakes up from her dream at the end of Through the Looking Glass, she asks her cat “Now, Kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamt it all… You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King”i. She raises a question about her own agency in her dream where she has created the world. In her dream, she marches through a codified progress from childhood into the adult world in the symbolic progress from pawn to Queen. Her journey will force her to abandon the innocent world of the child and to become aware of her own agency in the world and thus be culpable for her actions. Although she constructs her world, she is not in control of it; its rules control her and define the space in which she can grow. She has to take the chosen path across the chess board since pawns can only go forward and cannot deviate from this unless taking another piece, whereby they can move diagonally for one space before relentlessly moving forward.
Neil Gaiman develops the arguments in Lewis Carroll’s books about how his female protagonists create their own mirror worlds through dreaming and then inhabit them in a time of family stress. Having created these worlds, Coraline and Helena must begin to explore them and to find their edges. Through this exploration, they come across demonic, other versions of their own mothers and must battle them to gain their own agency. This fight manifests itself as a quest to find something, either as simple as a mask or metaphysical as a soul, which allows the girls to defeat their other mother’s desires for a utopian family and, perhaps crucially, to remain as themselves as they return to the real world.There are two questions to be asked of the books. Firstly, how do Coraline and Helena, both different ages, deal with their dream worlds and secondly, how does these experiences relate to Alice’s question and experience.
In these two novels, I’m going to argue that the protagonists develop a dream world and once they appreciate the unwritten rules, are able to define their own identities and places within the real world in stark contrast to Alice who is clearly aware of her own future and identity but does not truly understand it. If she did, she would not need to ask her question.
In Coraline, the Jones family have just moved to a new house which has been divided into flats. Nearing the end of the summer holidays, Coraline is bored and starts exploring the house, meeting the other tenants. None of them pronounce her name properly, calling her “Caroline” to which she quietly replies “I asked you not to call me Caroline. Its Coraline.”ii. With her name changed and ignored by the other tenants, she continues her exploration through the garden and house, finding the edges of the land and going to the Well which Miss Forcible and Miss Spink have told her is dangerous. In this small act of insubordination, she begins to gain her own sense of which boundaries can be broken, a fact she finds useful later in the novel. Her own parents continue this sense of stripping her self as she tries to play with them during the day. They set her challenges which she finds easy and completes quickly and when she craves more attention, her father replies “leave me alone to work” (Coraline, p 14), ignoring her boredom.
In this quest she finds the door which seemingly leads to nowhere. During the day, it opens up onto a brick facade as evidence of the house’s former status as one entity. However during the night, she hears the creak of the unlocked, useless door and her imagination lead her to explore the passage way between the worlds. At first she is cautious but gingerly goes through the passageway into the world when her parents disappear. At first, she remains in the house, waiting for them but when they do not return she tries to call the police but is rebuffed as playing silly games and time-wasting, leaving her increasingly isolated. It is with some desperation that she goes into the mirror world and meets the other mother.
In Mirrormask, Helena, the protagonist, opens the book with defining the story as her own account of a weird dream and the first page ends with her writing “I call this story Mirrormask and it is written and illustrated by me, Helena Campbell”(Mirrormask p1). It opens with the world already made unstable as she claims to be writing the story which she is sure she has not made up. Helena’s parents run a circus and when her mother is taken ill, she is unintentionally pushed to one side by her father who is caught up in keeping everything running whilst the circus is off the road, despite her centrality in covering extra roles in the circus when necessary. Like Coraline, she is continually sidelined as not being able to understand her mother’s illness and retreats into imagining a different world through art. When her father calls the circus together in the flat, she is physically barred from the living room due to the amount of people in it. She goes up to the roof as “everything seems very small and a long way away” (Mirrormask), where she has the space to begin drawing a world full of gargoyles and monsters. Confronting her father, she is further rebuffed with him failing to communicate the extent of the necessary operation. In both books, the child’s identity is stripped and pushed to one side, though both children are able to compensate with their imaginations. As the worlds are different, their rules and perhaps more importantly, boundaries must be sought out.
Coraline’s other world is subtly different from the one which she has just left. As she is soon to find out, its boundaries are defined by the other mother but the edges are easily found. She goes into the garden of the other house and finds that “the world had become a formless swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it, whilst the house appeared to have stretched and become thin” (Coraline p.113). When Coraline asks the cat about the world and its edges which are just outside of the building, he replies “Made it, found it, what’s the difference?… Either way, she’s had it a very long time.”(Coraline, p. 83) Unlike the world of Mirrormask, Coraline’s other world is defined by the ideas of H.P. Lovecraft and his idea that the horrific supernatural is best defined as reality which is subtly different, changes which evoke sensations of fear and uncanny. As she will discover, the other parents’ appearance is not as it seems with buttons sewn onto their faces for eyes and they are slightly taller and more angular than her real parents. As she realises this is the world of nightmares and to join in the depicted utopian family is to lose her identity and become a monster with buttons for her eyes. Where Carroll uses the idea of the mirror world to poke fun at the adult world and its foibles, Gaiman extends this to look at the darker side of family life. Throughout the book, the second family and domestic sphere is characterised as the other; it is specifically different from her family who are trapped in the mirror.
Realising that the mother is playing a game to capture her, Coraline challenges the new mother via offering to play a different game which she has been practising with her parents through finding things. She realises that the only way that she can escape is to try to find the souls of the other lost children who have fallen in to the house’s trap. When she initially challenges the mother, Coraline is put into a mirror where she hears the other children who have been lost. Their first conversation mentions the losing of the name as the first thing to go and Coraline realises that she needs to hold onto this to stop the mother gaining power over her. Although the mother tries to tempt her with her offer of having everything she wants, Coraline rejects this saying “Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me fair and square?”(Coraline, p 98). Coraline chooses the game, moving from the other mother’s strength in riddles and into hers, exploration. Her game takes her throughout the house and she forces the other father into revealing the mother’s plan – although she already knows what it is. Through this confirmation of her knowledge and the stone that she has been given, she is able to see the house for what it is and it becomes significantly flatter as the mother’s world is destroyed. Her imagination allows her to work out that her real family are trapped in between the worlds and so break the trap entirely.
As with Coraline, Helena approaches the mirror world through her dreams where she sees her reflected image. The world she wakes up in is inhabited with jugglers but the danger is quickly apparent when a black cloud touches Eric, the juggler, and turns him into dust. The only way of escaping the cloud is tell the books that they are bad so that they return to the library, which are used to surf away from danger. Valentine, the clown who helps Helena escape, tell her that a black cloud is destroying the city around them. Helena engages with Valentine as a juggling partner when she is arrested.
As with Coraline, Helena faces the removal of her identity in the act. When she questions her arrest by the beetles, it replies “Not exactly, miss … Or should I say … Princess” (Mirrormask) before whisking her away to the palace. Like Coraline, her identity is misappropriated by authority. As she is being carried away, she realises that she does need to look for sense in the world as it created through her dreams. In so doing, she is more in control of herself in the world as she aware that it is irrational. Unlike either Coraline or Alice, Helena begins to take control of the world and to question it. Once she has been brought to the palace and is presented to the Prime Minister, he works out that she is not the real princess and explains that there are two cities. He explains that the dark princess was looking for the Charm when she left the queen in a slumber. Helena recognises that the Queen reflects her mother who is lying in hospital. She needs to find the History of Everything in the Library where she finds that the key to the construction of the world when she reads about the girl who had made the world by drawing it: “The Charm she placed beneath the sign of the Queen, to show the city that she knew it would never be finished, because the city was her life and dream.”(Mirrormask). Beginning her own quest for the Charm, she meets the giants who tell her that it is the Mirror Mask when they give her the box.
Betrayed by Valentine, Helena finds herself in the Dark Queen’s castle. The Dark Queen echoes the other mother in her desperate attempt at domesticity, controlling the world via the illusion of the happy family, ignoring the underlying problems which have caused the swap of the girls. Whilst Helena tries to explain her quest, the Queen decides that Helena needs a pretty frock instead. Once inside the princess’s room, Helena is “made into the thing that the Dark Queen wanted… perfectly passive and, looking back on it, perfectly pathetic” (Mirrormask). Helena begins to challenge the Queen as this happens but reverts to her passive role and begins to lose herself to the extent of not recognising Valentine. He needs to remind her of her quest which appears to remind Helena, especially when she finds the letter left which states “I can’t live in your world. I have to grow up. I’m going to run away and join Real Life” echoing Helena’s desire to leave her father’s world of the travelling circus. Neither Helena nor the Princess are happy in their current lives and feel trapped through exclusion by their parents without room to develop their own selves. Whilst the dark princess can only think of destroying the world in her rage but Helena realises that that “[i]t’s a lot harder to try and put the world back together again” (Mirrormask). As with Coraline when she decides that it would be awful to have everything desired, this is Helena’s moment where she gains the control over the language of her dream world through abandoning the utopian family dream.
Whilst Helena is in her passive role, the other princess carries on her destruction and rage. As she inhabits the world she sees herself reflected in the mirror, screaming at her father in the real world. As she travels through the world, she sees herself in the real world as the darker side of what she presents to the world. Eventually the other self comes back and begins to tear down the world by destroying the pictures from which it is created when the dark princess realises that Helena is watching her. Helena tries to come back to the world and to reach to her father by shouting at him. She bangs on the shop window that she is looking in for the reflection. As she and Valentine take tea with Mrs Bagwell, they come back to the notion of Valentine’s tower which he has managed to upset. When Helena realises that she needs to use the mirror, she remembers where the Mirrormask is and that she needs to find a window to see the girl. As the pillar of flame is destroying the city, Helena realises that ‘ “She’s destroying the world, ” I told Valentine. And she was. Also snogging boys, eating chips, smoking and fighting with my dad’ (Mirrormask). In those moments of separation of the selves, Helena becomes aware of herself as part of mirror by donning the mirrormask. She gains complete control of the world by acting through becoming the mirror and haunting the other Helena before she brings herself into the real world again by recognising herself and accepting her darker side.
In comparison to the journey that Alice goes through, the Queen and the other mother are trying to prevent the girls growing up. It is only when Helena and Coraline challenge the secondary mothers that they are able to move on. Coraline points out that not everybody wants to have everything they want whilst Helena persuades the queen that she needs to allow her daughter to grow up, much to her horror. As she works out how to return to the world by becoming part of it, the world is destroyed by the other girl, save for one small picture on the roof.
Both Helena and Coraline are accepted back into the family as individuals, through having recognised the flaws in the family structure presented in the mirror worlds. Unlike Alice who unquestioningly dreams her world into existence, Coraline dreams hers as a way of explaining her annoyance with her parents ignoring her. Although she does not create the world, she is able to shape it through her dreams and to expose the nightmare for what it is and thus come through it. She is not as knowing as Helena in her creation of the world but her own curiosity pushes her through the passage. Alice like, her game allows her to transform the domestic idyll and to see the house for what it is and to accept her role in the real world. Unlike Alice’s chess game in Through the Looking Glass which suggests her future, Coraline’s allows her to define her own self. Helena is able to come to terms with herself and finds a language to express her rage at her own situation.
Whilst Coraline’s nightmare is subtly different from the real world, she discovers its boundaries and the limits of the house defined by the other Mother. As she understands it, it becomes flatter or paler since she can see through the illusion. At the outset, Helena makes it clear that the fantasy land is her own creation but through her journey, she is able to become part of its fabric and gain a better sense of self. Both clearly answer Alice’s question by accepting that they have created their own mirrors. The distorted reflections of a utopian family life allow Coraline and Helena to learn the language to define their own roles. Yet Helena is able to go on further than Coraline in that Mirrormask is purportedly her book, her creation; she controls the language that describes her and tells her story, not the Dark Queen or apparently the person we would consider as the author. The mirror experience allows them to define underlying fears and to gain a mastery over them, even if these fears still exist, through acknowledging the mirror space and making their own definition of the space.
Carroll’s dream world is a ludic one, playful in its interrogation of the real world, but ultimately deterministic in his portrayal of Alice’s future, which is out of her hands. Gaiman on the other hand uses the mirror world to allow the girls to confront their own fears about the world and to find a way of coping with them.
In contrast to Alice who is not allowed to be aware of her own self, Gaiman’s travellers are able to answer the original question with a clear answer: “it was I who dreamt it all”.
iAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll (OUP, Oxford, ) p244
iiCoraline, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury, London, 2002)