Children’s Gothic: Color Imagery and Characterization within Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973) is an engrossing piece of children’s literature that is designed to keep the reader guessing about what will happen on the next page. It is a notable blend of different genres, styles and themes. To the extent, that they seem in natural contest with each other, like the religious undertones present within the novel set against a mystical backdrop. The true magic of this novel though, is its commitment to enigmatic wonder while, attempting to illustrate motifs of good and evil within this coming of age story. Thus, in The House with a Clock in Its Walls Bellairs uses color imagery and direct characterization in order to create a gothic mystery that while, satisfyingly gripping has distinct moral teachings.

The novel has many aspects of the “conventional” children’s story beginning, of the classic orphan tale. The protagonist, Lewis Barnavelt, is a lonely and unsure recently orphaned boy sent to live with his distant and enigmatic uncle. The hesitancy and fear present within Lewis before their first meeting is palpable, he even goes so as far as to recite one of the lord’s prayers. He prays, “for thou o god art my strength why have you cast me off, and why do I go sorrowful” (Bellairs 3). His faith is a comforting element, that he holds on to even after finding out that his uncle is a good warlock, and that there is magic in the world. In a way, that first prayer sets up the crucial dichotomy found within the novel, the existence of good and evil. This is an overarching theme however, that can be found not only in the mentions of religion or in the general plot of the novel but, in the very characterization of the characters. The joviality and good nature of his uncle can immediately be discerned by his appearance, he writes, “there stood a man with a bushy red beard…khaki trousers were bulged out in front by his pot belly… [the vest he wore] had pipe cleaners” (Bellairs 5). The big belly combined with his red hair and assortment of different odd items paints a very distinct and friendly image of Jonathan.

Mrs. Zimmerman as well, is portrayed as a good and kind woman through her physical description, he writes “the eyes were friendly, and all the wrinkles were drawn up into smile lines” (Bellairs 10). Appearance is very important in the novel, where the external seems to be an accurate representation of the internal. Color is ever present in the novel and is used in the same vein with characterization to depict the tone of the novel. Black is used very heavily after the introduction, of the evil witch Selenna. He writes “blacker than ink spilled into water-was oozing from the space between the doors” (Bellairs 87). The use of color jumps off the page and helps provide more structure to this far way place that Lewis exists within. Color seems grounding in that way, providing Lewis with a clear direction to aspire towards and avoid even while, existing in this secretive world. Secrecy plays an important role in Bellairs work, more than just propelling the plot the mystery of the novel has a reflective element to it that closely ties in to Lewis’s subconscious desires and conflicts. He begins the novel with no understanding of the mystery of the ticking clock and he is fearful and unsure because of it.

As the novel progresses, and he begins to learn more and more about the origins of the clock and magic, he gains more confidence. Yet, just like the ticking clock always in the background, so is his loneliness which, is why he is so happy to make a new friend in the popular Tarby. Yet, as he senses his new friend beginning to lose interest he does something that sets off the main conflict of the novel. He awakens Selenna an evil witch who, was previously buried in a cemetery. Yet, more important than that is that he chooses not to divulge this secret with his trusted confidants. He is afraid to tell Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan from fear of rejection and shame. It is something that clouds him throughout the novel, as he tries to figure out how to do right within the novel. Eventually, culminating in a last ditch and incredibly brave effort to directly confront Selenna in her own house. He of course, fails and is saved by Mrs. Zimmerman but, he finally turns to the two most important adults in his life to try and save the world. They succeed in banishing Selenna and stopping the ticking clock set to end the world and finally, he tells Jonathan the truth. This heavy burden that plagued Lewis from the onset is finally lifted from his shoulders and he fully embraces his uncle. The novel even, ends in the happy note of him finally making a genuine friend that likes and accepts him.

The importance of trust, family and goodness is very apparent by the end of the novel as the mystery is finally solved. And it is because, those themes are so closely entwined with the mystery that the growth of Lewis’s character is a result of it. Thus, in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Bellairs combines elements of conventional children’s stories alongside, intentional figurative language and creates a bewitching novel that attempts to teach abstract concepts of morality in a narrative format.