Blake and Gaiman on Women’s Desires: A Dissection of Mrs. Armitage on Wheels and Coraline
Quentin Blake and Neil Gaiman both utilize desire as a driving force in the plots of their works. Blake’s Mrs. Armitage on Wheels sees its protagonist desiring more out of her bicycle and using her creativity and mechanical prowess to enhance the design. Coraline sees its protagonist desiring something interesting to stave off her boredom and using her bravery to find a new world to enjoy and explore, as well as escape from. This motif is common in children’s media, but these two books differ in their uncommon resolutions. By the end of both Mrs. Armitage on Wheels and Coraline, the main character is punished for wanting more from life, though the punishment in the former is much less severe than the punishment in the latter. This is significant to note because unlike, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which has its male protagonist ultimately rewarded with almost everything he desires from life, the works of Blake and Gaiman do not reward their female protagonists for wanting to improve their lives and making efforts to achieve their objectives. Blake and Gaiman’s common resolution in their respective works to punish their female protagonists for aspiring to better their lives conveys the authors’ hidden moral that women should be complacent and satisfied in lives they do not find fulfilling.
Starting with Mrs. Armitage on Wheels, the reader will notice immediately that Blake writes the titular character as an innovator and masterful inventor; she makes adjustments to her bicycle solely out of practicality. When a problem arises, Mrs. Armitage makes efforts to ensure that it will not be an inconvenience to her in the future. This pattern — problem, solution and so on — makes up the episodic rhythm of the book. There is only one exception to this pattern:
“What this bike needs,” said Mrs Armitage to herself as she cycled along, “if it’s to be looked after properly, is a complete toolkit” (Blake 9).
Despite the lack of situational prompting, the reader can easily see how her addition has a practical use. Her adjustments to the bicycle are plentiful but by no means superficial; each enhancement shows her ability to problem-solve. Ideally, the narrative would praise her ingenuity, but as explained in an article from The Reading Teacher, “Blake uses the hilarious illustrations to build the book’s cumulative structure, making Mrs. Armitage’s ultimate fate easily predictable” (Galda 161). As the article states, Mrs. Armitage having her contraption foiled is meant to be “hilarious.” However, there should be no humour in a woman being thwarted in her attempts at a better, more convenient life. And yet the book concludes on Mrs. Armitage musing, “But what these roller-skates need… what these roller-skates really need is[……]” (Blake 30), indicating that the pattern will start over. The absurdist tone takes away any sense of importance from the protagonist’s achievements. The reader is encouraged to believe that Mrs. Armitage should be satisfied with her bicycle as it is, but that thinking undermines her desires and independence. Based on the evidence, Blake’s work appears to contain a hidden moral for women to be complacent and satisfied in lives they do not find fulfilling.
Similarly to Blake, Gaiman perpetuates a hidden moral for women to be content with their lives in Coraline. Unlike Blake, however, Gaiman is more explicit with his message. He accomplishes this by having Coraline’s punishment be far more severe than that of Mrs. Armitage, and while he technically rewards Coraline, she notably does not get what she wants. Maria Nikolajeva writes that “nightmare pursues Coraline into her reality… The other world is not merely absurd, but virtually terrifying” (Nikolajeva 259). Indeed, Gaiman’s protagonist is forced to endure horrifying events as penance for getting what she wants, although it is for only one afternoon. Even when her adventure appears to be over, after her game with the Other Mother, Coraline’s torture continues when the beldam’s hand comes looking for the key. When she discovers this, Coraline herself says, “But that’s not fair… It’s just not fair. It should be over” (Gaiman 144). Sandor Klapcsik writes about Gaiman, “His stories… lay bare the process of storytelling… and violate the narrative level” (Klapcsik 193). Gaiman has continued this trend with Coraline, as he draws out the final battle beyond convention in order to haunt his protagonist into learning her lesson properly.
Even with Coraline’s frank character, the reader knows she is afraid from her description of bravery: “…when you’re scared and you do it anyway, that’s brave” (Gaiman 70). This passage is noteworthy because it emphasizes that many of Coraline’s admirable traits go unrewarded. Coraline is often labelled as a post-modern fairytale. As such, it is fitting that the story makes allusions to motifs in old-world fables. Upstanding values — kindness, cleverness, bravery, etc. — are rewarded, and unfavourable values — dishonesty, untrustworthiness, impoliteness, etc. — are punished. The outcome appears to depend on the gender of the protagonist, as many of the most famous fairy tales have unkind fates for the female characters who have strayed from their roles as women of their time period. This motif is reflected in the ghost boy’s parting message to Coraline when he says, “Take comfort in this… Th’art alive. Thou livest” ( Gaiman 144). His words are reminiscent of lessons in humility taught to young girls — be satisfied with life as it is. By the end of the novel, Coraline’s reward does appear to be her life, a consolation prize compared to the better life she was seeking.
In a review of the Coraline musical, Tanya Dean writes, “Coraline’s adventures in an otherworldly realm have the effect of making her see the normal with new… eyes” (Dean 269). By the end, Coraline does have a new appreciation for her world, but it is under false pretences. Gaiman has Coraline explicitly state her lesson during her final conversation with the Other Mr. Bobo: “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything” (Gaiman 122). However, it could be argued that Coraline is wrong in her assessment. Her words imply that she had her desires handed to her, that she had no agency, but this is not the case. Coraline actively seeks to alleviate her boredom. As Coraline sneaks into the door in the drawing room, Gaiman tirelessly recounts Coraline’s every action: “Coraline got a chair and pushed it over to the kitchen door. She climbed onto the chair and reached up. She got down, then got a broom from the broom cupboard. She climbed back on the chair again and reached up with the broom” (Gaiman 34). The amount of detail in the descriptions indicates agency — Coraline did this, Coraline did that — and the fact that the reader knows she is doing things of her own volition makes her involvement unquestionable. Considering the evidence, it appears to be irrefutable that Coraline’s resolution to punish its female protagonist for aspiring to better her life conveys the author’s hidden moral that women should be complacent and satisfied in lives they do not find fulfilling.
Blake and Gaiman both exploit the desires of their female main characters in order to teach lessons about being satisfied with life as it is. Blake’s attempts to make the destruction of Mrs. Armitage’s achievements humourous reinforce this claim, as do Gaiman’s extended punishment of his main character and his attempts to force a lesson on Coraline learned under false pretences. Admittedly, these morals do not appear to be the intent of the authors, but it stands to reason that if the works of creators are, by nature, subject to interpretation, then creators must be at least partially responsible for what version of the story readers take from their books. Thankfully, there is room to improve and amend any damage and hopefully, the authors of children’s literature to come will learn from the mistakes of those who did not thoroughly consider the implications of their stories.
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Quentin Blake and Neil Gaiman both utilize desire as a driving force in the plots of their works. Blake’s Mrs. Armitage on Wheels sees its protagonist desiring more out of […]