Manipulation and Appreciation in Coraline
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline introduces the story’s antagonist far before that very antagonist’s evil intentions are revealed. In the novel, a young girl Coraline has just moved into an old home. She feels ignored by her parents who are too busy working to pay attention to her. When she stumbles upon the door that leads to her other Mother, who has excessive amounts of time to spend with Coraline, it appears to Coraline that her wishes had been answered. The other Mother uses manipulation in order to ease Coraline’s worries regarding the usual situation she finds herself in. Though Coraline is quick to feel unsafe within her other Mother’s household, she is forced to return in order to save her parents. While the other Mother has violent intentions, she primarily relies on manipulation and exploiting negative feelings children feel towards their parents in order to achieve her goals. Though the other Mother plays the role of villain, it is from her that Coraline learns to appreciate her own family more.
When attempting to persuade Coraline to join the other family, her other Mother focuses on two main issues Coraline has with her parents. The first is the amount of time they spend with her. Though not specifically stated in the book, it is clear the Coraline is frustrated with her parents for not having time to play with her. During her first rainy day, Coraline quickly runs out of things to do and tells both her parents she is bored. Rather than engaging with her, as Coraline would like, both parents dismiss her with suggestions like reading a book, or counting all the doors in the house. Neither of these activates hold Coraline’s attention long. She finds both her parents and the house dull. When venturing into the other Mother’s house, however, things are different. Coraline finds the home itself an “awful lot more interesting” (Gaiman 19) and finds more engaging activities within it, such as the rats her other Mother suggests she plays with. Coraline finds the other house a much more engaging and entertaining place to be, assisting in the other Mother’s attempt to keep Coraline there.
Coraline also finds issue with the food her family makes for her. She dislikes the recipes her father makes, insisting her should just make normal food. At the beginning of the novel, he father has made a leek and potato stew that Coraline refuses to eat. It is clear from her remarks about her father’s cooking that she dislikes the elaborate dishes he tries to create. When she visits the other house, her other Father has cooked a meal for lunch that is much simpler. The other family’s lunch was tasty chicken with no “weird things” (19) done to it. This is the family meal Coraline has envisioned her family partaking in. The other Mother has had a meal created the suit the desires of Coraline, showcasing the benefits of staying with the other mother rather than returning to her real family. By exploiting Coraline’s complaints about her home life, the other Mother attempts to persuade Coraline into remaining with her.
After Coraline successfully defeats the other Mother and returns home with her real parents, it is clear there is a change in her personality, specifically regarding her interactions with her parents. Additionally, her parents appear to interact with her different. When greeting her father for the first time since her adventure, Coraline notes that her father picks her up something he had “not done for such a long time” (75) suggesting a change in the dynamic of their relationship. While at the beginning of the novel Coraline feels ignored by her parents, she now is experiencing attention she has not had in a while. For dinner, her father has once again made a recipe. Unlike her refusal to try her father’s soup, she devours an entire slice of the homemade pizza (sans the pineapple). This shows a new appreciation for her parents. She is no longer complaining about aspects of their relationships but engaging heavily in them.
The other Mother’s manipulation of Coraline changes her perspective of her relationship with her family: the aspects of this familial relationship that Coraline disliked are the very aspects that the other Mother attempted to use against her. Rather than having Coraline chose to live with her because of the changes, Coraline instead associates the other Mother’s manipulation with her previous desires. She no longer wishes for her parents to stray heavily from their work, or to cook simpler dishes, she is happy to have the family she has.
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.