“She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t her. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”
– Page 63, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean.
Steph was kind enough to cover for me last Friday, so today, I return the favour! Do be warned though that this isn’t exactly a polished essay. Just the musings of someone who loves food, adores Coraline, and misses home.
There is a strong link between the idea/l of home and the consumption of food. It may be the emotion that binds them. I would argue that it isn’t quite love, or rather, it isn’t quite love all the time, but the feeling does often involves a sort of need or longing. YA and Children’s literature has often explored this connection between home, hunger, and (in want for a better, more specific word) love. In Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the food is a symbol of the mother’s love for her son. It also works as a way to reaffirm that home is where the mischievous Max belongs. In some vampire novels- like Stoker’s Dracula, Westerfeld’s Peeps, and Meyers’ Twilight- the consumption of food/blood takes on a more carnal tone, rooting the “victims” to the vampire’s territory. (The phrase “home is where the heart is” comes to mind! Hehehe!)
In novels like Coraline, it is a bit of both. In fact, the book is filled with descriptions and images of food, though not always in the way you would expect. For instance, the first episode of note for me was that Coraline’s tea with her neighbours turned out to be a Trelawney-scale disaster. Misses Spink and Forcible waste no time in reading Coraline’s tea leaves. In an unsurprising turn of events, the tea leaves spell danger. (Not literally, of course, don’t be silly.) But that is only a charming, small-scale oddity compared to how Gaiman deals with the concept of home and hearth.
In Coraline’s world, home does not always mean delicious food and comfort. The soup is never still warm and waiting for her. With her mother being busy with work and her father cooking “recipes”, Coraline lives off a microwave diet that real parents would probably cringe at and real children would probably be delighted with. So, right away, the Victorian ideal of a womb-like home enveloped in feminine comfort is being chipped away at.
Things only gets more twisted when Coraline discovers the home behind the bricked up door and the Other mother:
A huge, golden-brown roasted chicken, fried potatoes, tiny green peas … It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was ver dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principle.
– Pages 26-27.
At this point Coraline’s worlds are reversed. She gets to have the home she wanted, if she can overlook the fact that her parents have buttons for eyes (and want to give her a pair), and that the neighbour with the rats tends to observe her with a “hungry” look in his eyes. (Yikes.)
As Keeling and Pollard note in their article “The Key is in the Mouth: Food and Orality in Coraline”:
Food marks each pivot point of the plot. It instrumentalizes Coraline’s journey. It clarifies her relationships to her parents and to the other mother in terms of her acceptance or denial of foods adults offer, as well as her own developing sense of self in what foods she rejects from adults and those that she chooses for herself.
– Page 3.
When Coraline returns home to an empty house, after she buys and eats the food of her choosing, after she calls the police about her missing parents (who advice that her mother make her a hot chocolate), and after she despairs, Coraline begins to sort through some difficult issues about the nature of want, need, and love. To some extent, this understanding is gained through the Other mother. Like the readers, Coraline is privy to a series of transformations (thank you, Dave McKean) from a generous caretaker, to possessive gatekeeper, to carnal consumer, and ultimately a destroyer. The Other mother has always gotten what she wants that she does not know what it feels to need, nor to love. It may have been a fate that awaited Coraline herself.
And so, Coraline arms herself with a trinket and two apples … and the ability to say no*.
The rest, as they say, is
Why You Will Love This Book: It is a book made for loving. Even though the book has been out for years, and even though this wasn’t even a review post, I will not spoil it for you. You may think I have already spoiled it, but with Neil Gaiman the ending is never the spoiler. It’s the details that make you jump. So, trust me. And just read it if you haven’t already. And if you have, well, re-read it and I’ll treat you to a coffee.
NOTE: I apologize for taking a rather dark turn with this month’s theme, but I do so love Neil Gaiman and I do so very much enjoy Coraline. I couldn’t help myself. Plus, part of this blog post had already been written thanks to Judi Saltman’s wonderful class on Contemporary Literature and Other Materials for Children. It will probably also work its way into my MA thesis.
Anyway, as an apology, I will make my next post a lot less creepy. I promise. (Hint: Think fan culture and food!)
*I feel like I should add an edit, so here’s my edit. In the case of Coraline, food is utilized by the Other mother to lure and trap. By accepting or declining it, Coraline is using her agency to mess with a power that is older and stronger than her. It is a way for Coraline to gain leverage. There is courage and intelligence in this play. I am not, however, suggesting that a kid starving herself IRL is a … good/admirable/preferable thing? Just … felt like I should clarify?