Coraline: An Instant Classic

I’ve been sick the last few days with the flu. There’s nothing like being sick to transport you back to childhood. It’s not so much the treatment I get (my mom doesn’t come take care of me, for example), but it is in childhood when we first learn what it means to be sick. And as a result, we learn what it means to be well.

Serendipity has been with me, though. I misplaced the book I was reading and picked up Coraline by Neil Gaiman instead. Coralne is a magical book, like many of Gaiman’s works (maybe all), but the magic is purer here: the evil is deeper and the good is more pure. Gaiman perfectly captures the childlike nature of Coraline as she explores her home and surrounding area.

There was also a well. On the first day Coraline’s family moved in, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible made a point of telling Coraline how dangerous the well was, and they warned her to be sure she kept away from it. So Coraline set off to explore for it, so that she knew where it was, to keep away from it properly.

There is of course humor in that description, but it is sincere. Coraline is not a contrary child; she is imaginative, thoughtful, and (as she learns) brave.

Not everyone in the novel is so pure of heart, but the children and the older adults maintain a connection to the magic of the world that instills their motives with purity. Even Spink and Forcible, silly as they are, have Coraline’s best interest at heart. Not so the villain, the Other Mother, who claims to want to be loved, but has a perverse idea of love. Her intentions are wholly selfish, because she wants to own Coraline rather than love and be loved by her.

The plot of the novel follows a fairy tale convention in which our heroine finds something unusual, explores it and finds trouble, uses her wits and bravery to get out of trouble, and then finally conquers the evil that pursued her. Some may think that following a pattern would make the book weaker, but just the opposite is true. By tying his book to an older tradition, Gaiman is able to evoke all the genre conventions of fairy tales to make a truly spooky story. All the uncanny items of fairy tales are here: changing doors, keys, magic mirrors, and more. And Gaiman skillfully weaves together these elements with his own modern heroine to create an instant classic. I’m sure people will be reading Coraline ages and ages hence, perhaps when they are sick and looking for something to transport them back to childhood.

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