Delicious descriptions: Fiona McFarlane thinks a house can be a character

In another life, well, not quite another life, but in my pre-blog life when I discussed books online via listserv reading groups, I became involved in various literary discussions. One of these was whether a house or place can be a character. Some of us argued they could because they could be seen to act or react, to reflect mood, and so on. Others argued they couldn’t because they couldn’t develop the way characters can. The argument was never resolved. In other words, I suspect we all remained in our original positions. As you might have guessed, I was in the former camp. Of course, a house or place is not a person, but if an author personifies them in some way, imbues them with “spirit” or “emotion”, then I’m happy to “see” this in terms of character, albeit a different sort of character. I’d argue that Fiona McFarlane, whose The night guest I reviewed earlier this week, would agree.

Here is a description of the protagonist Ruth’s house after Frida comes to be her “carer”:

The house took to Frida; it opened up. Ruth sat in her chair and watched it happen. She saw the bookcases breathe easier as Frida dusted and rearranged them; she saw the study expect its years’ worth of Harry-hoarded paperwork. She had never seen such perfect oranges as the ones Frida brought in her little string bag. The house and the oranges and Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when they left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted at herself for succumbing so quickly.

Of course, McFarlane is using the house to represent Ruth’s state of mind, to represent Ruth “seeing” herself adopt and adapt, but still, I can describe that as the house having, or even being, character.

A little later in the novel, when Ruth has two guests in the house causing tensions, she worries:

Now she would lose him because of Frida, and Frida because of him; and with that, her last before sleep, the whole house emptied out.

Of course, the whole house didn’t empty out. All three were still there, but the sense (or fear) of psychic emptiness is palpable. Perhaps this is not the house having/being character exactly, but I’m not averse to seeing it that way.

What do you think? Do you ever see a house or place (a setting, in other words) as being or having character?


32 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Fiona McFarlane thinks a house can be a character

  1. I’m sure Toni Morrison would agree with you. The first two sentences from Beloved: 124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.

  2. Have you read a wonderful book, ‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer? You get a strong sense there of the house and its personality; it lives through several generations and historic events.

  3. I have known some wonderful houses that were “characters”.But I think my favourite would have to be the big house, split in half in Tim Winton ‘ s Cloudstreet. That house “character for sure lived and breathed.

  4. Ah, yes – I was there on that old list-serve with you, Sue, and as one of the few in the middle and we got kind of drowned out with the yammering.

    My idea was (and yes, still is) that although a house (or any setting) can not be a character in and of itself, we can certainly discuss it in those terms, sometimes to a greater, deeper, fuller extent than a few human characters I’ve come across (stereotypes).

    And I love the example of the house in Morrison’s Beloved or Mawer’s house in The Glass Room. There’s also the house in “House of Leaves” by ‎Mark Danielewski.

    I’m thinking also of the children’s book “The Little House” by Virginia Lee Burton (had to look that up!) where the little house grows older and the city moves in around her, etc. The little house wonders what it would be like to live in town. Beautiful little book – I used it every year.

    • Thanks Bekah, I hoped you’d chime in. That’s pretty much how I see it too, can be described in terms of character but I can’t imagine saying, for example, that it had learnt from its experience by the end to be a better house… Though maybe some writer has taken it that far?

  5. I do think of a house or place having character. It takes on an appearance, and relationship to others in the story, and can reveal so much. I thought of Tara, in Gone with the Wind, and the house in Monkey Grip. I just finished rereading After the Fire, and the ‘shack’ in this story is easy to see and holds so much information.

  6. Very interesting subject for a post.
    I definitely believe in houses a characters. Helen Garner came immediately to mind. Is that line, ‘The house was humble and would mind its own business,’ from ‘Monkey Grip’, or ‘The Children’s Bach’? Maybe Meg will know. And there’s my house in The House at Number 10′ – if you take the house and garden together, arguably as important as any of the human characters…

    • There, a writer has spoken! I think I’ll go back to that group and tell them so, Dorothy. Yes, your House and Garden are significant. Love that Garner line, but I can’t tell you where it’s from. Embarrassingly, I’ve read quite a lot of Garner but not that first novel. I have read The children’s Bach, though, twice.

  7. In life houses acquire character even if they don’t become a ‘character’. A house absorbs the personality/ies of those who live in it. We all know houses that seem to welcome and others that make you feel nervous you might ‘spoil the picture’ and, even at times, a house or two that seems to repel – or at least make you feel happy to be leaving. So how can a writer help making a house a character?

    • Thanks Lithe Lianas, that’s a great analogy. It’s a fine line between acquiring character and being a character. Once a house has acquired character it’s only a small step in a writer’s hands for it to be a character in some way isn’t it?

  8. I think a house can become like a character, Alice Hoffman’s excellent novel Blackbird House does something like that, the house is the one thing that stays constant throughout the entire narrative, as different people pass through it and experience different things, it is as if the house has these events and the associated emotions that have passed, embedded in its walls.

  9. I agree that a house or location can be as transfixing and crucial as a character. I’m thinking of the house in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower, which seemed to breathe and contract, offer respite and bear the suffering of those within. I do enjoy work where place assumes a role. Must read ‘The Glass House’ as it’s sitting on my shelf.

    • Thanks Catherine. Yes, well said. I love works where there is a strong sense of place … And where there is, it often assumes at least dome of the characteristics (ha) of character. The watch tower is another great example.

  10. I agree 100%. Houses and places can indeed be characters. This is most evident in the horror genre but it comes up in regular fiction too and I am perfectly fine with that. Interesting how there was such a split on the listserv especially since so many are commenting here to the affirmative.

    • Thanks Stefanie … It mostly came from a strong individual. He had some supporters, but most felt like we do here. I have so often read authors themselves calling various places in their own novels characters, that it’s hard to deny. We don’t HAVE to agree with authors about everything they write – it’s our experience that counts in the long run – but if they see places that way, then why argue.

    • Re the list-serve – I think … (ta-da):

      1. The question in this discussion is a bit more refined. Over there it was more or less, “Can a setting be a character?” – The answer was yes or no – and, “By definition,,,” )

      2. The idea of a setting having character-like qualities has taken hold over the years since the list-serve business, and

      3. There were some old fogies on that list who insisted that a character has to be conscious and take active action. I also think they allowed for fantasy characters, but ran into trouble with dead bodies. lol

      Me again – I might venture that because the setting in a non-fantasy novel cannot “REALLY BE” a “character” (as such) it really adds interest when an author makes a setting “come alive.” 🙂

      • Haha … Bekah. Re 1 (and 3, perhaps) … I think there was the difference between black-and-white or narrower thinking (as in a character HAS to have these qualities to be called a character, the “by definition” approach) and more flexible thinking about how to describe or talk about the impact/sense of a setting in some works. Re 2 … were we ahead of our times? Or is it just that we’ve become more aware of such discussions?

    • Oh thanks Jane … Yes, it does. And it’s a good example, both of the issue and of an author’s attitude to it. While my example here was a house, my point was more broadly to do with place/setting.

    • Ah yes! Setting as backdrop is when the characters have to bear all the responsibility for carrying the interest and because of that become just as important. Meanwhile, the word “character” sounds more important than “backdrop.” (Think of a stage-play.) So authors and readers want/need some way to distinguish a generic or “static” setting from a “dynamic” or “integral” setting.

      I think authors have changed since the days of Henry James and regularly develop more dynamic settings than – for another instance – Robert Penn Warren, although it would seem that James Wood continues to enjoy the backdrop approach. It seems to me that readers have also changed and are more likely to appreciate a really well “rounded” setting – as opposed to a “flat” or stereotyped one. (How’s that for characterizing settings?)

      Omg – have I typed all this? – back to book –

      • You cheeky one, you, Bekah — love the idea of a “rounded” setting. I’m wondering whether it really has changed or whether it’s more about different authors and styles, different periods. I’m thinking for example of 18th-19th century Gothic literature. Settings in those novels do seem “alive” (or very often).

        In Jane Austen on the other hand, I can’t think of an example of setting or place as character BUT settings are more than backdrop. Austen focuses so little on landscape and setting that when she does, it usually means something. Pemberley for example stands for Darcy – his solidity, his style, his nobility/steadiness – and when Lizzie marks her changed attitude to Darcy from the time when she saw Pemberley, it’s not simply a mercenary attitude to a grand house but what it tells her about Darcy. In Mansfield Park, Austen uses the craze for landscape “improvement” to separate the solid from the flighty characters … and so on. Oh dear, I have rambled.

        • I was actually thinking about Austen for some “could take place anywhere” kinds of books. Remember “The Slap”? (Tsiolkas) Lots of them still out there.

  11. Two literary houses sprang to my mind instantly – Edgewood, the extraordinary Drinkwater family residence of John Crowley’s masterpiece “Little, Big”, and Gormenghast, the gloomy castle in which the first two novels of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy take place..

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