For those of you that don’t know, Coraline is the main character of Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel, Coraline (the clue’s in the name). The plot revolves around a young girl who moves into a new house with her family only to discover that it’s also inhabited by a truly terrifying supernatural creature who looks just like Coraline’s mother, only with buttons sewn over her eyes. Once she (rightfully) realises that the Other Mother is Class A Nightmare Fuel, Coraline must try and save her real parents – and the eternally tormented souls of all the children the Other Mother trapped in her hellscape.
You know, for kids!
The book was an incredible success, winning several awards, and was adapted into a 2009 film of the same name that I am completely unable to watch alone, even though it’s technically aimed at children. The film came in for just as much praise as the book, particularly for its portrayal of Coraline herself, who has been widely hailed as one of the most realistic child characters in modern fiction.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
At first glance, it might seem as if Coraline’s character might fall victim to my Universal Monster Law: if your story revolves around your characters defeating a scary monster, it’s usually the monster who’s in control of the plot. However, this isn’t really the case with Coraline. The Other Mother doesn’t come after her in the same way that Dracula went after Mina Harker, or the dinosaurs chase after Ellie Sattler and Claire Dearing. Coraline is the one who first makes contact with the Other Mother – when exploring her new house, she stumbles across the door that leads to her domain. You can make a case for the Other Mother luring Coraline into her realm – she fills it with things designed to entice a small girl and deliberately plays on Coraline’s insecurities – but ultimately, Coraline’s the one who decides to go back there, and she does so once she’s seen through the Other Mother’s charade. Unlike the other monster movies I’ve looked at, Coraline’s ability to control her own destiny isn’t hampered by the presence of the monster, so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Coraline’s hobbies aren’t particularly well defined in the book. She enjoys playing outside, but this is pretty common for a child of her age. She tries her hand at a few different activities in both the book and the film, and never really expresses a marked preference for any of them. However, her beliefs and goals are much more clearly defined. While she doesn’t start off with a clear goal, she soon gets one pretty quick: she has to defeat the Other Mother or her soul will remain trapped in a nightmarish hellscape forever and ever.
This is what drives her through most of the story in both the book and the film. Her beliefs are closely linked to this – she believes that once she’s escaped the Other Mother’s domain, she can’t just get on with her life and forget about her experiences. She has to find a way to make sure that the Other Mother will never go after another child again, by getting rid of the key that will open up the way to her world. When the Other Mother sends her severed, spider-like hand crawling after her (EW EW EEEEWWWWWWWW) she uses this opportunity to put the key – and the hand – somewhere where the Other Mother can never find it, deliberately putting herself in danger in the process. This shows that Coraline firmly believes she has to finish what she started – despite how much more difficult this makes her life – so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Coraline is actually a very consistent character. She’s brave, intelligent, curious and has a very quirky sense of humour. She’s also capable of thinking outside the box and demonstrates incredible maturity all throughout the story.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A brave, curious young girl stumbles into a sinister world and must fight to free the people trapped inside.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Coraline doesn’t really have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply here.
What motivates her through the story is equal parts curiosity, the desire to be reunited with her family, and a sense of duty – she’s compelled to finish what she started and destroy the Other Mother.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
In the movie, Coraline’s character development is really spelled out. She becomes a lot more mature, starts making more of an effort to connect with her family and friends and becomes far more grateful for what she’s already got. In the book, it’s a bit more subtle. She also becomes more mature, but it’s in a slightly different way: she comes to understand the nature of bravery and learns to face her fears. Regardless of which version of the story you prefer, each one offers realistic development, so she gets the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
In the book, Coraline doesn’t really have that much of a weakness. The most I could say about her is that she’s extremely curious – which does of course get her into trouble, as it’s this trait that initially leads her to the Other Mother – and that she demands her parents’ attention and can’t understand the fact that they’re busy. However, I don’t really see this as a weakness. It’s natural for children to want their parents’ attention, and it’s natural for them to be curious. In Coraline’s case, her curiosity is part of what makes her so likeable as a character and actually ends up working out in her favour, because it leads her to find objects that will help her destroy the Other Mother and helps her to learn more about her enemy. I can’t really class that as a weakness.
In the film, however, Coraline’s weaknesses are much more apparent. She can be petulant, grumpy, whiny, and she often takes what she already has for granted. These are weaknesses that seriously hold her back – some of which she manages to overcome, some of which she doesn’t. I’ll give her half a point for the movie adaptation.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Coraline drives the plot forward at every turn. Against a manipulative, insidious opponent like the Other Mother, you might think that Coraline wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to have a real impact on the plot but happily, this isn’t the case. While the Other Mother might have been the one who tempted Coraline into her world, even in the realm of Lovecraft’s nightmares Coraline is the one who’s controlling the story. She’s the one who refuses the Other Mother’s bargain and finds her way back home, she’s the one who realises that she must go back in order to rescue her parents, she’s the one who proposes – and wins – the game that grants her freedom and sets the Other Mother’s prisoners free, and she’s the one who ultimately prevents the Other Mother from ever taking another child.
Not bad for a girl who’s still in primary school.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Gender stereotypes don’t have much of an impact on Coraline’s life at all. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that she’s still too young for them to really affect her, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Aside from generally being very brave, resourceful and intelligent, throughout both the book and the film, Coraline displays a really strong sense of identity – she’s clearly very comfortable and secure in who she is. She enjoys exploring and playing outside, but she’s also interested in having fashionable clothes – and she never once displays any discomfort with the perceived disconnect between her two hobbies. For her, the things she enjoys aren’t really affected by the way other people might perceive them.
Where this gets really interesting is when you look at how Coraline relates to the Other Mother and to her real mother. At first, she’s irritated by the fact that her real mother spends so much time working and leaves her dad to make all the (disgusting) food. By contrast, the Other Mother seems like the perfect 1950s housewife: she always has time for her family, she makes them delicious food, she gives Coraline gorgeous clothes that she made herself and wonderful toys that she never gets tired of. In short, the Other Mother tries to make herself into the perfect mother.
What’s interesting about this is that Coraline sees straight through it. She’s never seriously tempted to sew buttons onto her eyes and stay in the Other Mother’s nightmare-flavoured idea of ‘perfection’. In Coraline’s eyes, it’s pretty clear that being a ‘perfect mother’ has very little to do with whether you stay at home, cook your children’s meals and hand-stitch all their clothes – it’s about whether you love them. Gender stereotypes have no effect on Coraline’s perceptions of motherhood, which is remarkably mature for someone of her age.
SCORE SO FAR: 8.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Coraline has a few relationships with female characters. She’s slightly bewildered by her elderly neighbours, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. She meets a couple of ghost girls while she’s trapped in the Other Mother’s realm – which would send Hieronymous Bosch running for the hills, by the way – who manage to scare her and inspire pity at the same time. And of course, she becomes close with her mother and the Other Mother. These relationships are by far some of the most interesting in the story. I already touched on some of the points I’ll be referencing in the previous question, so apologies if I repeat myself.
Coraline has a slightly strained relationship with her mother. They’ve just moved to a new house and Coraline will be starting a new school, so understandably, there’s some tension there. Coraline’s mother has a lot of work to do and Coraline has a lot of time on her hands before her new school starts, so they’re often at odds because they want such different things. It’s made pretty clear to the reader/audience that Coraline feels ignored and unappreciated by her mother because she won’t spend time with her or buy her the things she wants. Ultimately, this is a temporary situation that resolves itself once the family settles in. While there might be some distance between them, it’s made clear that Coraline’s mother loves her very much.
The Other Mother, however, is a completely different creature.
At first glance she appears to be better than Coraline’s mother. As I discussed earlier, she has more time for her, she cooks for her, she brings her toys – she’s effectively moulded herself into a very simplistic ideal of what the perfect mother should be. This is precisely what makes her so dangerous – she’s seen the frustrations in Coraline’s relationship with her real mother and has made herself into their antithesis. She’s like the lure on the end of a fish hook; she draws children in with promises of love and attention right before her weird needly fingers go for their eyes.
What stops her from being the perfect mother – and also what stops Coraline from willingly letting her sew stuff onto her eyeballs – is that she doesn’t love Coraline in the maternal sense. In the book, we see the following line:
“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold.”
This isn’t real love – it’s a near-obsessive desire to possess her completely, and Coraline sense this from the very beginning. This is what stops her from giving in, and it’s also what gives Coraline her chance at victory. She uses the Other Mother’s possessiveness against her when she challenges her to the game that will win her freedom; the Other Mother wants her to stay so badly that she agrees to it, and deliberately leaves herself a loophole if Coraline does actually manage to outwit her. Thankfully, Coraline doesn’t have to stay in one of Hieronymous Bosch’s nightmares for the rest of time – but her relationship with the Other Mother is far and away one of the most interesting dynamics in the story.
FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10
Coraline is a brave, curious character who isn’t held back by gender stereotypes, is firmly in control of her own destiny despite the difficulties that her age could pose, displays a consistent personality and has a range of well-developed, realistic relationships with a wide range of other female characters. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at Adventure Time. Princess Bubblegum, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.