Fictional characters are female, male, black, white, poor, rich, nice, not nice, and…four-walled?
Yes, houses can be memorable enough to almost seem like characters. In fact, some literary works even have “house” in their titles: The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), The House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne), The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson), The House on the Strand (Daphne du Maurier), House of Sand and Fog (Andre Dubus III), The Professor’s House (Willa Cather), Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder), and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Edgar Allan Poe), to name just a few.
I thought of the idea for this post while reading a nonfiction book: Cathy Turney’s just-published Laugh Your Way to Real Estate Sales Success. I have absolutely no desire to be a Realtor, but I was interested in the book because Cathy is a friend and because my house got sold last year. Given that I usually read fiction, I couldn’t help thinking of houses in literature as I read about real-life California houses in Cathy’s funny and informative book.
The California dwelling in House of Sand and Fog is a relatively modest one, but the fight over its ownership is major. That disastrous battle is between a former Iranian military man and a former drug addict — the latter finding an ally (and lover) in a married, ethics-challenged sheriff who may find himself in The Big House (jail, not the University of Michigan’s football stadium).
The Haunting of Hill House is understated as horror novels go, but the abode in that novel is quite a spooky place that seems to almost have a mind of its own. As for “The Fall of the House of Usher,” well, I think the title gives you a clue about what happens to that dwelling. But not before some macabre moments.
In Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, the brilliant/eccentric Frieda Haxby Palmer is rather a mystery to her children and grandchildren as she abandons her former life to live in a rambling, rundown former hotel by the sea.
The dwelling in Morag Joss’ Half Broken Things is a fancy mansion being taken care of by a house-sitter. Then things get psychologically weird as Jean has others move in — including a “son” who is not really her son and a pregnant “daughter-in-law.” They create a kind of family until…
Another impressive structure is Thornfield Hall — a house in which Jane Eyre finds mystery, happiness, and heartbreak in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. One of the strongest scenes is near the end of the book when Jane returns to the grounds of Thornfield Hall after many months, slowly moves into position to catch a full view of its impressive facade, and…
The awe-inspiring, seemingly impregnable mountain castle in Where Eagles Dare is being used as a Nazi headquarters in Alistair MacLean’s novel, but the book makes several references to the castle’s history as a private residence for “one of the madder of the Bavarian monarchs.”
On a more positive note, the castle of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle is an idealized structure of Valancy Stirling’s imagination. But the beleaguered character does eventually find a wonderful home and relationship; the question is whether she’ll live to enjoy both. In Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, the structure of the title is a lovely refuge for Anne Shirley — though the orphan girl’s life certainly holds some challenges after she arrives there.
Literature offers more modest dwellings, too. For instance, Hagrid’s hut is just a small place on the grounds of Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Yet Harry, Hermione, and Ron often visit — and some interesting and important things happen in or near that diminutive dwelling.
There are also huts in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a lighthouse keeper’s basic cottage on remote Janus Rock (off the southwest coast of Australia) in M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, and the opium den (operating during New Zealand’s 19th-century Gold Rush) that I think doubles as a minimal residence for its proprietor in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
Many other novels depict impoverished characters living in ramshackle homes — including the shacks and shanties of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, the slave dwellings of Alex Haley’s Roots and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Jim Crow-era housing of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (Say, will there ever be a second book by Ms. Lee? 🙂 )
One of the more singular homes in literature lies in the middle of a colonial New York lake in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. Tom Hutter lives there to try to protect himself from the Native Americans he and most other white men have been treating so badly.
What are the houses you remember most in literature? Mentions of apartments and other dwellings are welcome, too.
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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.