Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.― Carmen Maria Machado
Home, at once the easiest and trickiest setting - for something so common but complex, personal to each of us, writers, to each of us, readers - is in some way central to all of those texts: novel, a short story, a poem, a memoir. I’ve mentioned this in various essays and even college interviews, but settings in literature are something particularly close to my heart, both in the works I read and write.
My childhood conception of poetry, and, by extension, of all literature, was easy and translated the art into what I, as a child, knew - a home. I was an avid reader of nursery rhymes. So, a rhyme, a poem, would house the words in rooms, the poet stack them one on another to build a house. And, as I’d been moving a lot and living with a wide array of closer and extended relatives, I was starved for my own stanzas. Although it took me some time to realise it, I already then had made for myself a home in the literature I read and wrote. After all, what are words if not building bricks and writing a kind of construction?
Now, as 2022 neared an end, I existed in a frenzy of school papers and post-it notes, little reminders of my responsibilities, which, ultimately, brought about a medical leave and a month at home. So, as I’m home-bound, learning how to sleep and exist peacefully, I am relishing the importance of houses, homes, and settings in the lives and stories of writers, conversing with the canon to see what it has to offer.
Your house is your larger body. / It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not / dreamless. Does not your house dream? and dreaming, leave the city for / a grove or hill-top? - Khalil Gibran
In the Polish canon, home is a motif central to a wide array of tales and stories, and I think Olga Tokarczuk's House of Day, House of Night provided a starting point for my interests in setting as a metaphor for character psychologies. House of Day, House of Night deals with the border between Poland and Germany after World War II, where characters are faced with an unsure future; many have had to resettle. This is a novel and at the same time a constellation of stories, all intertwined by their recurrent motif of identity and the way it connects to the places we’re rooted in, and of imago mundi - finding the reflection of one's world, body, and psyche in setting.
People are built like houses inside- they have stairwells, spacious halls, vestibules that are always too weakly lit to count the doors into the rooms, row upon row of apartments, damp chambers, slimy, tiled bathrooms with cast-iron baths, steps with handrails taut as veins, artery-like corridors, joint-like landings, passages, guest rooms, draughty chambers into which a sudden current of warm air flows, closets, twists and turns and cubby-holes, and larders full of forgotten supplies.
In the quote above, the narrator wonders that she must’ve eaten her house, as it now lives within her, just as others house their own homes. And this isn’t too far from the domestic spirituality I profess, that we all carry our places of rooting inside us; this is how we secure them in our identities, even if, physically, they no longer exist.
Tokarczuk in her Nobel prize speech sketched out the concept of a tender, 4th person narrator, who is tolerant above all, sees everything, and is everyone everywhere. To whom no object or character can be labelled as episodic, to whom all is vital. And this, largely, is what Tokarczuk does best - anthropomorphises homes into bodies, turns bodies into homes, enkindles her settings; they spring off the page, humanlike.
"Safe, safe, safe," the heart of the house beats proudly. "Long years—" he sighs. "Again you found me." "Here," she murmurs, "sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—"
Virginia Woolf, in A Haunted House, illustrates the anxieties of a couple inhabiting the titular manor. A "ghostly couple" is travelling through halls, doors, and corridors, and sifting through the house’s contents, looking for something unnamed.
What rings out in the story is the need of a safe home in the aftermath of World War I, hence Woolf anthropomorphises the house by giving it a heartbeat, which instead of blood pumps the word "safe". She universalises the house with the article a in the title, to show that we all are in a haunted house of sorts; we all long for the same things, although our anxieties are of vastly different natures. She makes both the ghosts and the narrator look for “something”. The ghosts tell each other, Here we left it, Oh, but here too! The narrator asks What did I come in here for? What’s curious to me in this story is the way the writer and reader blur into one, at once reading and holding the pencil. The house is at once the reader’s and the narrator’s house, which is a curious trick to decrease psychic distance:
“Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm.
Both Woolf’s and Tokarczuk’s homes led me to think that, despite their differences, modernist and post-modernist homes in literature can act as manifestations of the anxieties of an unstable world.
As for my anxieties, I also found comfort in the way Elizabeth Bishop, through the six core words of Sestina, invited me to explore the motif of home. Sestina is an account of a happy yet perhaps poor childhood, a confessional poem originally titled Early Sorrows. Bishop wrote it when she was living with her grandmother; she never met her parents again after her childhood. And her grandmother did create for her a safe home, yet not for long, as Bishop soon had to move away again. The grandmother knows of those, any many other, financial or otherwise, sorrows, and tries to hide her equinoctial tears.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanack,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
The house in Sestina is many-levelled, at once a physical, yet anthropomorphised house, but also the house drawn by the child in the last stanza. It’s as if it was up to the child to draw for herself a house. The child as the artist, the creator, a trope which I’m a fan of - to create, one must just have the imagination. And it is perhaps curious that the poem was published in the collection Questions of Travel. The home in Sestina is a rooted place, but the child will have to leave it soon, and be left with drawings only. And what a house this one is, in which the iron kettle sings on the stove, and the teakettle’s small hard tears / dance like mad on the hot black stove.
You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture. - Louise Bourgeois
The above epigraph is one of the three to open Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, which is not always a memoir, for also a bildungsroman, a victorian novel, a set design. Machado employs all those literary tropes to house her experience, and how else do you tell a story you don’t have the language for?
I had a room to myself as a kid, but my mother was always quick to point out that it wasn't my room, it was her room and I was merely permitted to occupy it. Her point, of course, was that my parents had earned everything and I was merely borrowing the space, and while this is technically true I cannot help but marvel at the singular damage of this dark idea: That my existence as a child was a kind of debt and nothing, no matter how small, was mine.
In the Dream House is a register of an abusive, same-sex relationship, but Machado’s story isn’t just an account; she uses the Motif-Index of Folk Literature to aid her in expressing her experience. Forbidden Chamber and Guessing name of supernatural creature gives power over him are examples, which become, just as words, the building bricks of a story which is rarely ever told.
A house is never apolitical. It is conceived, constructed, occupied, and policed by people with power, needs, and fears.
Something I loved about this book is the way in which Machado succeeds in building for herself, with her words, a house to house her experience. The place exists on many levels; in the figurative sense, the literal, brick-made scenery of In the Dream House, and the folk tale, the myth it becomes. And what a myth does is fossilises, so, in this way, Machado sheds light on queer abuse stories.
The house also becomes the archive of Machado’s memory. As Jacques Derrida tells us, archive means the house of the ruler. Her archive ultimately is her memoir, and this new archive is built on the remains of what she felt as a child, that even her existence in her room was a kind of familial debt.
In all those pieces, piled up on my desk and asking to be re-read or written about - and I’ve listened - anthropomorphism in literature contributes towards what I found as a child: fictional homes of flesh and bone that house readers, characters, and writers alike.
Tola (she/her) is a fiction writer from Warsaw, Poland. Her work has been recognised by Bennington College, amongst others, has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize, and is published in The Adroit Journal, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. When not writing, you can find her combing through second-hand bookshops or tweeting @tolazysman. She would love it if you subscribed to her substack (https://tolazysman.substack.com)!
Editorial Art by Dilara Sümbül