Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
Coraline is a dark, modern-day Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—the story of a girl whose curiosity gets her in trouble, and who must rely on her wits and her bravery to save herself. Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and other classics of children’s literature, Coraline uses fantasy as a fun-house mirror that reflects, in exaggerated form, the very real fears and trials all children experience. The power of evil represented by the other mother and the world she creates, and the contrasting innocence, goodness, and bravery of Coraline herself, form the main themes of the work.
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At first, Coraline is drawn to her other parents, who lavish her with attention and offer wonderful food, treats, and novelties her real parents do not. However, Coraline is instinctively wary of her other parents as well, with their expressionless button eyes that seem to hide their real intentions. In addition, the cat—who appears to speak Coraline’s innermost thoughts—warns Coraline that she may need protection in the other world. Thus, Coraline’s own instinct to recognize and reject evil, even when it hides its true form, leads her to leave the other world and return to her own.
When Coraline realizes that her other mother has trapped her real parents, she makes the decision to return and save them. Even though her parents are not perfect, she remains loyal to them, and she tells the cat that true bravery is doing something even when you are scared.Again, Coraline’s innate sense of goodness helps her to continue even in a horrifying situation.
Once Coraline is trapped in the other world, she uses her wits to find a way out, proposing a “game” against the other mother. However, the more successful Coraline is in the “game,” the more she sees of the other mother’s true evil nature. For example, despite agreeing to play fair, the other mother constantly lays traps to hurt Coraline and slow her down. In addition, Coraline realizes that even though the other mother has crafted everything in the other world—the other neighbors, the other father, the house and its surroundings—the other mother does not really have the power to create anything. She can only copy and distort what already exists. Once Coraline recognizes this, she finds her other mother’s world literally falling apart around her. The other people turn into shapeless, personality-less masses, while the other house and its surroundings fade and become less distinct. By looking evil in the face and fighting against it, Coraline is literally diminishing evil’s power.
In the end, Coraline succeeds because of her ability to look beyond surfaces and see things for what they really are. Just as she saw beneath the kind veneer of the other mother, Coraline notices an ordinary snow globe in the other house and sees her parents trapped inside. Likewise, looking through the magical stone she has taken along, she recognizes glass marbles for what they truly are—children’s souls.In the end, it is Coraline’s innate goodness, bravery, and intelligence that allow her to see the evil truth in the other world and overcome it.
In addition, Coraline’s sharp vision is an extension of her innate curiosity, another main theme of the work. Again a parallel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Coraline’s curiosity gets her into trouble: like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Coraline is determined to see what is on the other side of the locked door. However, this same curiosity is what saves Coraline, as she wonders about the truth of the other mother and her world, thus uncovering the sinister intentions beneath the surface. In addition, Coraline is determined to explore every aspect of the other world, no matter how frightening, and to notice every detail.Thus, she reaches into a horrifying monster to grab a child’s soul and comes to realize that the monster cannot really hurt her. She notices the snow globe in the other living room, an apparently insignificant detail that differs from her real living room at home, and thus unlocks the key to saving herself and her parents.
However, once Coraline returns to the real world, she finds that a literal extension of the other mother—the mother’s hand—has followed her.With this plot twist, Gaiman alerts readers that evil can never be easily or completely conquered, nor is it only a figment of the distorted fantasy worlds that reflect our fears. Rather, evil is insidious and powerful, creeping into the very real world to which Coraline has now returned.
Once again, Coraline uses her wits to trap the hand. However, while she closes the hand inside the well, she does not destroy it or the other mother completely. With this ending, Gaiman tells us that evil itself will always exist—but at the same time, innocence and goodness will continue to fight against evil.