Welcome to the Dollhouse

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

The above scene does not, as one might expect, hail from a David Lynch film nor a nightmarish fever-dream. Rather, it is a description of the nursery room belonging to my art installation entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse, an installation created as a component of my Master of Fine Art thesis at York University. In 2008, I had returned to the hallowed halls of academia after birthing two children and a ten-year stint as a graphic designer by day, visual artist by night. After three years of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, nap schedules and trips to the local playgrounds, I was more than eager to engage with higher learning and the art studio when classes began that September. It comes as little surprise, then, that the body of work I created during my graduate studies would include a dollhouse, that tiny emblem of domestic perfection.  Constructing a dollhouse offered a sense of control that my hectic life as a student and parent rarely granted. The daily negotiations between self, career, and parental responsibilities can often render the home a site of friction. This conflict between different roles, in addition to the ambivalence I sometimes felt towards my role as primary caregiver, informed the design and contents of my Disobedient Dollhouse.

Jennifer Linton, The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

My fascination with dollhouses began, predictably, in childhood. Though I was never fortunate enough to own a dollhouse, I did possess several pieces of plastic miniature furniture that I would meticulously arrange into rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls — scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls —where we would ‘play house’ and pretend to be ‘the Mommy’ — was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women and mothers. Our imaginary homes possessed all the pink perfection and bubbly enthusiasm as television toy commercials targeted at young girls.

In contrast to the idealized view of domesticity that shaped my childhood dollhouse, the Disobedient Dollhouse was conceived as a place shaded much darker, even sinister in nature. Wild, tangled vines grow out from the furniture and creep up the walls, the same walls on which reside swarms of giant insects. Twisted bed sheets transform into snakes that slither across the wooden floorboards while, in the downstairs parlor room, a bird-headed lady sits at an upright piano. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and tangled vines interrupt the carefully staged interior of the dollhouse and propose a dark fantasy world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection. The word “disobedient” used in the title of my installation summons the image of a stubbornly defiant child who refuses to submit to a higher authority. Against which authoritative structure does my dollhouse rebel? To a large degree, it is my impulse towards nostalgia — the urge to construct a sentimentalized view of domesticity as shaped in my childhood – that compels my dollhouse and, by extension, myself, to revolt. Wherever these fantastical creatures hail from, be they insect or monster, they’re definitely not here to “mind their manners” and play nice.

A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine. Literary critic Susan Stewart, writing in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, defines the dollhouse as a “discourse of the ‘petite feminine’” (Stewart 62) that yearns to see itself replicated in a tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity. Developed in the 17th century as an amusement solely intended for adults, it served as a trophy of the wealthy European woman. Given the rise in popularity of dollhouses in 18th century Europe, at a time in history when women’s roles were increasingly confined to the home, it is tempting to draw a correlation between this change in gender-based codes of conduct and the miniature toy house that reinforced a woman’s role as being solely defined by her place within the house. Her fantasy of a microcosm over which she held complete control — in a world in which she held little or no political control — played out through the choreography of furnishings in her miniature rooms. Unlike the traditional toy object, the staged interiors of the dollhouse were not meant to be manually played with but rather to be “consumed by the eye”(Stewart 62) as an object of display. As such, the dollhouse was modeled as a shrine to an idealized domesticity, forever unsoiled by the grimy reality of daily living.

Nostalgia is characterized by a sense of yearning, either for one’s own past or for an imaginary past located somewhere in history. Yearning constructs a view of the past that is sentimental in nature, and the dollhouse is a manifestation of this essentially romantic construction. There are no shoeless Dickensian street urchins haunting the perimeters of this Victorian-themed dollhouse; these are sumptuous interiors fueled by fantasy and free of social critique.

While a trace of nostalgia is discernible in my Disobedient Dollhouse by way of the Victorian-era styling, a tension also exists that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these nostalgic images. For instance, although the parlor room prominently features an upright piano —  an entertainment staple in many wealthy Victorian households — the woman sat at the piano is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. In the nursery, a brood of bird-headed monster children collectively squawk at the feet of the beleaguered nanny. These scenes of grotesquerie function as a tactic of subversion, undercutting the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia with large doses of dark humour and absurdity.

Grotesque art revels in the absurd, championing a fantasy world over the rigid conventions of realism. The term grotesque originated in the ancient Roman period and relates to fanciful, decorative flourishes in art and architecture (Williams 14). Grotesque art involves the fantastic, ugly and bizarre, and its subjects are frequently mythological creatures and other strange, malformed monsters. The bizarre, anthropomorphic creatures that populate Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a primary example of ‘the grotesque’ in literature. Carroll’s novel also proved a valuable source of inspiration for the fantastic hybrid creatures that inhabit my Disobedient Dollhouse. In fact, the only human figure that appears in my Dollhouse is a character loosely based on an illustration of Carroll’s Alice. This character — ostensibly a self-portrait, as I served as the model — appears in the image of the nanny in the nursery cradling the monstrous baby in her arms. This image is an homage to a 19th century wood engraving for Carroll’s novel created by British illustrator John Tenniel, depicting Alice holding a bonneted baby pig. Alice first encounters this strange infant crying inconsolably in the arms of the Duchess, a loud and loutish character who epitomizes the “monstrous mother” in every way. The Duchess violently shakes the child in an effort to cease its crying, and then literally flings the child at Alice as she abruptly announces her plans to play croquet with the Red Queen:

Alice caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions […] “If I don’t take this child away with me,” thought Alice, “they’re sure to kill it in a day or two. Wouldn’t it be murder to leave it behind?” She said the last words out loud, and the little thing grunted in reply […] “Don’t grunt,” said Alice; “that’s not at all a proper way of expressing yourself.” The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose: also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby: altogether Alice did not like the look of the thing at all.

(Carroll 45-46)

At this point in the narrative, the baby fully transforms into a pig and trots off into the nearby woods. For her part, Alice expresses relief at being freed from the burden of care for this “monstrous” child.


Jennifer Linton, detail from The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

The monstrous brood housed inside my nursery — heads tilted up with beaks wide, their arms thrust outwards in a gesture of relentless need — represent every parent’s nightmare of overwhelming responsibility. Much like the crying infant in Carroll’s novel, these bird-children appear inconsolable in their need or distress. Unlike the Duchess, fortunately, the nanny in my Dollhouse (me) opts not to toss her crying baby across the room. Rather, she sits gazing downwards, unflappable, at the squalling bird-baby (an image, incidentally, that is more idealized than it is an accurate reflection of my parenting style under stress). This scene of grotesquerie has been tempered by an element of the absurd. Much like the ridiculously grotesque image of the bonneted pig held by Alice, my bird-headed children are designed to elicit equal measures of pathos, humour and horror. We, the viewers, are moved to pity at the plight of the children, while simultaneously cringing in horror at the thought of all those screaming children, and the insurmountable responsibility of care on the part of the nanny. All the same, the scene is meant to be relatable in a humorous way. My nursery most assuredly conveys parental anxiety and stress, but it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

With their very survival wholly dependent on the actions of others, babies are capable of eliciting horror at their state of complete helplessness. In this regard, babies can enter the realm of the grotesque. Envision a bird’s nest, populated with a brood of chirping chicks. Eyes still unopened, they sit with beaks perpetually open, waiting for their mother to return to provide them with sustenance. When the mother bird does return with a wad of insect in her beak, her chicks wobble their pink, featherless bodies about in a frenzied dance, straining to catch her attention and be the recipient of the food she offers. There is something of the abject and the grotesque in this scenario: the pink nakedness of the chicks, their blindness, and the desperate urgency with which they wobble about. It is their vulnerability that unnerves us, and it was a scene such as this that shaped the design of the nursery room in the Disobedient Dollhouse, with the constantly open beaks of its hybrid bird-children. In addition to the chicks in the nest, another image has sat nestled in my consciousness for years — a wonderfully grotesque image manifested from the writing of Canadian author Alice Munro. It is this image, too, that informs my understanding of the monstrous baby. 

In her short story entitled “My Mother’s Dream”, Munro digs deep into the grotesque, her text mining the rich vein of maternal anxiety surrounding an infant’s vulnerability. I have a long, personal history with this particular story. I first encountered it many years ago — prior to being a mother myself — whilst working in my home art studio. I would frequently sit at my drawing table in the evenings, working away to the sound of CBC Radio One. A program that aired at that time was “Between the Covers”, a show that featured a series of book and poetry readings. One night, an excerpt from Munro’s “My Mother’s Dream” was read. Owing to the fact that my first encounter with Munro’s short story was auditory, an image of the baby described in the text below was indelibly drawn in my mind – an image that remains with me until this very day. It is the haunting image of maternal failure:

When she got outside she remembered. She remembered that she had left the baby out there somewhere, before the snow had fallen. Quite a while before the snow had fallen. This memory, this certainty, came over her with horror. It was as if she was awakening from a dream. Within her dream she awakened from a dream, to a knowledge of her responsibility and mistake. She had left her baby out overnight, she had forgotten about it. Left it exposed somewhere as if it was a doll she tired of. And perhaps it was not last night but a week or a month ago that she had done this. […]

She went around looking under hedges and broad-leaved plants. She foresaw how the baby would be shrivelled up. It would be dead, shrivelled and brown, its head like a nut, and on its tiny shut-up face there would be an expression not of distress but of bereavement, an old patient grief. There would not be any accusation of her, its mother – just the look of patience and helplessness with which it waited for its rescue or its fate.

(Munro 341-42) 

As hinted at by the title of Munro’s story, this revelation of accidental infanticide is, of course, a dream of the baby’s mother — the baby having survived childhood to later serve as the narrator of the story. 

Nevertheless, it accurately captures the horror and anxiety that new mothers often experience regarding the complete helplessness of their offspring: leaving the baby perched on a stack of laundry atop the dryer, or momentarily forgetting a sleeping infant strapped inside a car seat in the backseat of your car, or a dream in which you trip down the stairs while holding a baby, your body crashing to the ground and inadvertently flattening the hapless child like a deflated balloon. These are the bizarre nightmares and real-life mistakes that mothers relay to each other in hushed voices over coffee at the local parenting centre, confessions punctuated with the occasional, nervous laughter. While the idea of a flattened baby is certainly ridiculous, a residual horror still clings to this image hours after you’ve awakened from the dream.

The narrator of “My Mother’s Dream”, the now-adult baby, tells of the fraught relationship between herself and her mother. Jill, the soon-to-be mother who finds herself suddenly widowed shortly after marriage, scarcely has time to process her grief when her squalling infant arrives. The child proves colicky, and cries night and day. She refuses her mother’s breast, and will only be soothed in the arms of her aunt Iona. “We were monsters to each other. Jill and I” (Munro, p. 373), the narrator admits. Parents who’ve had a baby with colic – one of my children definitely suffered from this – will have no issue recalling the head-splitting, stress-inducing experience:

What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.

(Munro 374)

Munro’s use of phrases such as “like a storm” and “birthright rage” conjures the raw, primal intensity of a baby’s cry and its awful power, capable of pushing caregivers to the very brink of their sanity. There is a revelation offered by the narrator at the end of “My Mother’s Dream” of a past transgression, one enacted upon herself by her mother, that nearly had dire consequences for them both. An overtired and beleaguered Jill, left alone for hours with the constant onslaught of her daughter’s crying, makes an impulsive decision to add powerful painkillers to her baby’s milk: 

It’s almost time for the last bottle of the day. […] While it’s warming, Jill thinks she’ll dose herself with a couple more 222’s. Then she thinks maybe that won’t do; she needs something stronger. […] [S]he knows that Ailsa takes something strong for her menstrual cramps, and she goes into Ailsa’s room and looks through her bureau drawers until she finds a bottle of pain pills lying, logically, on top of a pile of sanitary pads. These are prescription pills, too, but the label says clearly what they’re for. She removes two of them and goes back to the kitchen and finds the water in the pan around the milk boiling, the milk too hot. 

She holds the bottle under the tap to cool it — my cries coming down at her like the clamor of birds of prey over a gurgling river — and she looks at the pills waiting on the counter and she thinks, Yes. She gets out a knife and shaves a few grains off one of the pills, takes the nipple off the bottle, picks up the shaved grains on the blade of the knife, and sprinkles them — just a sprinkle of white dust — over the milk.

(Munro 379-80)

As with the dream of accidental infanticide that begins “My Mother’s Dream”, this real-life transgression ultimately ends well, with both baby and mother alive, healthy, and reinvigorated by a newly forged bond of acceptance towards each other. What this dramatic episode revealed, of course, was the truest, darkest depths of Jill’s desperation. After a relatively brief romance with her baby’s father George, she found herself impregnated shortly after marriage, then widowed after George dies in combat during World War II. With few options available to her, Jill is pressured by her in-laws to live with them just prior to, and then after, the birth of her daughter. The arrival of her baby, plus her new living arrangement with her well-meaning but overly controlling sisters-in-law, effectively quells Jill’s plan of graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music and pursuing a career as a classical musician.  In one notable segment of the story, she defiantly practices her violin despite the shrieks of protest from her infant and, a short while later, her in-laws. Thwarted in her efforts to maintain a sense of self separate from her newfound role of mother — a role towards which she was ambivalent from the start, and is now confronted with a baby that appears to reject her — Jill has become trapped by circumstances into a domestic situation she never chose. It is within this context of domestic entrapment that she commits the desperate act of dosing her infant daughter with “shaved grains” (Munro 379) of adult prescription painkillers. 

The walls of the house — warm, secure, and protective though they may seem — can just as equally represent a cage to mothers who lack societal support. Such was the case with Jill shortly after the birth of her daughter, and a sense of confinement can be projected onto the nanny of the Disobedient Dollhouse, surrounded as she is by a large brood of squawking children. A similar domestic prison entrapped thirty-eight-year-old mother of eight Joanne Michulski who, on July 11, 1974, took a butcher knife and, in a state of psychosis, decapitated and dismembered the bodies of her two youngest children, a real-life tragedy closely examined and contextualized by Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born. From her lengthy struggles with depression, to her lack of agency with regards to contraception, to the societal expectations that she solely perform her domestic duties of childrearing despite the mounting evidence that she could not, Rich traces the sad history of Michulski that ultimately ended with the deaths of her infant and toddler. 

Alternately described by her neighbours as “a mother bear where [the] safety [of her children] was concerned” but also “withdrawn” and “quietly desperate from the moment the family moved into the home” (Rich 257), the signs were present early on that Joanne Michulski was overwhelmed by her full-time responsibilities of homemaking and childcare. According to Rich, Michulski would enter a “deep depression” (Rich 257) after the birth of each child. After the birth of her third child, she discussed contraception with her husband, including vasectomy or her possible use of oral contraceptives. Neither of these options were adopted, however, and she birthed five additional children. Between 1961 and 1966, Michulski was voluntarily admitted to mental hospitals on three separate occasions for severe depression and delusions that “X-rays or laser beams were being projected into her home.” (Rich 258). And yet, once she would return home from the hospital, she would again be burdened with the sole care of her eight children, her husband being absent from home for long periods of time. 

Rich asserts that it would be a “naïve proposition” to suggest that birth control or the occasional baby-sitter “could have ‘solved’ Joanne Michulski’s ‘problems’” (Rich 264). Nor was it simply a matter of mental health, though that clearly was a factor. Rather, the overarching narrative that Rich presents is one in which Michulski’s identity as a mother meant that she was expected — by herself, by her husband, by the neighbours — to perform her prescribed role as homemaker and caregiver regardless of the damage it caused, to herself or to others. To do otherwise would be considered “unnatural” within the confines of what Rich terms “the institution of motherhood” (Rich 275). This is her function within society, whether she is broken or not. Given her lack of autonomy and seemingly hopeless predicament, one can imagine her urge to slip into madness:

What woman, in the solitary confinement of a life at home enclosed with young children, or in the struggle to mother them while providing for them single-handedly, or in the conflict of weighing her own personhood against the dogma that says she is a mother, first, last, and always — what woman has not dreamed of “going over the edge,” of simply letting go, relinquishing what is termed her sanity, so that she can be taken care of for once, or can simply find a way to take care of herself? […] [T]he mothers, if we could look into their fantasies […] we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

(Rich 279-80) 

Beyond mental health issues and the overburden of childcare, what Joanne Michulski fell victim to was the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood. This is what Rich characterized as the “institution of motherhood” (Rich 275), a system of rules and laws that govern and control how a woman is expected to fulfill her role as mother. The control this institution exerts is insidious, and is communicated through a barrage of media that casts motherhood in an idealized, sentimental light. “When we think of motherhood,” Rich writes, “we are supposed to think of Renoir’s blooming women with rosy children at their knees, Raphael’s ecstatic madonnas, some Jewish mother lighting the candles in a scrubbed kitchen on Shabbos, her braided loaf lying beneath a freshly ironed napkin” (Rich 275). One can easily imagine these scenes of domestic bliss being staged within the carefully curated interiors of a dollhouse: the aproned mother, smiling the beatific smile of a saint, holds the freshly-baked bread just removed from her spotless oven while her cherubic children sit patiently at the perfectly-set kitchen table. There is no screaming, no dirty dishes, no disorder of any kind. The scene has been composed with meticulous detail, right down to the tiny folded napkins that coordinate exactly with the tablecloth in this miniature shrine to idealized domesticity. 

The sound of a newborn’s cry, thin and vaguely animalistic, pierces our senses. It draws us away from this imagined dollhouse of gleaming perfection and back towards that grotesque dollhouse of insects, tangled vines and bird-headed monsters. My Disobedient Dollhouse. We follow the sound down a miniature hallway, and it returns us to the nursery room, where we once again encounter the nanny and her screaming brood of bird-children. Like all tableaux, this scene is permanently frozen in time: the bird-children will always scream, and the nanny always sit in the rocking chair, comforting the swaddled monster baby. The sound, of course, exists only in our minds. The one element that this art installation lacked was an audio component. While I had created a scene of monsters and countless screaming mouths, in order to truly appreciate its horror, one needed to hear it, too.

That is why, two years after the completion of my Disobedient Dollhouse thesis project — and my subsequent graduation from the MFA program at York — I returned to the same subject matter with a new artistic medium. Returned, in fact, to hear the sound of the nursery. I created an animation of it.


Jennifer Linton, video still from Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery, stop-motion animation, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Having taught myself the basics of 2D stop-motion animation, I revisited the nursery armed with a small number of hand-drawn, articulated paper puppets, a digitally printed background, and a very rudimentary, home-built camera stand. My early efforts in animation were, to say the least, humble. Through a combination of perseverance and sheer stubbornness, I managed to shoot a two-minute stop-motion animation which I entitled Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery (2012). The nanny character from the Disobedient Dollhouse reappears, only now we watch her mechanically rocking the swaddled bird-baby as it sleeps. Rather than six toddler bird-children sitting at the nanny’s feet, we have two (it would have proved too daunting a task for me to animate six puppets at this point in time). What they lack in numbers, however, these two monster children more than make up for in volume when the screaming starts. And scream they certainly do, when a gigantic butterfly suddenly flutters into the nursery, frightening its young occupants. For her part, all the nanny can do is stare out at the viewer with a shocked expression as we fade to black, the screams continuing until the end credits appear. 

With its snakes, vines, insects, hybrid creatures and other forms of grotesquerie, my Disobedient Dollhouse allowed me to revisit the dollhouses of my childhood on new terms. Gone are the pastel pinks and saccharine sentimentality of my 1970’s girlhood, or the carefully curated interiors of an adult collector’s dollhouse, replaced instead by the darker shadings of fear, doubt and ambivalence. While my use of grotesquery was tactical, subverting the nostalgia of my youth, it also provided room in which I could, as an adult and mother, reinvent the rules of the game and ‘play Mommy’ in a nuanced space that allowed for conflicted feelings. The presence of absurdity, in the guise of children with the heads of birds, reminds us that — like waking from a strange dream in which you’ve misplaced the baby — everything will, in all likelihood, work out fine. 


Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Munro, Alice. “My Mother’s Dream”, in the collection of short stories entitled The Love of a Good Woman. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1999). 

Rich, Adrienne. “Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness” in Of Woman Born. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., 1986).

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993).

Williams, Gilda (ed.). The Gothic. (London: Whitechapel Ventures Limited, 2007).

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