Arrietty vs. the British Empire: How Power Works in The Borrowers

Mary Norton’s children’s novel, The Borrowers, made into a movie not too long ago, was the subject of my final paper in Critical Theory. Here, I use the critical theory lenses of post-colonialism, feminism, archetype and historicism to present a very different reading of the book, one that may change the way you look at The Borrowers forever.

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton was first published in England in 1952, winning the Carnegie Medal. As the “outstanding new book for children or young adults” (CILIP), The Borrowers, set in England in the 1880’s, reflects aspects of both the time in which it was published, and the times the story portrays. By “explicating [the] particulars [of] the history or culture that helps…inform and construct the literature” (Vallone 102), we can begin to understand its appeal in England beyond its fantasy story.

In 1952 Britain’s monarch, King George VI, died suddenly and his 25-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne. Neither George nor Elizabeth was supposed to be monarchs. Sixteen years earlier, in a constitutional crisis, Edward, George’s older brother and heir to the throne, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American. Upon his brother’s abdication, the crown went to a reluctant George. This monarchial crisis, in 1936, deeply shook what was considered to be the unshakable foundation of British Monarchy. The abdication, two World Wars, the independence of many of its former colonies, and King George VI’s sudden death in 1952, left Britain weakened and with a sense of its own vulnerability. By setting The Borrowers in the 1880’s when England still exerted its rule throughout the world, Norton is reviving the glory days of the British Empire, providing a nostalgic salve for battered national pride.

The book opens by explaining how the boy who discovers the Borrowers is in a position and place to do so. We learn that he was sent off to live in the old country house of a great aunt to recuperate from rheumatic fever, contracted while living in India. The information about living in India is relayed matter-of-factly; in the 1880’s, India had been a British colony under the rule of the Crown for 30 years, and under the control of the British East India Company for nearly 100 years before that (Wood). However, since India had achieved a difficult independence from England in 1947, a mere 5 years before The Borrowers was written, the amnesia The Borrowers exhibits over the oppressive and often violent British rule in India reinforces Donnarae MacCann’s assertion that “…many children’s books still function as instruments of a colonial mentality” (185).

That the colonialist mentality infuses the story at a basic level begins with the description of the lifestyle of the small Borrower family who live under the kitchen floor in the country house. Just as the British Empire took what it desired from its colonies, the Borrowers, Pod, Homily and their daughter Arrietty “borrow” (steal) everything they need from the big “human beans” that live in the house. In fact, the Borrowers believe that the big humans live only to provide for them. Arrietty says to the boy, “Human beans are for Borrowers—like bread’s for butter!” (Norton 84), reflecting a British colonialist attitude of innate right and superiority.

However, the boy ‘human bean’ has his own absorption of colonialist British values to display. When he and Arrietty first meet, he threatens her, because she is different from him: “Don’t move!…Or I shall hit you with my ash stick” (Norton 71). When Arrietty asks him why, he says, “in case…you scrabbled at me with your nasty little hands…things do, I’ve seen them. In India” (73-74). To a British boy born and brought up in colonial India, the idea that it is appropriate to use force to subdue reveals “the violence that coexists within every form of colonial order” (Plotz 111), and interrogates the transmission of the “complex process by which a group of potentially noncolonial infants becomes a nation of active colonizers” (Hall 51).

In good colonial style, the boy proceeds to interfere with and dominate the Borrowers life, “[e]very night the floor was opened and treasures would appear…” (Norton 130). Showering them with gifts that are literally out of the Borrowers reach, and which they have not asked for and do not need, he is exhibiting what Clare Bradford, quoting Edward Said, calls “the ways in which the West has rationalized colonial processes with claims that colonized people were ‘provided with order and a kind of stability that they haven’t been able … to provide for themselves’” (199). Ultimately, the boy’s interference brings about the discovery and ruin of the Borrowers’ home, reflecting on a micro scale the destruction of local culture that colonialism inflicts.

Because both the boy and the Borrowers display attitudes of the British Imperialist mindset, The Borrowers can be read as a story of an endorsement of power—colonialist power.  But there is another power at work here, more powerful even than 19th century Britain, and that power belongs to Arrietty.

Arrietty has an agenda. On the surface, it would appear that she is following a proper female Victorian role, that of providing “moral and emotional support at home”(Helson 67). However, she longs to leave the dark home under the kitchen, “no one to talk to, no one to play with…no light but candlelight and what comes through the cracks” (Norton 49), and secretly wishes to emigrate to her cousins in a “badger’s set two fields away beyond the spinney” (87). She pesters her parents until they allow her out on a chaperoned trip with her father where she promptly goes off into the lawn and it is there she meets the boy; a meeting that eventually brings about the downfall of the family.

Writing about another female who allegedly brought about a downfall, Elizabeth Gillhouse states in Eve was Framed, “the expulsion from the garden is not simply a punishment; it is also a gift to future generations. The complexities and hardships of life are not ignored, but the humanist celebration of free will and equality is the dominant theme” (271). Expanding upon this, Pamela Norris writes, “Perhaps what is most important is Eve’s recognition of the need to challenge boundaries, to make the imaginative leap, however difficult, unpredictable and even dangerous, into a new phase of existence” (403–04).

By meeting, then befriending the boy, Arrietty harnesses his compulsions of domination to her own ends. In this way, she is, like Eve, embracing the anima role in her family’s life journey. Jung describes anima as “the chaotic urge to life” (30). “[E]verything the anima touches becomes numinous—unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical” (28). The anima is the cause of change; it is the power of destruction that clears the space for new life. Just as Eve created a new life for the human race outside of the Garden of Eden, Arrietty creates a new life for herself and her entrenched and tradition-bound family in a new home in a meadow full of green grass and sunshine. In the end, the destruction of the home under the kitchen floor is a triumph for Arrietty.

“Fantasy” Ravenna Helson tells us, “lends itself to the depiction of unconscious forces” (66). On one level, The Borrowers can be read as an engaging fantasy story about little people; a closer reading reveals the undercurrent of an affirmation of British Imperialist power. A deeper interpretation of power, however, is revealed when the ancient archetypes are brought to bear. With Arrietty as anima, we see a primordial agency of power: that of the willingness to destroy in order to bring forth life.

Works Cited


Bradford, Clare. “The End of Empire? Colonial and Postcolonial Journeys in Children’s     Books.” Children’s Literature Volume 29. (2001): 196-218. Print.

CILIP Carnegie Medal. 14 May 2012. Web.

Gillhouse, Elizabeth. “Eve was Framed”: Ideostory and (Mis)Representation in Judeo-Christian   Creation Stories.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.3 (2011): 259-275.        Print.

Hall, Donald E. “We and the World: Juliana Horatia Ewing and Victorian Colonialism for   Children.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16.2 (1991): 51-55. Print.

Helson, Ravenna. “The Psychological Origins of Fantasy for Children in Mid-Victorian    England.” Children’s Literature 3.1 (1974): 66-76. Print.

Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 2nd Ed. Princeton: Princeton     University Press, 1990. Print.

MacCann, Donnarae. “The Sturdy Fabric of Cultural Imperialism: Tracing Its Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Novels.” Children’s Literature 33.1 (2005): 185-208. Print.

Norris, Pamela. Eve: A Biography. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Print.

Plotz, Judith. “Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity (review).” Children’s     Literature Association Quarterly 26.2 (2001): 110-111. Print.

Vallone, Lynne. “Introduction: Children’s Literature and New Historicism.” Children’s Literature    Association Quarterly 21.3 (1996): 102-104. Print.

Wood, Michael. The Story of India. Public Broadcasting Service, January 5, 2009. Web. 12 May    2012