Essay On Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere As A Coming Of Age Novel
Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere is essentially a coming of age novel. The protagonist Richard Mayhew, is an underachiever in his ordinary life. In the everyday life of “London Above,” Richard is a cog in the machine. He is set out for a future life of domestic and matrimonial bliss with his girlfriend, Jessica. London Above is a safe place for Richard where he has a job in securities “with one of the finest investment analyst firms in London” (257). He is secure. Furthermore, his girlfriend Jessica takes care of him. The novel’s passage from the secure life of London Above to the less secure life of London Below is the trajectory of going from child to man, from dependent to independent. The argument of this essay is to illustrate by example from the novel Richard’s journey from protected child to mature adult, shaping his potential to be a hero of his story. The end lesson of the book is that, ultimately, Richard cannot return to his old life, as he has simply outgrown it. The novel charts this progression in three ways: doors, ordeals, and the need to return.
First, there are doors. Moving from Scotland to London, Richard hopes to make a life for himself in a new place, and a new job. He leaves behind the security of his friends and his family, symbolized by the “walnut cake that [his mother] had made for the journey and a thermos filled with tea” (16). However, Richard feels “like hell,” which is an appropriate response to someone making such a big change in his life. In parallel to Richard’s journey is the female protagonist, Door. As her name implies, she is the doorway Richard needs to transcend his childhood and enter into adult responsibilities.
While Jessica embodies all the traits of a comfortable middle-class existence, Door is in many ways on the same psychological level as Richard. She is a lost child, running away from danger as represented by the villains of the story: Mr. Croup and Vandemar. If Jessica’s demands to make a reservation for three at an upscale restaurant have failed, the novel sets up Richard to grow in his role as savior, albeit a reluctant one, of Door. In the scene where he chooses to save Door, rather than accompany Jessica to dinner with her parents, it is a crucial point of decision for Richard. The novel foreshadows Door’s importance to Richard and the nature of his true calling. While “normally [they] don’t even notice you exist,” Richard can see people from London Below and can notice Door (565).
The element of character is important in the development of the coming of age narrative. The Door is, as her name suggests, a portal. In fantasy novels, doors are often metaphors for gateways to another world: “D-O-O-R. Like something, you walk through to go places” (117). Similar to how Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, has to walk through the door of the house that plops down on Munchkin land, The other world is also a metaphor for change and metamorphosis. If Richard is disorganized and unfit for his above London life, his fit with Door, who is even more innocent and childlike than Richard, is a pivotal shift in the life of Richard Mayhew. The “sensible part of [Richard’s head” told him to live the life with Jennifer, while finding himself “placing one foot in front of the other,” he takes on the first step into his fantasy adventure (77). The novel represents reality where in the world of London Above opportunities represent the normal world of business as usual. The London Below world represents a fantasy world that allows Richard to succeed. When one door opens, another door closes. Richard’s decision to help Door closes him off to the world of London Above, and no one recognizes him, and he becomes a “non-person” (181).
Second there is the ordeal. In the novel, the way Richard has to grow up, is not just in saving Door from the clutches of Croup and Valdemar, but also by undergoing an ordeal or a trial. In the genre of fantasy fiction, it is often an ordeal that the character must undergo that shows his true nature. As a child, Richard was afraid of heights, and was taken on a school field trip to the top of a castle that overlooked the countryside three hundred feet below (706). His teacher tells him that a penny dropped from the tower would crush a man’s skull if it struck him, and Richard dreams of “such a murderous penny, when it dropped ” (706). To win the key, Richard must undergo a trial that taps into his insecurities, but is a metaphor for his need to outgrow his childhood fears. Winning the key, he can feel like he has accomplished something, like a little boy completing a lego building. However, when Richard has to face the beast of London and is the only survivor, he certainly gains in the triumph of conquering his fears. Helping Door escape the horrors of her fate, he is given the key to return to his old life in London Below. It is interesting that the plot has Richard in London Below hoping to return to his normal, boring life. Richard faces two worldviews. In one worldview, success is defined by securing an important job, while in the alternative worldview success is internal. The figurative language of the key represents the access Richard needs to become the adult he wishes to be rather, than the adult he has to be. When in fact he wins the chance to return to his normal life he finds he does not want to be there any longer.
In conclusion, there is the need to return. It is a common trope in literature that what people want they realize that once they get what they want it’s not what they truly wanted. In winning the opportunity to regain his normal “adult life,” Richard sees the world in a different way. Returning to London Above Richard is in a place to ask real, probing questions like “Do you ever wonder if this is all there is . Work. Home. The pub. Meeting girls. Living in the city. Life. Is that all there is?” (1061). His friends' answer surprises him, and he realizes ironically that he has outgrown them in terms of his expectations, and hopes. Often when a person grows up, they not only realize that their needs have changed, but that the needs of the people who did not change with them have stayed the same. In this way, Richard realizes he needs to return to London Below.
Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. New York: Avon Books, 1997. Kindle file.