In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the author Ransom Riggs employs a lot of symbolism in order to paint an effective portrait of the Jacob’s life. For our main character, Florida represents monotony and a life of normalcy. Through his environment and social factors, Jacob is unable to break out of his shell and is left yearning for something not so ordinary. The stories his grandfather Abe tells him about “peculiar children,” and his cryptic last words propel Jacob on a journey in search of answers about his grandfather’s past. In doing so, he enters a world far from anything he could have imagined. The interactions he has in Cairnholm and Miss Peregrine’s home seem so far from his life in Florida, but he is unable to separate his past from the present as characters old and new become inseparable links between the two places.
In Florida, Jacob works at a drug store called Smart Aid, which is run by his uncles. Jacob remarks on the fact that his future is already set out for him, “one day I was going to inherit a sizable chunk of the company, and they were not” (Riggs 25). Jacob treats this as a foregone conclusion, something out of his control as he loathes most of what his parents and family try to do for him. No matter how much he abhors the idea of working at Smart Aid until he owns it, day in and day out Jacob reluctantly and apathetically stocks the shelves. The job has been passed down through generations of his family and no matter how hard he tries to free himself of this responsibility, whether it be short-changing customers or miss-stocking item, he is unable to escape. His employment is a product of his parents’ ideology, which attempts to craft a normal life for him.
Jacob’s life resembles an endless loop of monotony during his time in Florida. His parents are the mechanism that keeps this loop running without a hitch, rarely diverting from redundancy. Not only do his parents work to mold Jacob’s life, they discourage him from interacting with his grandfather and his surreal and potentially senile stories. They have already distanced themselves from Abe and Jacob would do the same. Jacob’s parents wish to avoid the responsibility of taking care of their elderly father and have Jacob care for him. In a short phone conversation with his father, Jacob briefly interrogates him about the fate of his grandfather, “All this Grandpa stuff. ‘You mean to put him in a home,’ I said. ‘Make him someone else’s problem.’ ‘Mom and I haven’t decided yet’” (Riggs 29). In this short exchange, without coming out and saying it, Jacob’s father, Franklin, admits to considering putting Grandpa Abe away to become “someone else’s problem.” In doing this, Jacob’s parents slowly push him away from his grandfather and the life of paranoia he lives. Abe does not contribute positively to their ideology and what they believe is best for Jacob. Whether it be his job at Smart Aid or his parent’s ostracization of Abe, Jacob’s parents give him little agency and see his life as an extension of their own. This perpetuates the loop that Jacob is merely a passenger on.
Grandpa Abe, a crucial character in Jacob’s story, serves to ideologically critique Jacob’s parent’s worldview they have molded for themselves and their child. His stories and photographs resonate with Jacob and make him interested in his grandfather’s life. In stark contrast to the traditional upper-middle-class family life Jacob experiences at home, Abe is an escape from the monotony of his life at home. Jacob speaks on his fascination with his grandfather’s stories, “It all seemed unfathomably exotic to a kid who’d never left Florida, and I begged him to regale me with stories whenever I saw him … When I was six I decided that my only chance of having a life half as exciting as Grandpa Portman’s was to become an explorer” (Riggs 12). Even though Jacob bears most of the responsibility of his grandfather’s care and faces the brunt of his mental decline, he connects with Abe in a way his parents could not. His grandfather’s stories spark something in Jacob that he could never feel by living as if Florida was all there is. If all Jacob knows is Florida and the feeling of being stuck in a loop, then hearing his grandfather’s stories sparks his curiosity and a desire for something more. He pines for a life like his grandfather’s and does so regretfully, “I felt ashamed for having been jealous of his life, considering the price he’d paid for it, and I tried to feel lucky for the safe and unextraordinary one that I had done nothing to deserve” (Riggs 22). To Jacob, his grandfather’s life represents more than just a few crazy stories and inexplicable pictures, it represented a life that was not confined to a singular, monotonous place, something Jacob was certain he would never experience.
In the wake of Abe’s death, Jacob’s parents hire a psychiatrist to work with Jacob and help him reconcile his emotions. Although his parents hope to confine Jacob to a place that was within their sphere and therefore within their reach, Dr. Golan does the opposite and encourages Jacob to go to Cairnholm and learn about his grandfather’s past. While it appeared as though Jacob was overwhelmingly restricted in his pursuits, the psychiatrist seemed to be the only one who was on the same page as Jacob. In being aligned with Jacob’s aspirations, Dr. Golan becomes an important link between Florida and Cairnholm. It is only revealed in the final act that Dr. Golan has ulterior motives that threaten to undo everything.
Historically speaking, context is most important in determining why past events happen. Events do not exist in a vacuum. There are always cause and effect relationships in history. This is no different in the case of Jacob and his journey from Florida to Cairnholm. No matter how radically different these two places seem, both in physical appearance and in the people that inhabit them, they are inseparable through the experiences Jacob carries with him. It is simply not possible for Jacob to completely sever moments from his past when the reason he made the choice to journey to Cairnholm was because of his past. Jacob was not led to Cairnholm by a sequence of events, but rather events that happened because of and in response to one another. The Theory Toolbox discusses this same idea in the context of the “master narrative”, “It’s the overarching plot, the “master narrative,” the bigger context, that gives meaning to the otherwise random events of history or the otherwise random words that can make up a poem, or the ways in which people are gathered together into a nation” (Giroux 110). If Jacob wishes to understand the mystery of his grandfather’s past, he must confront his own past no matter how traumatizing. This is the only way Jacob will find the answers he has been looking for. The memories he has from Florida are profoundly linked to elements of his new environment.
When Jacob arrives at Cairnholm, he enters a place that feels frozen in time. Unlike anything he has experienced in Florida, Cairnholm starkly contrasts what he left behind. In a search for answers regarding his grandfather’s shrouded past, Jacob escapes one loop and enters another, both loops overlapping like a Venn diagram; each loop contains elements of the other. Where it seemed like Jacob would make sense of what haunted him about Florida and his grandfather’s death, questions of an existential nature arise, time and time again bringing him back to the things he wishes to leave behind. In the process of this soul-searching, Jacob learns that he is anything but ordinary.
Miss Peregrine’s home operates in a literal time loop as opposed to Jacob’s life in Florida that only mimics a loop. On the surface it appears that these two places are nothing alike. Upon closer inspection the loops that Jacob experienced in Florida and the loop at Miss Peregrine’s have commonalities, Emma being one of them. A close friend of Abe and his romantic interest during his time in Cairnholm, Emma is arguably most important character of this new and unfamiliar setting, becoming Jacob’s link to his grandfather. As Emma and Jacob grow close, Jacob is reminded of how Emma and his grandfather shared this similar bond. The social spheres of Florida and Cairnholm are interwoven through relationships that bring Jacob in contact with the same cast of characters his grandfather interacted with 70 years earlier. Much like Jacob’s parents resolve to control his life, Miss Peregrine confines the children to their loop in order to protect them from what exists on the outside. Jacob’s loop operates in the same manner, protecting him from what does not conform to his parents’ beliefs. Both Miss Peregrine and Jacob’s parents construct ideologies that form these loops.
Despite Jacob escaping to Miss Peregrine’s home while his father tries to focus on his study of Cairnholm’s birds, Jacob’s father cannot help but worry constantly about where Jacob goes and what Jacob is doing. He feels the need to protect his son from emotional trauma and normalize his behavior, but in doing so he hovers over Jacob to make sure he is within the boundaries of his ideology. Another thing that seems apparent about their relationship is Franklin’s attempts to make meaningful connections with Jacob, but only doing so with his own hobbies in mind. At one point during their trip to Cairnholm, Jacob’s father gets fed up with Jacob never spending time with him and forces Jacob to accompany him on a bird-watching trip. This moment harkens back to a moment at Jacob’s birthday party when he receives a digital camera from his parents. His father’s response to the gift is, “’I’m outlining a new bird book … I was thinking maybe you could take the pictures’” (Riggs 58). On both occasions, his father fails to facilitate a meaningful connection with his son. This problem follows Franklin to Cairnholm and reminds Jacob of the fractured relationship he has with his parents.
Cairnholm is where Jacob finally comes to the understanding that his grandfather was killed by the same “monsters” that he can see. Convinced he was just an ordinary kid that experienced a traumatic event, Jacob is now burdened with the harsh reality surrounding his grandfather’s death. Going to Cairnholm provided Jacob with answers about his grandfather’s past, but it also further complicated his understanding of his once unextraordinary life. These complications brought on further interconnections between Florida and Cairnholm. As he spirals down the rabbit hole of his own surreal circumstances, Jacob struggles to separate the life and events of his past in favor of going forward and never looking back. Rather than removing himself from Florida and all that it represents, the truth that reveals itself in Cairnholm only ties Florida and Cairnholm closer together. It is impossible to segment such a huge part of someone’s life and treat it as though it never happened. Going from one place to another does nothing but provide a new stage for the past to manifest itself into Jacob’s life. This is made abundantly clear in Dr. Golan’s transformation from psychiatrist to villain.
Dr. Golan, a physical representation of the complexities of Jacob’s past and the event that haunts him in Florida, embodies both the overbearing qualities of his parents and the dying wishes of his grandfather. A man who appeared to have Jacob’s best interests at mind, even more so than his own parents, propelled Jacob on a journey that would take him thousands of miles from home and deep into his repressed memories. Although he appeared to be a psychiatrist, Dr. Golan turned out to be a horrifying, flesh-eating creature in disguise. This Jekyll and Hyde quality Dr. Golan possesses makes him the perfect metaphor for everything Jacob has gone through. Parents masquerading their own insecurities about their child through overprotection, a grandfather’s fantastical stories revealing themselves to be real, and a house serving as a safe haven but at times feeling like a prison are all embodied in one character: Jacob. Contradicting characters and places make Jacob’s life endlessly complicated. Rather than easily separating Florida and Cairnholm in an attempt to escape his past, they become one in the same.
As Jacob and his new friends exit the loop and brave the unknown, he reflects on what he is leaving behind, “I realized that leaving wouldn’t be like I had imagined, like casting off a weight. Their memory was something tangible and heavy, and I would carry it with me” (Riggs 352). As much as Jacob would have loved to forget about his parents who were always holding him back and the place where he lived that contained few good memories and one extremely unpleasant one, everything that happened in Florida made him who he was. Leaving that behind, psychically and mentally, would mean leaving behind an entire part of his life that ultimately led him to the tipping point he reaches at the end of the novel. This uplifting revelation that the past and present are immeasurably linked in a way that Jacob can carry rather than bury shows he has resolved in his mind everything that transpired from the last days of his grandfather’s life to the day he left the loop in 1940.
The time Jacob spends in both his home in Florida and on his trip to Cairnholm reveal the complexities of his past and the interconnectedness of both places. While his parents hold him back, Grandpa Abe propels Jacob to a discovery regarding who he really is. The truth surrounding his unextraordinary life would not have been discovered if he was successful in his attempts to sever his ties to Florida. The events of his life led him to Cairnholm. Ignoring this fact would provide him with no answers and much frustration. By the end of his time in Cairnholm and the beginning of his new journey, Jacob learns to accept his past as a part of who he is.
Giroux, Susan Searls, and Jeffrey Nealon. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.
Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Quirk Books, 2013.