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Literature / In the Realms of the Unreal

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A novel known primarily for its length, its illustrations note , and its writing process, Henry Darger's The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion tells the story of a fictional war between the Christian nation of Angelinia and the militantly atheist nation of Glandelinia. The Vivian Girls are the seven daughters of Robert Vivian, emperor of the Catholic kingdom Abbieannia. The girls are both leaders and inspirational, saint-like figures rallying the troops.

The subject of this Documentary, which also goes into Darger's life. A second film, Revolutions of the Night, released in 2012, gives more detail about his background (more about this film and its evocation of Darger as he really was in this essay), which may help contextualize the origins of the events and themes in the narrative.

This work and Darger's life story have inspired many songs (there's a band called Vivian Girls), comic book characters, mystery novels like Elizabeth Hand's Curious Toys and an RPG called War Storm.

You may read selections from The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal, and the entire The Vivian Girls in Chicago, Henry's weather journal and The History of My Life the Illinois State Library website. (Takes forever to download, be patient.) Most of the manuscript of Realms of the Unreal is also on the Internet Archive.

Tropes applying to In the Realms of the Unreal

  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Annie Aronburg, and then the seven little Vivian Girl Princesses.
  • Action Girl: Billions of them, many as young as four or five. Little Girls with Guns are a favorite theme of his illustrations.
  • Adults Are Useless: Averted. Although children are major figures in the story, there are many adult allies and heroes.
  • The American Civil War: Darger was a Civil War expert, and much of the writing was done in that spirit.
  • Arcadia: The Vivian girls' flower-filled estate at Jennie Richee is this.
  • Author Avatar: Henry Darger is a major character in the story.
  • Author Tract: Often. Darger makes lots of asides to the reader about female superiority and children's rights, at one point paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence to call for:
    the right of children to play, to be happy, and to dream; the right to normal sleep of the night's season; the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.
    • He also states categorically that "on the whole, women are braver than men."
  • Badass Family: The Vivians, Dargers and Aronburgs, especially.
    Hanson Vivian ... was their uncle and as pious as their father, but he was a Hercules for build, and a regular Samson for strength.
  • Barbie Doll Anatomy: The child characters are often drawn in the nude. At times this trope is played straight, and at other times averted - however the female children are drawn with male anatomy, for reasons that to this day remain unclear. Since it is assumed that Darger remained celibate his entire life, some historians have theorized that he simply did not know what female sex organs looked like, or that theirs were different from the males.
  • Big Bad: Glandelinian General John Manly.
  • Broken Bird: Jennie Turner. Half-insane after what's happened to her, she's still a valiant fighter. She has the last scene in the book, crying out "Oh, I see God!" as she dies.
  • Child Soldier and Children Forced to Kill: Billions. The Realms of the Unreal is a huge world.
  • Christianity is Catholic: The majority of the Angelinians are Catholics. Darger himself was a very devout Catholic, taking Communion every day and sometimes attending Mass five or seven times a week.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • Frequently involving evisceration, crucifixion, and strangulation.
    • The Lincoln Asylum for the Feeble-Minded where Darger was imprisoned as a teenager is probably the source for a lot of this; it was the subject of an intensive investigation and horrific discoveries not long after he and his friends escaped.
  • Dead Person Conversation: A bit more than midway through the novel, the late Annie Aronburg appears to one of the rebel leaders and implores him to tell the troops to let go of the obsessive need to search for her missing portrait.
  • Door Stopper: Probably the ultimate example, totaling somewhere around nine million words.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Beautifully inverted. At a meeting of Glandelinian higher-ups, the Vivians sneak in and release a bunch of mice, and the men are the ones screaming and climbing up on chairs and tables. Later, imprisoned in a rat-infested dungeon, the girls get the rats to help them escape.
  • Heroic BSoD: Emperor Robert Vivian, ruler of Abbieannia and father of the Vivian Girls, at the beginning of the story. His youngest girls have disappeared after a violent storm, and he fears not only that they have been lost, but that the storm portends terrible calamities in the near future. (They're not: It does.) His brother Hanson does lose his wife and daughter in the storm and suffers this also.
  • Hollywood Atheist: The Glandelinians are motivated to wage war against Angelinia due to a seething hatred of Christianity (and little girls).
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: The little Vivians and many of the other girl heroes in the story. Darger specifically compares them to little Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin several times.
  • Little Miss Badass: Zillions of them.
  • MacGuffin: Henry really did lose a newspaper clipping of Elsie Paroubek, the little girl on whom he based child labor rebel Annie Aronburg. He worked this loss into the story. An inspirational picture of Annie, loved by all the troops, goes missing, setting off a massive search and still more bloodshed. At one point, Henry's characters discuss the portrait in terms that suggest they'd like to Just Eat Gilligan and get on with the liberation.
    General Vivian: This is all on account of Darger and his old picture. How is it that the loss of a photograph is responsible for the situation of this war?
    General Darger: That is a mystery, your Excellency, even to me.
  • Multiple Endings: Different parts of the novel end with either Angelinia or Glandelinia winning.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: John Manley's appearance was modeled after Tsar Nicholas II, a contemporary to Henry Darger, which is an perplexing artistic choice for an atheist antagonist considering Nicholas was an Orthodox Christian monarch in opposition to communists, and extremely fond of children.
  • One-Steve Limit: Downplayed, and/or downright averted. There are several Jennies, distinguished by their surnames. Annie Aronburg has an older sister named Anna, and an assortment of characters named Henry Darger or some European translation thereof. Several characters not members of the Vivian family are given the surname Vivian as a badge of honor, or unofficial adoption.
  • Pistol-Whipping: When General Manley strikes Jennie Vivian, Violet Vivian responds by slapping him across the face with the butt of her pistol.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Annie Aronburg, aged five. The original revolt of the child slaves was her idea, and she was elected their leader. She was coming back from a secret meeting when she was murdered by her captors. She thus became their John Brown figure as well as their Joan of Arc. At the beginning of the book we are told there has been a prediction that in order for the Christian nations to win the war, the "Aronburg Mystery" must be solved and her killers brought to justice. Annie herself was modeled, rather incongruously, on little Elsie Paroubek.
  • Puppy Love: Penrod and Jennie Lillian.
  • Remember the New Guy?: Significantly deep into the story, we are introduced to the Vivian Girls' brother Penrod. Up until this, the story has implied that the Vivian Girls are the only children of King Vivian.
  • Self-Insert Fic: Darger himself appears several times in the novel, portraying both good and evil characters.
  • Shout-Out: Uncle Tom's Cabin is a major source of inspiration for Darger, he compares various girl heroes to Little Eva.
  • Slave Liberation: The goal of Angelinia's war is to liberate the child slaves.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: The little girls often go in disguise as boys when they sneak behind enemy lines.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The child martyrs, especially Annie, and the saint-like Jennie Anges. Described as "already marked for heaven", Jennie snatches consecrated communion hosts out of a church tabernacle to protect them from enemy soldiers who would desecrate them. As she is tortured and killed, she wraps her arms around the container, which cannot be pried from her grasp. Thrown into the river, still clutching the container, her body is later recovered and buried properly, with a beautiful tombstone. Jennie is six years old.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: The Vivians and the Aronburg girls.