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A Literary Look At The
Tiny House Phenomenon

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Image by Ben Chun and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
While Tiny Homes Might Seem All The Rage Now In The United States, The Concept Is Hardly A New One -- And The Reasons Behind It Involve More Than Just Mere Economics


By Stacy Graber
Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 11, 2016 — The introduction to the HGTV series Tiny House Hunters states that: “Across the nation, people are going small…really small.”  

This is plausible, particularly in light of the economic crisis that displaced many; though in that case, it wasn’t a trend but a tragedy that forced people from their homes. Still, it seems worthwhile to explore why people are choosing to go tiny and what that even means.

Some of the episodes in the series offer romantic visions of living that dissolve the inside/outside dichotomy and challenge the assumption that the things we accumulate mark the measure of personal worth. But, other episodes unintentionally present the troubling side of tiny. Like one chapter in the saga of small in which a recently divorced woman lived out the trauma of her separation on the stage of her home, moving closer and closer to the edge of space until she eventually took up residence on an enclosed porch because she could no longer tolerate being inside her home.  

At that point, to her son’s horror, she chose to “go tiny.” This painful vision of a real haunted house caused me to wonder whether people actually choose to downsize, or whether they are forced by some private crisis (economic or domestic) evident in latent patterns of space usage.

Let’s think about this question from a literary perspective. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1994) presents a vision of tiny that is purely dreamy as he proposes ever-smaller containers (e.g., cabin, armoire, drawer and nutshell) to cradle the keeper and his/her things. In one romantic passage from his famous book, the author reinvents his city apartment as the hull of a boat and the cacophonous traffic noise below as the lapping of waves. And, in truth, this is the sort of whimsy that characterizes most of the programs in the HGTV series.  

Of course, readers know that tiny emerges often as a motif in literature. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau was the first proponent of the so-called “tiny house movement” with his idyllic cabin in the woods, though he reflected in Walden that one might go tinier still and claim as a residence one of the toolboxes on the side of the railroad which bore a striking resemblance to a coffin.

And that efficient vision is not unlike the morgue-inspired capsule beds that William Gibson describes in the cyberpunk lodging of the New Rose Hotel. And, those dwellings are reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s story How Much Land Does a Man Need? in which the answer to the question is: exactly the space of a grave.

But the HGTV series does not want us to go to such miserable places. It is not a subterranean vault that producers offer, but an airy, elastic way of life that molds to the maker. Lofts and niches, hidden storage and creative shelving, all defy the reality that one is living in a box. Likewise, it will not escape the viewer’s attention that the tiny house might be transported anywhere as opposed to being fixed in an undesirable location. It is this paradox of movement and permanence that seduces the poet and tiny house-dweller.   

And yet, let’s return to reality. It’s obvious that rich people do not live in tiny homes and they never will. Again, returning to literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald made it apparent that a splendid home was the uber-index of success, and this attitude is indelibly imprinted in the American Dream.  

E. Lockhart (2014) takes up Fitzgerald’s point in her amazing novel, We Were Liars, a book which young people misinterpret as a romance when it’s really the story of a big house. In the novel, a gang of kids decide to burn the ultimate symbol of a powerbroker arrogance to the ground and they torch an ancestral home. And the reason why the action works is precisely because size does matter in the context of the book, in the same way that it mattered in the French Revolution when the people destroyed the châteaux, the ultimate markers of the decadent rich.  

For all the plan’s flaws in Lockhart’s novel — pretty big flaws, as readers will discover — the act of arson did destabilize the imperious tycoon and bring a vulgar dynasty to its knees. And it’s obvious that the story wouldn’t have worked if the King Lear-type coot had lived in a tiny house. The obscene mise en scène of Martha’s Vineyard-style relies on the waspy oxymoron of the colossal vacation home.  

I’m not sure that people are going tiny by choice, nor am I certain that it is possible to reinvent the semiotics of the tiny home against the backdrop of the grotesque chasm between the wealthy and poor in America. But it seems apparent that homes still serve as symbolic markers of social class distinction, as do schools, supermarkets, and cars.  

If people are going tiny, then it’s more likely because they are being forced to do so, in the same way that nature is being corralled in “preserves.” The tiny house movement is an example of violence reconstituted as romance.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include critical theory, pedagogy, and popular culture.
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