Trains in Literature

When people think of trains and their functions, they simply view them as modes of transportation. In literature, this is not solely the case. While it is true that trains are included in the setting because the characters of the story are departing, arriving, or currently riding the train, the trains may be present for underlying reasons. What they symbolize can be indicative of the themes of the story.

Using trains as a symbol is present in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, go their separate ways, take the time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. There are plenty of examples of this concept in literature.

One is the "Hogwarts Express" in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. The train, in which all characters reunite after a summer without seeing each other, serves as a place of bonding. Here, they tell each other stories about their adventures and update each other on their current activities. Had they been transported in a car, bonding may not have occurred. Being in a train allowed them to all face each other when talking, all look out the window and discuss something, and even travel through the train and explore different parts of it.

Another is "The Polar Express" in Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express book. In this story, the train is used as a key component in the child's imagination. Instead of the train taking the children to a place where they will experience a great adventure, the magical train itself is where the adventures take place. It is this journey that helps him relieve his doubt and make him realize that things can happen if he believes.

A third example is the "Little Engine" in Arnold Munk's The Little Engine that Could book. The train here is personified. It attempts to go up the hill, and while struggling to do so, eventually does make it. The moral of the story is that if children are optimistic and work hard, they will eventually achieve their goals.

The symbols of trains are not always positive, however. In early-mid Victorian England, the railroad appears in a lot of fiction during the time because its existence was driven by major social change. Aside from their plot devices, themes were present in the literature discussing damaging consequences on the city, ruining the landscape, and it being associated with gluttony, dishonesty, fraud and the Railroad Mania. An example of this is in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, in which the social upheaval is caused by creation of a railroad.

Trains may be instruments of fate such as in Tolstoj's Anna Karenina, in which disastrous train accidents foretell the doomed heroine's plot. Other examples include Nesbit's The Railway Children, Dickens' The Signalman, Emile Zola's La Bete Humaine, a psychological murder thriller set again the backdrop of the Paris-Le Havre railway, and Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.