Dulce Domum: The Longing for Home in Literature

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” – C. S. Lewis


Sweet Home. It’s more than just a lovely sentiment cross-stitched on a pillow. You might say it’s engraved, embedded, etched on our very souls. From the time we are little and draw a crayon square with a triangle on top to the day we leave home for college or set up our first apartment or purchase a house for the first time or bring that first baby home, we are ever consumed with a desire for a place of our own—indeed a place to make our own.

This desire for a place to call home provides one of the strongest themes for authors, poets, and artists of all kinds to weave throughout their works. We may laugh at the sugary sentimentality of a glowing thatched cottage, covered in flowery vines and surrounded by a picket fence, but the desire for a place to call one’s own is no laughing matter.

Homer knew this. Odysseus wants nothing more than to go home. He is tired and he is tried. He has been thwarted at every turn in his attempt to return to Ithaca, to the waiting arms of his dear Penelope and now-adult Telemachus. When he does reach Ithaca, he must free his home from the suitors who have invaded. As we read, we ache for this man who wants desperately to re-establish order in his home.

Virgil understood this desire as well. In fact, one popular children’s version of The Aeneid is appropriately called In Search of a Homeland. Pious Aeneas leads his Trojan refugees out of the fiery furnace of a fallen Troy into the unknown waters and lands of Italy. Despite his own series of misadventures along the way, he doggedly pursues his duty and his calling to found a new city. Citizens of Rome needed a history of their fatherland and Virgil provided it. Sometimes home is more than where you live; it is also where you came from.

In The Wind and the Willows, Kenneth Grahame ties these threads together, proving yet again that a good children’s book is one that can be read by anyone. In a chapter entitled “Dulce Domum” he tells how Mole returns to his home after a frightening turn in the woods. Mole’s home, with its forecourt and fountains, its statuary and fish pond, gives us quite an insight into his character. And who could forget the description of Badger’s kitchen, where “heroes could fitly feast … and where weary harvesters” would feel right at home, where plates wink from shelves, and the “ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling”? The climax of the tale occurs in “The Return of Ulysses,” when Badger, Mole, and Ratty come to the rescue of Toad, whose home has been invaded by those forest fiends, the stoats and weasels. The friends band together in a glorious reclamation of Toad Hall.

Charlotte Brontë imbues Jane Eyre with many examples of homes, both good and bad, and their various influences on the title character. Even the names of each home give us a clue as to their purpose and atmosphere. Who could forget the imposing Gateshead, home of the cruel cousins and wicked Aunt Reed? Lowood, the miserable (and miserably run) school for girls, emanates a miasma that eventually results in its closure. Thornfield Hall echoes the curse of Eden as it is surely no paradise for Jane. While she does make the acquaintance of a certain Mr. Rochester, her exile sends her to the unassuming Moor House, where she learns more of herself and her family’s story. Finally, joyfully, Jane’s fortunes take a turn for the better as she and Rochester move into Ferndean. In spite of her wanderings, we know Jane has at last found safety and security when she tells Rochester, “…wherever you are is my home,—my only home.”

Mark Twain shows us how even the homeless can teach us a thing or two. Huckleberry Finn might very well be the definition of the “anti-hero,” and his various stops up and down the Mississippi River could be described as “anti-homes.” The well-meaning Widow Douglas’ home is too civilized, Pap’s cabin is too dangerous, the Shepherdsons’ home is too bullet-riddled, and Aunt Sally’s farm is too confining. We can empathize with Huck when he says that “you feel mighty free and easy on a raft,” yet we know the raft can never be his permanent home. But where might that be? Huck is determined to find out as he “lights out for the territory.” Will he ever find a home? Perhaps that uncertainty is what keeps him forever young in the imaginations of readers everywhere.

Where does it come from, this longing for home? The answer is found in a story much older even than the epics of Homer. It’s the Old, Old Story. Creation set the stage for our first home, but the Fall resulted in a disordered home, and so we eagerly await our Redemption and the establishment of our new home: the new heaven and the new earth.

Until that day comes, may we all find rest and peace, along with Mole, “… in a place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted on for the same simple welcome.”

“This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
– Albert Brumley

Renee Mathis and her husband, Steve, homeschooled their five children, two of whom are now married with children of their own. Renee enjoys sharing her love of writing and literature with her students. This article was first published by the CiRCE Institute.

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