Perhaps the most iconic symbol from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline are the large, shiny black buttons which the other mother—and all the creatures she’s created to populate her parallel world—wear instead of eyes. This eerie feature symbolizes the other mother’s desire for control, and specifically her desire to limit Coraline’s freedom. Coraline is quite perturbed by the buttons once she notices them, but things in the other mother’s world are so lovely that Coraline is willing to push down her fear of the buttons. When the other mother and other father, however, present Coraline with a pair of buttons of her own and tell her that if she wants to stay in their perfect fantasy world, she’ll have to let them remove her eyes and sew buttons on instead, Coraline realizes that she has come to an evil place indeed. The buttons symbolize the fact that the other mother sees Coraline as a doll or a plaything—she wants to keep Coraline in her world and do with her what she wishes. Though the other mother’s motivation for luring Coraline (and a trio of lost children who have been in her clutches for centuries) to her world is never revealed, the cat suggests that the other mother draws her ancient power from having “something to love”—or perhaps just “something to eat.” The cat’s characterization of the other mother as an entity who must live vicariously through the individuals she brings into her world further suggests that she sees Coraline as a plaything under her control.
The symbol of the buttons, however, also goes the other way. As Coraline grows stronger, braver, and decides to conquer her fears and challenge the other mother to a game whose prize is Coraline’s own freedom, the button eyes the creatures in the other mother’s world suggests that they have become Coraline’s playthings now—she is in control of herself, of them, and of her own destiny.
Buttons Quotes in Coraline
“Coraline?” the woman said. “Is that you?”
And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.
“Lunchtime, Coraline,” said the woman.
“Who are you?” asked Coraline.
“I’m your other mother,” said the woman. “Go and tell your other father that lunch is ready,” She opened the door of the oven. Suddenly Coraline realized how hungry she was. It smelled wonderful.
“If you want to stay,” said her other father, “there’s only one little thing we’ll have to do, so you can stay here for ever and always.”
They went into the kitchen. On a china plate on the kitchen table was a spool of black cotton, and a long silver needle, and, beside them, two large black buttons.
“I don’t think so,” said Coraline.
“Oh, but we want you to,” said her other mother. “We want you to stay. And it’s just a little thing.”
Outside, the world had become a formless, swirling mist with no shapes or shadows behind it, while the house itself seemed to have twisted and stretched. […]
The other mother was waiting for [Coraline], standing on the grass with her arms folded. Her black button eyes were expressionless, but her lips were pressed tightly together in a cold fury.
Coraline nodded. It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.