What Is Henry Darger’s In The Realms of the Unreal?

Outsider artist Henry Darger’s illustrated novel In the Realms of the Unreal portrays a challenging childhood and a spiritually rich inner life.

Jun 15, 2024By Isa Ghanayem, MFA Printmaking, BFA Studio Art

what is henry darger realm unreal


Outsider artist Henry Darger left behind a fifteen-thousand-page illustrated novel that features a complex interpretation of a challenging childhood and spiritually secluded adult life. Although Darger attended Catholic mass three to four times a day, other than his work as a janitor, he spent his time tucked away in a small Chicago apartment in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. In Darger’s alone time, his repressed and misunderstood energy came out through illustration and writing.


Henry Darger’s Illustrative Spiritual Storytelling

I see Glandellians, if they come here I’ll….We will slam them with our wings, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Like in the cases of many other outsider artists, Darger’s work was not discovered, both on a literal and emotional level, until after his death. Through his novel In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger presented viewers with a complex tale about the transgender Vivian girls and their battle against the evil Glandelinians. This was a story exhibiting a Catholic philosophy filled with spiritual wisdom that was radical for his time. Darger’s preferred themes surrounding transformation and resilience in battle do not exclusively find ties to Catholicism. Many of the themes seen in In the Realms of the Unreal can be found in Native American folklore, as well as in classic tales such as The Wizard of Oz. Darger’s work ultimately shows us both the incredible enchantment and the immense pain of transformation.


Henry’s Early Life: Death, Nuns, Asylum, & Watercolors

Untitled (Two girls and a dog sitting in garden), Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Henry Darger grew up in a small two-story house between Adams and Monroe Street in Chicago with his father. Henry’s mother died when he was an infant, and soon after his sister was adopted. Darger’s father was a tailor who taught Henry how to read the newspaper at a young age. This led Henry to be pushed up from the first grade to the third one when he started attending elementary school. Henry’s father also gave him storybooks and coloring books on special occasions such as Christmas. Henry was inspired by these images and he bought himself watercolor paint boxes.


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Unfortunately, when Henry was eight years old, his father became too ill to care for him, so he was sent to an all-boys home called The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy in Illinois. His father lived at the Saint Augustine poor house in Chicago for the remainder of his life. From Our Lady of Mercy, Henry was sent to a nearby public school. Darger’s time at this public school was marked with distracting behavior. Henry was known to make noises with his nose and throat often. Although he believed these noises to be funny and entertaining to his peers, his fellow students found them annoying. As a result, the schoolboys beat up Henry frequently after school. He tried his best to defend himself with a stick that he carried around with him daily.


Untitled (two girls ironing), Henry Darger, after 1959. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Henry was forced to leave the school due to his troublesome behavior. Soon after leaving, Darger received a physical and mental assessment at Our Lady Of Mercy, where he was told that he was spiritually unwell. Henry was then swiftly sent to the Asylum For Feeble-Minded Children in southern Illinois, where he and fifteen thousand other children worked from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon on the asylum’s farm.


While there, Henry and the other children were physically abused. They were also deprived of formal education besides learning how to tend to the farm. Along with the physical abuse, Henry was subjected to electroshock treatments. He spent seven years at the asylum.


At Jullo Callio via Norma They are captured by the Glandelinians, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Many of the children including Henry tried to run away from the asylum, but for the most part, they ended up physically abused by the farm men who would chase after them. These events of physical abuse are evident in Henry’s later illustrations showing children being lassoed and taken as slaves by the evil Glandelinians. In the summer of Henry’s seventh year, however, Henry and a few other boys were able to escape quickly enough to find themselves on the Illinois Central train to Decatur. From Decatur, Henry walked by himself to Chicago. He eventually found himself a job at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, working as a janitor.


Henry was seventeen years old at this point. This was most definitely not the end of his suffering, unfortunately. Sister Rose, a nun at Saint Joseph’s, would constantly threaten to send Henry back to the asylum if he did anything wrong in his work. Feeling crushed by people from both in and out of the asylum, Henry went back to what gave him joy and reacquainted himself with the storybooks he loved so much as a child. He began working on his own illustrated novel In the Realms of the Unreal in 1909.


Henry’s Inspiration for In The Realms of the Unreal

Untitled (Portraits of Glandelinian and High Abbieannian Generals), In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Henry was able to transmute his childhood abuse into storytelling by using his experiences as a child and young adult in an informative way. For example, one of Henry’s most prominent bullies at the boys’ school, John Manley, became General Manley of the evil Glandelinians in the novel. The Glandelinians were clothed in Confederate uniforms and something the author called professor hats. These hats refer to Henry’s feelings towards the authority figures in his life who were physically and mentally abusive.


Henry’s close friend William Slaughter appeared In the Realms of the Unreal alongside Darger himself. They appeared as powerful generals defending the Vivian Girls in their mission to defeat the evil Glandelinians. Through careful analysis of Darger’s work, we can see that the stories he read as a child left a deep impact on his writing style and character choice. His novel includes names of characters from The Wizard of Oz. It was also inspired by passages from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Penrod by Booth Tarkington, and several works by Charles Dickens. Henry was completely self-taught. He collected newspapers and magazines to use as image references.


Human-headed Blengins of Calverine Island Catherine Isles. Males. Venomous. Only the angels of heaven can combat these creatures, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Eight years after he started working on his illustrated novel, Darger was drafted to fight in World War I. His time spent in service became another source of inspiration when it came to writing and illustrating the war scenes between the Vivian girls and the Glandelinians. Ultimately, Darger was dismissed from the army due to health issues with his eyes, so he went back to his job as a janitor at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Henry continued to work there while simultaneously working on In the Realms of the Unreal until his death in 1973.


Henry’s Relationship with Humanity & God

After M Whurther Run Glandelinians attack and blow up train carrying children to refuge, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, 1970. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Due to Henry’s traumatic and sorrowful childhood, he was labeled as a recluse. Henry’s landlady, Kiyoko Lerner, said in an interview: “My first impression was that Henry was not able to relate to anything or anybody surrounding him. He was very alone… Obviously he was scared; he was hurt by people. He never responded to the question you were asking him. He responded with an answer like, ‘storm is coming from California tomorrow night’ or ‘tornado is in Arkansas right now.’”


6 Episode 3 Place Not Mentioned. Escape during violent storm, still fighting though persed for long distance, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Darger was deeply scared and traumatized by his experiences, and he deliberately chose not to interact with other people to avoid further abuse.  This is also the reason why Henry put so much of himself and his time into creating another world where he could reenact the events of his life, as well as indulge in the fanatical essence of the stories he cherished. Although Darger created such a seemingly fantastical world, the themes of war, religion, and child abuse were real.


The end of In the Realms of the Unreal provides the reader with two alternative endings, one in which the Vivian girls are victorious in defeating the slave-owning Glandelinians, and the other where the Glandelinians are victorious over the Christian army and obliterate all its members along with the Vivian girls. Through Darger offering alternative endings to such an eventful tale, we can notice his changing relationship with God, as well as his feelings towards humanity itself. Henry Darger’s work was first seen by his landlords when he was bedridden and ill in Saint Augustine’s poorhouse awaiting his death. Although Henry had instructed his landlords to throw everything from his apartment, Kiyoko reported that she wasn’t able to throw away Henry’s work.


Christianity in In the Realms of the Unreal

Sister, have you forgotten what we stand for?, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Darger’s devoted Christian practice left an immense impact on the themes running through the pages of his novel. Mark Waters, a neighbor of Henry’s said that the outside artist came to mass every day. Henry even wrote in his novel that General Darger had to be in a communion-like state of grace whenever he approached the Vivian girls. There were Christian references in the symbols and the character development Darger created around the Vivian girls’ devotion to the Christian faith. There are also lesser-known references to Christian Saints.


172 At Jennie Richee. Storm continues. Lightning strikes shelter but no one is injured, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


There are also themes of female martyrdom and gender transformation. Darger’s Vivian girls show devoted faith in their Lord. In Henry’s story, they constantly risk their lives in numerous battles to save the imprisoned child slaves—the children of God who had suffered too long. In In the Realms of the Unreal, the Vivian girls transform into boys when engaging in battle with the Glandelinians. Darger illustrated this by adding male genitalia to the female figures. Many readers and observers of Darger’s work wonder why he chose to do this, especially since he mentioned in his diary that he saw women as the stronger gender.


Untitled, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


The Vivian girls seemed happy and oblivious towards their nakedness for the most part, but on other occasions, they experienced violent physical punishment from the Glandelinians while they were nude. This opposing imagery is extremely reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. The images of the Vivian girls being crucified by the evil Glandelinians are also very closely tied to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.


Native American Themes in In the Realms of the Unreal

Gigantic Roverine with Young All poisonous All islands of Universan seas and oceans. Also in Calverina Angelinia and Abbieannia, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


Stories of transformation, as well as of intelligent hybrid animals have circulated throughout culture for centuries, especially within Native American cultures. In In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger calls his half-human, half-snake creatures Blengiglomeneans, or just Blenglens. The Blenglens resemble large serpents, but they also have a rather angelic quality to them with their large wings. Some look more bird-like, while others look more like dragons. The Blenglens’ heads also tend to vary. Some have human heads, while others have heads of birds and cats.


Henry Darger’s Impact on Storytelling

175 At Jennie Richee. Everything is alright though storm continues, In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger, c. 1950. Source: The American Folk Art Museum, New York


With thoughtful observation, it becomes clear that Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal has a special place as a work inspired by classic novels, religious themes, and ancient Indigenous mythologies. There are also universal themes related to pain, trauma, grief, spirituality, and the fantastical. Henry Darger has left behind an expressive story about his life and the abuse he endured. In the Realms of the Unreal is a testimony to the multi-faceted richness of the human experience and the human spirit.

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By Isa GhanayemMFA Printmaking, BFA Studio ArtIsa Ghanayem is an artist and writer with focuses in printmaking, sculpture, photography, dance, sound, and installation. In 2019 she received her B.F.A. in Studio Art at Loyola University Chicago. In 2023 Isa received her MFA in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design. Isa has exhibited her work in Illinois, Rhode Island, and New Mexico, as well as in Greece. Isa’s writing interests include outsider artists, Middle Eastern art, European Prehistoric art, and printmaking throughout history and into the present.