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Examining The Image Of Childhood English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3427 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When considering the conception of childhood, it is important to bear in mind that the way writers depict children in their work depends on their own concepts of childhood, which in turn will be determined by their personal histories and their attitudes to the present audience of children.

Alcott’s depiction of the March family, for example is firmly grounded in the real world of commerce, marriage and materialism. The cheerful March family portrayed in Little Women is also based on real people, an idealised recreation of Alcott’s own family. The overt messages of family love and domestic stability are presented throughout the text, with the family and home seen as a refuge from the harshness and uncertainty of the external world. Although Alcott encompasses the girls with several aspects of the romantic view of children: physical beauty, innocence, personality, and honourable spirit, they do not have innate perfection. Each of the girls has a character fault: Meg’s vanity, Jo’s temper, Amy’s selfishness, and Beth’s shyness, which they must struggle to overcome. The combination of parental guidance and the didactic Puritan text Pilgrim’s Progress are the ways in which the girls learn the necessary lessons of life. When Marmee allows the girls a break from doing their usual household chores, they soon learn that no happiness can come from neglecting the simple duties of domesticity. At the end of the experiment, they admit their mistake, but Marmee, like earlier model parents, spells out the lesson anyway: ‘I wanted you to see how the comfort of all depends on each doing her share faithfully. . . Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for every one; it keeps us from . . . mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion’ (Alcott 200?[1868], p. 115). Marmee is constantly in control of her daughters’ learning, whether in work or morals. Little Women underlines the natural dominance of the parent over the child, as well as celebrating the family and family values. Even if Alcott’s girls are not entirely romantic children, the book itself can be placed in the developing romantic strain in children’s fiction.

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Kirsty Cochrane cites Arthur Ransome as saying that his characters had ‘no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality . . . I and they slipped in and out of . . . the “real” life of the explorers and pirates half a dozen times in a chapter’ (Cochrane, 1993). The novel is, as Ransome freely acknowledges, a reconstruction of his own childhood, with ‘all the bits that might have been ever so much better’ added to the ‘best bits’ which had actually occurred (Cochrane, 1993). Anna Bogen points out that ‘the book takes the form of a traditional island adventure story’ drawing on the influences of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, as well as Barrie’s Peter Pan and the imaginary Never Land (Bogen, p. 194). Certainly, it is an extraordinary fantasy where adults are ‘natives’ and adult concerns are for the most part disregarded (the children don’t where life jackets) and the make-believe world of sailors and pirates becomes the children’s ‘reality’. A child-centred depiction of imagination is certainly evident in the charms of Roger, first seen running zig-zag up a field, pretending to be a ship tacking into the wind, and the imaginative Titty who at various times pretends she’s a cormorant or Robinson Crusoe, and whose unexpected daring saves the day on more than one occasion. Theirs is an ‘idyllic playground’ with ‘hills, that ring the lake . . . [and] heather covered slopes above the woods’ (Hunt(b), p. 180). As Hunt points out, the countryside in literature is a place for children, and readers, to escape the corruptions of the modern world. It has long been seen as ‘redemptive and pure’ and therefore natural for writers to use it to ‘preserve a wholesome, conservative idea of childhood’ (Hunt(a) p. 76 – 77).

Ransome’s world is one in which innocence is very much to the fore: there is no sexual interest and no realistic violence to introduce unwelcome adult concepts into the innocent idyll. Tucker comments that Ransome ‘avoids sexuality by concentrating on child characters as proto-type seamen and adventurers’ (Tucker(b) ?).

Reynolds (2010) notes that for most of the twentieth-century, there was an ‘unwritten code of practice’ regarding the content of children’s literature, which was not set by children themselves but by ‘what . . . librarians, parents and teachers wanted to see in the books they gave to children’ (Reynolds, 2010). This resulted in the exclusion of sex, violence and ‘bad’ language; Reynolds cites Rose (1984) as saying that the imposition of these boundaries had ‘much less to do with children’s tastes and development than with adult needs’ (Reynolds, 2010) and their desire to present a specific image of childhood. Whether or not children did indeed manifest a ‘fragile innocence’, this was the image preferred by adults, and the one perpetrated as an ideal in the fiction which children were permitted to read. Although the story stays well within the ‘boundaries’ described by Reynolds, positive aspects of impending adulthood, like the learning of skills or the development of independence, are carefully interwoven into the narrative and presented favourably. One might perhaps compare it to CS Lewis’ exclusion of Susan, in the later Narnia books: emotional and spiritual growth are praised in the other children, but not in Susan who, it is inferred, has become interested in the adult world of sexuality. Ransome contrives to ignore the more down-to-earth realities of adult life, and his characters are comfortable, rather than sanctimonious, in their innocence. The intention to return to the island every year ‘for ever and ever’ comes from the worldview of a child: the understanding that whether they return or not, is that of an adult.

However, Reynolds also notes that ‘precisely because children’s books . . . were generally assumed to be good for children’ they were able to ‘fly under the cultural radar and . . . cross any number of official and unofficial boundaries’ (Reynolds, 2010): she cites the preservation of the left-wing thinking in the US under McCarthy as a notable example. The ‘aura of purity’ which typified children’s literature could conceal a ‘wild zone’ in which there was ‘space for dissenters of all kinds’ (Reynolds, 2010). This ‘space for dissension’, especially in regard to gender roles, is examined in some detail by Ken Parille in his critique of Little Women. Sara Wadsworth comments that nineteenth -century stories for girls consisted ‘largely of sugar-coated lessons in morality and femininity’ and despite the comparative freedom which Alcott allows her characters in terms of analyzing and critiquing social norms and constructs of gender, they eventually return full circle to conformity (Wadsworth, 2010). Parille argues that although the main critical focus has always been on the March girls and the social construct of femininity, we should also look closely at the parallel development of Laurie, and his conflict with the social construct of masculinity. Jo remarks wistfully on several occasions that boys are ‘jolly’ and have a ‘capital time’, but in fact, Laurie does not. He is deterred from his preferred career as a musician, first by his grandfather and then by Amy, who castigates those qualities in him which she perceives as ‘feminine’, saying ‘instead of being the man you might and ought to be, you are only —–‘ (Alcott, p. 392). Laurie is steered into a conformist model of ‘manhood’ by Amy who persuades him that a ‘real man’ is physically powerful, energetic, virile and focused on business interests rather than the arts. Just as Jo is not allowed to manifest ‘masculine’ attributes, Laurie is not permitted ‘feminine’ ones. The ‘space for dissent’ in the text presents the potential for children to develop as individuals, rather than as adults wish them to, but the potential is never fulfilled. We are left with the impression that the ‘innocence’ of childhood, perhaps represented by the ‘castles in the air’ which the girls and Laurie create in their imagination, is a desirable state when young, and one in which all manner of fanciful ‘castles’ may be constructed. Adulthood, however, requires a loss of innocence and a growing knowledge and acceptance of the ‘real world’ in which men and women are obliged to adopt the roles set out for them by society. As Parille remarks, so much attention is paid to the juxtaposition of moralizing and subversion in the girls’ narratives, the fact that men are equally driven by conformity tends to be missed. As Sambell notes, Reeve also challenges social assumptions by reversing the male and female roles. Robbed of both her beauty and her childhood, Hester is an outsider, and defies many of the hallmarks of the romantic child: she is strong, independent, and knowing. She also has a somewhat shocking determination to kill, and carries a ‘knife in her belt’. For much of the narrative, Hester takes the role of the man, looking after Tom. When she catches him crying, she responds by saying ‘I never cry . . . I didn’t even cry when Valentine murdered my mum and dad’ (Reeve, p. 31). Tom In one scene he wets his pants when he first faces a Stalker.

As Hunt (2010) states, there was something of a revolution in children’s literature in the latter part of the twentieth-century, in that ‘the new world belongs to the children reading more than to the children’s writers’ (Hunt, 2010) or indeed to the adults responsible for purchasing books on behalf of children. And because literature was coming to reflect the reality, rather than the romanticism, of children’s lives, the idea was put forward that ‘childhood is not necessarily, or even commonly, a nice place to be’ (Hunt, 2010). The idyllic ‘safe space’ of Swallows and Amazons, even if it was based on the author’s own experience of childhood, was no longer perceived as typical. As Hunt says, adults, especially parents, were not represented as the source of stability and the fount of wisdom, but as ineffectual, even ‘violent or homicidal towards their children’ (Hunt, p. 80). In Junk for example, Tar’s home life is not very rosy: he has a violent father and an alcoholic mother. In the opening scenes, he’s a scared boy about to run away from home QUOTE. Burgess doesn’t skirt around difficult issues, serving his readers underage sex, prostitution and violence. The child as a hopeless and desperate figure is personified in Gemma and Tar, adolescent heroin addicts who must steal and prostitute themselves to survive. The fates of the characters are extreme: babies are born, arrests are made, the threat of overdoses and violence is always present.

Burgess comments that books written for teenagers which dealt with ‘modern concerns . . . such as sexuality, drug culture, family breakdowns’ portrayed these issues more realistically and honestly, but were still read by younger readers, rather than the teenagers to whom they were officially marketed. (Burgess, p. ?) Burgess suggests that one of the reasons teenagers rejected books which supposedly addressed ‘their’ issues and concerns was that such fiction continued to perpetrate a moral model in which there were clearly-defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, and a ‘happy ending’ for those on the side of moral rectitude. Literature about drug culture portrayed drugs as ‘a kind of dark force that turned ordinary well-meaning people into evil shadows, like the Nazgul’ who could only be ‘saved’ by an innocent who ‘escaped corruption themselves by the skin of their teeth’ (Burgess, p. 316). This, he asserts, was nothing more than a fantasy: in fact, very similar to the fiction of an earlier era in which childish innocence defeats the threat of evil from the adult world.

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The idea that children still need to be protected from literary works such as Junk remains. Idealising the child is much easier than confronting real children. But Junk was written from the premise that children are far more sophisticated than adults realise, and that childhood ‘innocence’, in line with Rose’s arguement, is something constructed by adults for their own comfort, rather than an aspect of the real world. Certainly, some of the events in the everyday life of children which Burgess describes are peculiar to modern society – six-year-olds watching adult films in the family home, for example. However, it is reasonable to assume that at all points in history, all but the most intensively-guarded children have been exposed to some degree of sex, violence and profanity long before they themselves reach adulthood. The idea that Junk ‘destroys children’s innocence’ is, says Burgess, a fallacy: there is no ‘innocence’ there to be destroyed. Much of the criticism levelled against the novel was that it refused to take a conventional moral stance: drug culture was not depicted as inherently good or evil, but simply as an integral part of the characters’ lives. As Burgess states, it depicted ‘people having a good time on drugs, all the fun of young people enjoying themselves, as well as the darker side – addiction, casualties, despair’ (Burgess, p. 316). The narrative was not constructed in a way that conveyed a moral message, in which childhood was invariably damaged or destroyed by drug use: it simply reflected the society of teenage drug users as the author himself had experienced it.

Reeve’s Mortal Engines, on the other hand, makes no claim to social realism: it is a science-fiction fantasy which incorporates many of the elements of the traditional adventure story. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the social order is one of ‘municipal Darwinism’: cities have become autonomous, predatory entities engaged in constant conflict in order to survive. As Dawson (2007) notes, Reeve uses parody and pastiche throughout the narrative, and takes ‘obvious delight in absurd and grotesque characters and situations’ (Dawson, 2007). Underlying the layers of parody and grotesquery, however, is a fairly standard bildungsroman narrative, one which follows the coming-of-age of the protagonist, and his transition to adulthood. The protagonist, Tom, goes through the conventional processes of developing personal moral values, learning to discern who is trustworthy and who is not, in a series of encounters with characters whose past histories and current motivations are often ambiguous. In some ways, it would seem to represent a return to an earlier model of children’s literature, despite the futuristic setting: we can certainly trace the influence of Treasure Island, for example, and one could argue that a progress from innocence to experience is present, rather than a depiction of childhood in which innocence does not exist at all. In addition, the genre distances the reader from their own experience: the concepts of childhood, adulthood and growth are presented in an allegorical form, rather than with the immediacy of a social-realist narrative such as Junk. But what is evident is a romantic faith in the ability of youth to improve the world; Tom and Hester’s growth implying hope for the future. The text expresses a progressive ideology as the innate goodness of Reeve’s heroes’ triumphs over the corrupting influence of their culture, with them ultimately emerging as metaphors for the need for social change. In this respect, Mortal Engines meets Reynolds criteria by encouraging readers to engage with new ideas and issues thereby preparing the way for social transformation.

We might conclude, then, that the romantic construct of childhood innocence can be seen as an adult invention, rather than an accurate representation of childhood as it really is. However, the extent to which this construct has been presented as a central element of children’s literature varies considerably, as does the degree of subversion which can be identified within the different texts. Nineteenth and early twentieth- century fiction protected ‘innocence’ by ensuring that adult attitudes and behaviours which were deemed ‘unsuitable’ for children were excluded from children’s literature, but we also see later examples of fiction which continued to focus on a ‘child’s world’, separate from that of adults, in which ‘unsuitable’ elements were still not to be found. As Hunt comments, it was only with the arrival of authors such as Blume and Cormier that the idealised model of the child, the family, and the school was explicitly undermined and challenged. Such literature was censured on the grounds that the reader’s innocence was being destroyed when in fact, the entire premise behind the narrative themes was that the majority of children did not inhabit an idyllic, Edenesque world in the first place. Burgess argues that the social realist novel is a more authentic and honest account of childhood than the romantic construction, and this is a valid point; on the other hand, we also have to consider the author’s own subjective perspective: Burgess is describing a world outside the mainstream with which he is personally familiar, but it is not the world of all children everywhere. It is reasonable to argue that any child who participates in normal social relationships will encounter sexuality and drug use, and that children’s literature should acknowledge this reality rather than substituting a fantasised, idealised world in which ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ are clearly delineated.

However, it is notable that Reeve’s futuristic, imaginative text, deliberately distanced from the harshness of social realism, has gained immense popularity, as have the works of Pullman and Rowling. The young protagonists may not be ‘innocent’ in the sense of unaware, asexual beings, but neither are they depicted as having experienced all the harsh realities of adulthood at an inappropriately early age. The focus is on their gradual maturation, and the acquisition of experience: it is not so much a loss of innocence as a gaining of wisdom. In addition, the dogmatic authorial voice is mostly absent: there are no thinly disguised moral homilies or lectures addressed to the reader, since the viewpoint is primarily that of the child protagonists themselves whose perception of ‘innocence’ is not the same as that of adults. Our opinion of the characters changes and develops as the protagonist himself matures, and we are not carefully steered towards, for example, a conventional social construct of masculine and feminine as we are in the dialogue between Amy and Laurie. In both the imaginative and the social realist texts, however, we see a similar sense of ambiguity. Endings are not conclusive, or even happy: Tom survives at the end of Mortal Engines, but Katherine does not; Harry Potter is left without any clear ethical direction; even the children in Swallows and Amazons are coming to recognise that some things may remain constant, but their own futures are unmapped and uncharted. Burgess’s characters are already in a state of flux, but as he says, to provide them with the prospect of a neatly-packaged happy ending would have shifted the whole narrative into the realms of fantasy, and reiterated an unrealistic image of childhood innocence which the novel is at pains to avoid.


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