LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Socialist Themes in Five Children and It

on April 4, 2013 1:13pm

As we discussed in class on Tuesday, Edith Nesbit (as well as her husband) was an active proponent of socialism. Well-known in political circles, Nesbit was never secretive as to her political alignment. It is somewhat unsurprising, then, that her most well known novel, Five Children and It, contains many themes of and allusions to socialism and the “socialist agenda”.

FiveChildren

Some of these moments are concrete and explicit, however subtle; as we mentioned in class, the litany of “grown up” wishes is clearly one that favors at least some degree of socialism or a welfare state. While this likely went over the heads of young readers, it is often those messages that resound most lastingly; because we cannot remember them to consider them, they go unchallenged in our lexicons.

An interesting example of a “socialist” wish that went awry is the children’s wish for their mother to receive all of the jewelry of another wealthy lady – clearly, this reallocation of wealth is one of the fundamental tenets of socialism. However, this wish ends in drama for the children and the adults that they depend on; this negative outcome is not one that one would believe a socialistically inclined author to orchestrate.

However, even more than these moments I believe that the entire message and idea of the book is based around socialist ideals and practice. The children are often seen to be making wishes for others than themselves, and ultimately, their final wish is one for the Psammead himself. This idea – of using one’s fortune to help those who have no fortune – is a part of a fundamental socialist ideology. While it is not one of the concrete ideals that she mentions (mandatory second education, for example), it goes beyond the mundane and captures the essence of what socialism is designed to be.

nesbit

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One response to “Socialist Themes in Five Children and It

  1. bkfining says:

    Great post, Athena!

    I agree that socialist themes are present in Five Children and It, along with the other two books in Nesbit’s Psammead trilogy. This is highly apparent in Nesbit’s descriptions of London’s society and culture, which function more as critiques, really, than descriptions. In the beginning of the very first chapter, Nesbit states,

    “For London is like prison for children, especially if their parents are not rich. Of course there are the shops and theatres, and entertainments and things, but if your people are rather poor you don’t get taken to the theatres, and you can’t buy things out of the shops; and London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves—such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape—all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things.”

    This characterization of London notes not only the ugliness and melancholy of modern-day (modern-day when the book was written, anyway) London, but also notes that this drabness is heightened by London’s social stratification, for those in circumstances similar to the children’s. With this in mind, it is easy to see how many of the children’s wishes can be seen almost as a search for a socialist utopia. For example, their wish to be rich sought to improve their material conditions. Their wish for wings sought to allow them to relocate from the drab, sameness of their current location.

    However, while the escape from gentrified London can be seen as following a socialist theme, though, the fact that the majority of the children’s wishes are selfish puts many examples in opposition with this theme. Can this just be chalked up to the fact that children are inherently selfish, because they don’t no better? Or, is Nesbit seeking to play devil’s advocate and provide a counterargument to her socialist theme? I think that both of these are at play, here. Children are often depicted as a little self-interested, by nature. I think that Nesbit is using this though, in order to make people think. If Nesbit’s story only injected one view, much of it could be lost on the audience, but her use of counter-examples makes the audience really think about which view they most agree with.

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