LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Transcending The Garden

Similar to many of my classmates, I too read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s acclaimed children’s novel The Secret Garden during my childhood. However, when gleaning over its pages as a more educated college student, I now see that this entertaining memory from my youth is riddled with a vast array of Christian sentiment and philosophical thought. Chief amongst the novel’s widespread display of symbolic allusions would be the undeniable Transcendentalist influences which arise repeatedly throughout the adventures of Mary, Colin and Dickon in The Secret Garden.

Let me meditate on it for a little while

Let me meditate on it for a little while

Firstly, this claim begs the question as to what the term “Transcendentalist” entails? The Transcendentalist Movement was a philosophical phenomenon which arose during the early part of the 19th century. Supporters of the movement believed that having a close relation with nature and one’s inner self would in turn allow a person to become closer to God. This train of thought became widespread due to the literary leaders whom supported its message, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This unyielding belief in the goodness of humanity and the benefit of having a relationship with nature appear on numerous occasions throughout the novel.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The most powerful examples of this would be the physical, mental, and emotional healing powers of the Secret Garden itself. As Colin spends more and more time in the Garden, his health begins to improve drastically. His immersion in nature becomes complete when he final frees himself of his wheelchair and stands on his own two feet inside the Garden’s walls. This is symbolic of Nature’s ability to improve a person’s health and allow them to become self-reliant. Much like Colin, Mary also become less “sickly” as she spends more time in the Garden, thus adding more support for the Transcendentalist theory. This complete submission to the beauty of nature heals the children mentally and emotionally as well. Just as the vines forever grow over the walls of the Garden, the children’s friendships grow stronger along with them.

Now thats what I call a Garden

Now thats what I call a Garden

Another instance of Transcendentalist symbolism would be the character of Dickon. Dickon is described as a being that is perfectly at peace with nature.  In addition to being a child of the Moor, he is consistently described with diction relating to nature and has a strong connection with the animals that occupy the grounds. Because the author portrays Dickon as a character with a positive connotation, he serves as the strongest symbolic support for Transcendentalist theory in the novel.

He even looks earthly

He even looks earthly

Lastly, Transcendentalism was at its very core a religious mentality. The Secret Garden is a novel that derives its message from the deeper insights of the Christian Science and New Thought movement. Because these two movements share similar values, The Secret Garden provides a powerful support for the theory of Transcendentalism as a result.

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Why Do Girls Grow Up?

Why is it that girls are always the characters in stories that are expected to “grow up?” In J. M. Barrie’s famous masterpiece Peter Pan, gender plays a paramount role in deciding the actions and paths of the characters.  Gender roles in our society define much of how we grow as people. For instance, boys are usually immature and childish in nature, while females are expected to handle a care-taking responsibility far earlier in life than their gender’s counterparts. These gender roles are consistent stereotypes and serve as a reflection of the semi-sexist culture of modern day society.

In Peter Pan, Peter originally brings Wendy to Neverland because he wishes to provide a mother figure for both himself and his troop of Lost Boys. While one would assume that Peter would then take on the role of the father figure, this happens to be far from the case. Peter, like many young boys, rejects the responsibility of adulthood and in turn places the weight of such responsibility on Wendy’s shoulders alone. Is there no one else who thinks this is ridiculously sexist? Am I the only one screaming in the glass box here? It is absurd that Wendy, a child of the same age as Peter, should be forced to assume the role as mother while Peter sits idly by and enjoys the perks of never having to go through puberty.

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Have you seen this missing child?

I believe this contrast between Peter and Wendy is a reflection of Barrie’s personal beliefs pertaining to gender roles in society. Peter represents the stereotypical male by proving to be cocky, immature, and “boyish,” while Wendy acts as the quintessential embodiment of how a woman is supposed to act. Although the story is meant to be a lighthearted fairytale, this drastic difference in gender roles very much upsets me. Wendy was essentially stolen from her home, whisked off to some far away land, and is forced to act as a mom for a bunch of rowdy snot nosed kids. This sounds eerily like how many marriages would play out during the time this novel was written, considering that women were married very young and were expect to immediately start taking care of a family.

This does not look fun

This does not look fun

Most revolting of all, Barrie supports this sexism by making the story have a happy ending! By portraying Wendy as accepting of the roles thrust upon her Barrie is creating an image of how a woman should act to the young girls who read his novel. In this regard, his piece, while written for entertainment, serves as a catalyst for the continuation of sexism in modern day society.

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Oz: A Backward Society?

The world we live in today is fast. Everyone is looking to drive the fastest car, make the quickest buck, and take the shortest route to success. In society’s unyielding pursuit of happiness and their own denomination of the “American Dream,” humanity has looked toward outside factors as a judge of individual success. A person’s worth is often defined by their wealth, their career, or any other materialistic factors which we deem as being ”successful.” However, it is very rare that we weigh a person’s worth based solely on that individuals character. Intelligence, compassion, and bravery are all values engrained in us as children, but are swept aside for money and materials as we grow older. Anyone who does not believe in this “progressive” ideology is deemed as backward thinking by our society. Nonetheless, in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz these are the true judges of success and power.

In The Wizard of Oz, the characters that are native to the land prove that this society values intangible factors above all else. The Scarecrow desires a brain, which is the physical manifestation of intellect. He wishes to be relevant, and knows that intelligence will help him achieve his goal rather than simply asking to be important. The Tin Man longs for a heart, for he longs for love and the ability to feel compassionate. This value is particularly alien to our society, considering that often times to be successful in business a person must separate heart and action. Finally, the Lion asks for courage because it takes bravery to make it through life. He simply wants the courage to face his problems, rather than asking for his problems to be solved for him. Each of these characters could have asked the wizard for any type of wondrous riches, but instead they searched for the intangible social traits that Oz values. These characteristics would help them achieve their goals through hard work, instead of asking for their desires to be handed to them.

On the other hand, the Wizard of Oz, being from our world, represents all too well the values of our society. His entire act is a sham of smoke and illusion. He is simply a con-man looking for the easy path to success. Just like our society, he does express redeeming qualities, but above all else he truly wants an empty, fast track to a “successful” life.

OZ3

L. Frank Baum uses these beloved characters to impart his beliefs upon his child readers as to how he believes humanity should judge success. By creating characters these children love, he encourages them to emulate their values and enact them in their own lives. In this regard, Baum uses the “backwards” society of Oz to push our fiscally progressive society in a morally progressive direction.

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“Ah, that’s the Great Puzzle”

When pondering the tumultuous and hectic period of human development  known as adolescence, one could not define the term better than F. Scott Fitzgerald  when he said, “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Pieces of children’s literature constantly employ the use of nonsense and fairy worlds to impart messages to the children who read their pages: however, at the pinnacle of silliness and contradiction, Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland stands paramount amongst the canon. Through Alice’s trials and tribulations in Wonderland, the author creates a rational allegory out of irrational scenarios and examines the intricacies of an event children both fear and revere: growing up.

Dream me a little dream

Dream me a little dream

From the very beginning of his novel, Carroll separates Alice from the Victorian Era society she has been raised in and plunges her into the depths of Wonderland. However, this begs the question as to what is Wonderland? In reality Alice falls asleep, thus suggesting that Wonderland is a dream and all the events she experiences are merely machinations of her subconscious. This departure from reality begins even before she fully enters her dream, as she claims to see a fully clothed white rabbit speaking English as she dozes off. This represents the separation of Alice from the real world and her initial plunge into the depths of her unfiltered personality.

Do these people look like they care about laws?

Do these people look like they care about laws?

Now that Alice is firmly separated from the conforming pressures of English society, Carroll uses the illogical laws of Wonderland to represent Alice’s capacity for permanent self-realization. One instance of this would be when Alice falls from a great height, but is unharmed despite the fact that the fall would have killed her in the real world. From this point on, Alice accepts the laws of Wonderland and does not view height as life threatening anymore. This represents Alice’s own personal self-discovery when left unchecked by the conforming demands of Victorian Era England.

Time to put on that new addition the've been thinking about

Time to put on that new addition they’ve been thinking about

Carroll fully cements his comparison between Alice’s encounters in Wonderland and adolescence early on when Alice is faced with the problem of growing taller and smaller. She constantly grows to different heights and cries in frustration because she is unable to enter the garden. This represents a child’s aggravating confusion with the contradictions of growing older and not yet being old enough. The sporadic growth spurts would then support this notion as they literally symbolize the awkward physical transformation a child undergoes during puberty.

Above all else, Alice herself best defines the intentions of Carroll’s novel. The contradicting fluidity of the laws that govern Wonderland cause Alice to question her identity in the same way children question their identity during adolescence. These circumstances eventually lead her to ask, “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle” (Chapter 2). Carroll’s understanding of children’s psychology is displayed in full force here, as this quote defines the very essence of his novel. Childhood is, by definition, a period of self-discovery. By separating Alice from reality and locking her in the depths of her own mind the author allows for her to embark upon the journey all children take in their lifetimes: piecing together the great jigsaw that is their own personality.

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Real Princesses Have Faith

What is faith? The dictionary defines the word faith as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something, despite a lack of physical proof or evidence. While the definition may seem simple enough, those tiny five letters when strung together in such succession, emit a power so awesome that they can both unite the world and burn it to the ground. Regardless of its frightening capacity to incite hate, the moralistic value of faith is a common concept found in children’s literature and media. The most notable example from my own childhood would be the famous line from the movie The Santa Clause, in which an adorable little elf remarks that ‘Seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing.” Despite the modern reference, these early attempts to instill the concept of faith in the youth can be found in many early children’s novels. One such instance would be the religious allegory that unfolds in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.

Your daily dose of nostalgia

Your daily dose of nostalgia

The strongest example of religious symbolism in MacDonald’s piece is undoubtedly the character of Grandmother. Irene first meets Grandmother because she grows bored of her toys and finds herself lost when exploring the house, causing her to become distraught. This represents how one may become lost in the world and must abandon wantonly materialistic values in order to find God. When Irene meets Grandmother for the first time she is described using words such as “smooth” and “white;” both of which suggest innocence and divinity.

Doesn't get more God-like than that

Doesn’t get more God-like than that

Christian obedience is a major motif found in the work. This can be characterized by Irene’s absolute compliance with all of Grandmother’s requests, even if they make no sense at the time. Nonetheless, her submission to Grandmother’s will ultimately protects her from harm, as exemplified by the opal ring Grandmother gives Irene. Grandmother charges Irene to follow the invisible string and despite the fact that the thread leads her into dangerous predicaments, it eventually delivers her to safety.  MacDonald is suggesting that even when life becomes difficult, one must remain faithfully obedient to God to achieve salvation. The author also uses the ring to touch the debate regarding God’s existence through Curdie’s claim that the thread is not real because he cannot see it.

One Ring To Rule Them All

One Ring To Rule Them All

Another example of MacDonald’s focus on obedience can be found in the scene where Irene first meets Grandmother. Grandmother tells Irene to come inside the room and MacDonald goes on to say, “that the princess was a real princess you might see now quite plainly; for she didn’t hang on to the handle of the door, and stare without moving…She did as she was told, stepped inside the door at once, and shut it gently behind her”(Chapter 3). Throughout the piece the author constantly refers to Irene as “a real princess.” Curiously enough, all the traits embodied by a “real princess” are congruent with the morality of the Christian religion. Therefore, by painting Irene with the positive connotation of a “real princess” the author is cleverly outlining an exact blueprint of the manners in which Christian children should act. It is through these characters that MacDonald creates a hidden Christian allegory which imparts the moral concept of religious faith upon the children who read its pages.

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Fille Fatale: From Little Red to Locked and Loaded

Most people in American culture are familiar with the phrase “Femme Fatale.” Whether you are a Brittany Spears fan or are knowledgeable in the European literature where the term originated, the French phrase for “deadly woman” has become synonymous with the growing Feminist culture that has come to redefine modern day society.

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You say seductive? I say sizing up ways to kill me.

This trend has been chronicled most notably in pop culture: and even more specifically with the rise of the vampire phenomenon that strikes fear into the hearts of boyfriends all across the nation: TwilightHowever, this gradual rise in feminine independence, and even superiority over men, has been detailed in the historic changes of the classic school age fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

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This is right before she turns into a green, hulking monster.

The earliest examples of  “Little Red Riding Hood” portray the protagonist as the atypical female character. In his version of the tale Charles Perrault describes Little Red as “Pretty, well-bred, and genteel,” which is hardly comparable to the Little Red Riding Hood we see in a feminist conscious modern day society (13). Nonetheless, the legendary storyteller uses his moralistic tale as a metaphor: not to warn women of the dangers of wolves, but more so the dangers of men. He relates wolves to men by describing some wolves as, “perfectly charming,
Not loud, brutal, or angry,
But tame, pleasant, and gentle…But watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves Are the most dangerous of all.” While his tale does serve as a moral for women to be cautious of the devious duplicity of men, the protagonist still acts as only a cautionary character and must submit to her fate as an example.

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The original poster girl for “Child Neglect”

Fast forward 285 years later to Roald Dahl’s depiction of this “damsel in distress” and the reader finds a much different tale. Rather than being eaten by the wolf as an example for her gender, Little Red empowers herself as she “whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead” (22). Therefore, if Dahl is adhering to the tale’s usual depiction of the wolf representing man, then in this instance the tables have turned. By the end of the 20th century the literary progression of the so called “classic” tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” acts as a literal “mirror mirror on the wall” for the society in which it is interpreted. The modern Little Red is a younger version of the deadly woman, a “fille fatale,” and this textual shift directly correlates to the societal shifts that define this time period.

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Come at me bro.

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David Costello Introduction

Hello my name is David Costello. I am a third year English major pursuing a minor in both Educational Studies and History. As of right now I’m Pre-Law, but I kept the Educational Studies minor just in case I decide I might want to teach in the future. After graduating I hope to attend to be attending law school at UF and eventually would like to find myself working in the front office of a Major League Baseball organization.

I took this class for a multitude of reasons. Ever since I became an English major at UF I have always wanted to take classes that focus on a canon outside of my comfort zone. I have always been very fond of American Literature, so I have tried to broaden my horizons with British Lit, Caribbean Lit, Romantic Poetry, and other classes that expand my knowledge of the language. With this in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to take a class that focuses on a canon of literature that I had read in my youth, but never fully understood for its value. I am ecstatic to both relive my childhood through these novels, as well as learn new information from them that may have passed over my head at a younger age. I particularly am excited to deeply look “through the looking glass” into Alice In Wonderland, as it is one of my favorite childhood books.

When I think of the term “children’s literature” I specifically think of books I read as a child. However, from the first few days of this course I have already learned that this term encompasses a wide and complex variety of definitions. When I think of the term “Golden Age” I think of a time in history where the world was believed to be “morally good.” I am intrigued to see how these books reflect this sentiment and how they match values with the “Golden Age” during which they were written. Attached is my picture as requested.Image

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