LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Tom’s Baptism: Religious Themes and Symbolism in Water Babies

“…and then he heard the Irishwoman saying, “Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be.” And then he heard the church bells ring so loud, close to him, too, that he was sure it must be Sunday, in spite of what the old dame had said; and he would go to church and see what church was like inside, for he had never been to one, poor little fellow, in all his life…He must go to the river and wash first.” And he said out loud again and again, though being half asleep he did not know it, “I must be clean, I must be clean.” (Pg. 30 Kingsley

I chose to do a close reading of this excerpt for it proved to be a pivotal moment in the text with very religiously charged and symbolic themes.  I believe that this excerpt described or represented, for Tom, strong themes of baptism and salvation through Christianity.  In almost all religions and practices within the scope of Christianity, baptism is predominantly performed through the symbolic washing away of sins with water, essentially becoming clean. The definition of baptism as given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is actually,

“1. A Christian sacrament marked by ritual use of water and admitting the recipient to the Christian community

2. An act, experience, or ordeal by which one is purified, sanctified, initiated, or named.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/baptism)

     Multiple times throughout the text Kingsley referenced the fact that Tom was not religious and had not been brought up under a Christian hand, as evidenced when Tom tells the Irishwoman that he knows no prayers to say or, found in the aforementioned excerpt when Kinglsey called Tom a “poor little fellow” for having never been inside a church. (Pg. 30, Kingsley) In this novel it is evident that in order to become the good little Christian and British boy that Tom wants be, he must be saved and initiated into the church.  By Tom repeating again and again, “I must be clean, I must be clean” we know that he wants to be saved, he wants the sinner’s soot that has covered his body his whole life to be washed away, he wants to fulfill the prophecy of the Irishwoman that, “Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be.” (Pg. 30, Kingsley)   Just as in Christianity, those that wished to be saved will be saved even if it is through death.  I believe that when Tom entered the water and fell into “the quietest, sunniest, coziest sleep that ever he had in his life” it was, in actuality, an eternal sleep or death. (Pg. 32, Kingsley)   And it was through this sleep and the washing away of the soot that had blackened his body he was baptized and saved, the religious overtones in this scene are so heavy, not only unmistakably referenced by the water, the wish to be clean, and the sleep Tom entered, but the fact that the closer he got to the stream of deliverance the louder and louder the church bells in his head were ringing, as if he was getting closer and closer to church and God.

    These religious motifs and themes are predominant throughout Tom’s story and are continually alluded to, however, I think a powerful description or evidence of Tom’s true salvation is, near the end of the novel, when he finally reached Mr. Grimes who was toiling away sweeping chimneys without repentance, Tom “was surprised to see that the soot did not stick to his feet, or dirty them in the least.” (Pg. 180, Kingsley) The fact that the chimney’s soot that, during the novel, had been a mark of sin and immorality could not blacken Tom’s feet symbolizes and proves, to me, that Tom has truly been saved. It is through these significant scenes throughout Tom’s story, and especially within the passage of baptism and salvation excerpted above, that we see Tom’s journey is really one of redemption and salvation so he is able to go ‘home with Ellie on Sundays.” (Pg. 188, Kingsley)

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After reading the essay on canonization I was prompted to consider whether or not I would place/want to include The Water Babies into the canon. For me it was not whether or not the book is lacking interest, it has more to do with the content within the book.  The Water Babies promotes gender roles, racism, and social hierarchy.  These are outdated concepts that should not be continually given to children.

There are some very good lessons to be obtained by a child reading The Water Babies, such as “do not be lazy because your life will not turn out the way you may have hoped” and “treat others the way you want to be treated” are two very good lessons within this story.  However, racism is incredibly prevalent within the novel.  The chimney sweep Tom is called a “dirty black boy” while he is still working for Grimes.  This is a time when Tom is still dumb and has not learned the lessons, which will make him a more productive citizen.

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Even today we still hear the instructions, “boys will be boys” and “act like a lady.”  These phrases give allowances to boys for things such as being dirty, making a mess, fighting with other boys, and being loud and crazy.  However, oftentimes if a young girl were to do any of the above-mentioned actions she would be told to “act like a lady.”  As much as people like to think that things are equal and we do not apply the pressures of gender roles upon children still, this is not the case.  We are still priming boys to be tough and for girls to be quiet, submissive housewives.  This is seen in The Water Babies in several instances.  Ellie is a clean, quiet, young lady who is given a task to proof herself by teaching Tom.  Whilst, Tom is given the task of traveling all the way to the other end of nowhere where he encounters quite a few dangerous obstacles.  The gender roles being reinforced within the story could cause the children reading this book to fit themselves into these gender roles instead of following their own personality.

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The social classes are highlighted through the caste system Kingsley creates within the animals that Tom encounters.  Some examples of a social hierarchy can be seen first with the salmon.  Within different kinds of fish that we see the salmon are the kings of the fish and that trout are a species of fish that a salmon could be killed for if they decided to intermingle.  Also, the otter mother has a higher position since she will only eat food she deems worthy of her.  This promotes the idea of social classes to young children ,which causes difficulties with allowing children to be seen as worthy.

Perhaps, The Water Babies has a few good morals that young children can benefit from getting but it could also be at the cost of equality and self expression. The story is outdated, with references to things that children nowadays would not understand and with too many injustices against peoples other that the standard “white, British male.”   Therefore, it may be a good thing that The Water Babies is a story that is becoming forgotten.

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Little Red Riding Hood: Choosing the Right Path

After reading the stories regarding “Little Red Riding Hood,” I was really surprised about the underlying themes of sexuality and morality that I had completely overlooked when I was younger.  I simply remembered the story in terms of the lesson: don’t talk to strangers. However, now, I see much more complex and deeper aspects – specifically, the recurring image of choosing the right path.

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I was extremely taken aback by “The Story of Grandmother.” I had never read this version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and I seriously question if this particular story should be read to children. After eating the meat of her dead grandmother, Red Riding Hood removes all her clothing and actually climbs naked into bed with the wolf. Clearly, there is the implicit notion of sex and the danger of men. Although Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” does not involve the removal of clothing, the little girl does indeed climb into bed with the wolf and ends up being devoured by the beast. Again, the wolf entices (more like seduces) the young girl into bed with him.

In both of these tales, I found it interesting that they included the notion of “paths.” The wolf asks Red Riding Hood which path she will be taking to go to her Granny’s house. She divulges her route and the wolf arrives at the home before her. In my opinion, these repeated ideas of “paths” symbolizes morality and choosing the correct way of life. Unfortunately, Little Red Riding Hood strays from the path of righteousness, loses her innocence, and gets punished by the wolf. This notion of being a good, virtuous girl is also found in Grimm’s version. Red Riding Hood does not follow her mother’s rules and wanders off the path. She is again consumed by the wolf and regrets not listening to her mother.

Generally, I was taught the moral of “Little Red Riding Hood” was do not talk to strangers. Now, I see that there are much more complex implications: the dangers of men, loss of innocence, immorality and sexuality, importance of obeying one’s parents, and choosing the righteous path. This article also explores some more complex meanings in “Little Red Riding Hood.” What I once thought was a cut and dry, simple tale is actually a very significant story with very intricate meanings.

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Why I Do Not Consider The Water-Babies a Work of Children’s Literature

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It is well-documented that Charles Kingsley wrote The Water-Babies for his youngest son in 1863. While one of his goals was to instill a moral theme, the Golden Rule, for his child to abide by, I, for one, do not think that children should be the intended audience for this text. I feel this way because the text is rife with contradictions and assumptions. The majority of children are unable to garner the true meaning of this text by simply reading the words.

Contradiction seems to be the most observable theme of this text. While it causes chaos from the reader’s end, it is only stabilized by the very neutrality of Tom’s character. There are contradictions of evolution versus Christianity, and influences of good and evil, all of which are complete oppositions. The contradictions presented are more subtextual than overt. For example, the whole world of “water-babies” can be interpreted as a metaphor for an afterlife, yet within the afterlife, the creatures are subjects to evolution. I, for one, do not believe religion and science can coexist because they challenge each other.   Also, Mr. Grimes, Tom’s master, is a malicious figure who seems to indoctrinate Tom with a sense of “evil is right”. However, while Tom’s mind is still malleable, he encounters the Irishwoman, an amalgamation of different characters in one, who represents themes of goodness and purity. These ‘lessons’ are subjected to Tom, who is a perfect example of a tabula rasa, a blank slate, because his unique upbringing caused him to be a perfectly unadulterated figure.

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Kingsley takes a very unusual and questionable position in this text. He assumes that the reader is ‘untouched’ and liberated from ‘commitment’.  That’s very rare to find at his time period, because most children are indoctrinated, in a sense,  to be committed to some ideology, mostly Christianity.  For example, as he narrates the story, he speculates about mere existence. He mentions that anything conceivable that is not visible or tangible, cannot be dismissed or that it cannot be contrary to Nature.  Judging solely off this, it seems as if this text was perfectly written for an Agnostic, which practically a very infinitesimal amount of children are aware of that word or the meaning of it. While I strongly agree that children are very efficient at questioning, they are incapable of deep introspection and contemplation of lifelong questions.

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It is because of Kingsley’s wide use of contradiction and assumption, that this text cannot be classified as children’s literature.  While I appreciate the equal level of deliverance of Christianity versus evolution, I feel that both are subjects that are more appropriate for a certain maturity for appropriate contemplation and evaluation. This text seems very thought-provoking for an adolescent or adult because of the grander meaning of the text instead of what is physically written. That is why I feel this text is best classified under speculative fiction, because of its combinatorial essence of scientific elements and supernatural aspects.

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The Water Babies: A Guidebook for the Growing Gentleman

In The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley writes to children, particularly boys, about the story of Tom and his decisions in life that ultimately cause him to become a well-rounded and good adult. Kingsley instructs children through the utilization of many small lessons, which can be found throughout the book. For each encounter that Tom faces, there is a simple lesson to be learned for young boys.

In analyzing The Water Babies as a teaching tool, it is important to note that Kingsley wrote this story for a particular age group in the early 1860’s. Featured in Macmillan’s Magazine, this children’s story was an educational piece directed to Kingsley’s main audience: children. However, it is obvious that young girls are not included in this audience because Tom is a boy and his adventures are similar to situations that young British boys would likely encounter.

As for the actual lessons, Kingsley cleverly puts them in the text through Tom’s encounters with people and animals. For example, one of the first morals in the story involves religious salvation. The Irishwoman teaches Tom that those who wish to be clean will be. In this case, Kingsley is writing about the necessity of young boys to have the right heart that seeks to be spiritually clean. The feeling of wanting to be clean will enable them to reach salvation, just as it did Tom, who then left his fleshly body behind and became a water baby.

Another notable lesson is where Tom saves his lobster friend from a trap. This unselfish act of kindness is the trigger that allows Tom to see the other water-babies because it is necessary for Tom to have the right attitude. The lesson for young men is to do good to others in order to be a proper gentleman.

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Tom helping the lobster out of a trap.

A third lesson to be noted is when Tom must help Grimes, his mortal enemy, in order to become a human man again. The moral is simple because Kingsley is admonishing young men to help all people and have the right attitude to them, regardless of who they are and how many flaws they may have. Only when Tom realizes this can he have the chance as a totally grown and mature man.

Therefore, the obvious audience for this story when it was written was young British boys. However, since it’s creation in 1863, both the adults and children have changed drastically. Now, parents are not likely reading The Water Babies to their young children. Instead, the audience of this piece of children’s literature is for academic scholars, including university students. It appears that The Water Babies is important to analyze because of the many themes associated with it. Also, Kingsley was one of the very first authors to come up with this particular type of literature and much can be gleaned from studying his writing methods. Thus, the audience of The Water Babies changes as time moves on.

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The Water Babies: Tom’s Coming of Age

An interesting diagram that can be interpreted as the wavering nature of coming-of-age.

In our lives, we grow, develop, and mature both mentally and physically every day in a variety of ways. Because of this, readers of literature naturally gravitate towards works focusing upon character development and evolution. A particular sub-genre, the coming-of-age story, usually chronicles a young boy or girl as they face external and internal conflicts and how those develop and mature their personalities and world-views. In Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, our protagonist Tom morphs into a water-baby and learns more about his faults and how to correct them over the course of the story, and by the conclusion both literally and figuratively transforms into an adult.

When Tom begins his journey, his demeanor reflects a quintessentially immature young boy, reflected by his habits of agitating innocent animals, prioritizing himself over others, and disobeying the rules of his adult figures. In most coming-of-age stories, the protagonist gradually learns how to sympathize, understand, and rationalize. Although Tom’s maturity slowly grows, he tends to retreat back to his poor behaviors, even after experiencing pivotal moments in his life. Early in the story, Tom initially fails to find any other water babies. After saving a lobster from a fisherman’s trap, the water babies greet him and introduce him to their home and adult figures, who congratulate him upon his refined sense of empathy. However, later in the story Tom steals sweets from Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, (a loving, generous adult figure) a clear sign that he has yet to truly mature. This regression indicates the difference between Kingsley’s coming-of-age story and the multitude of stories written by other authors; Kingsley suggests Tom cannot mature through one event and must continue to compromise morality in order to truly reach a point of complete ethical sensibility.

Who could steal from this loving woman?!

Another interesting difference in Kingsley’s coming-of-age story is how Tom ultimately matures as an adult. In most coming-of-age stories, a conflict’s conclusion that naturally occurs within the story serves as the impetus for the protagonist’s realizations and subsequent maturation. For Tom, he is ordered to save Mr. Grimes in order to grow from a boy into a man. Although he saves Mr. Grimes and learns more about himself and his capability to empathize, the fact that it was a dictated rite-of-passage from one of his adult figures diminishes the impact of his growth and implies that Tom would have never developed unless placed under the guidance of an adult figure. He also literally becomes a full-grown man at the conclusion of the story, a not-so-subtle indication from Kingsley that Tom has indeed matured. Most coming-of-age stories usually have the child only figuratively mature, but Kingsley probably included the detail to make the premise more apparent to younger readers.

In the end he gets the girl!

Overall, Kingsley’s unique approach to the coming-of-age story through Tom showcases a respectable understanding of the sub-genre and serves as a fitting guideline for children and parents alike.

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The Little Mermaid’s Character Quest for Immortality

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In Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Little Mermaid, we are given a poignant portrayal of a young girl’s superficial search for love and freedom, juxtaposed with an intrinsic quest for an immortal soul. It is this quest, Anderson suggests, which is an internal need and hope for our heroine. On the surface, the story is an aching narrative of silent despair and unrequited love. The little mermaid sacrifices her family and the only home she has ever known, to obtain only the friendship of the prince and have to mutely watch him sign her death warrant as he marries someone else.

The little mermaid (it is taking serious restraint for me not to call her Ariel) is a character of conflicting traits. Largely, the girl beneath the sea is completely different than the girl above the sea. The implications of her actions down below tell us certain things about her character: For years she pines for her fifteenth birthday so that she can see the world above- passionate; she puts herself in substantial danger by saving the prince from the shipwreck- brave; she leaves her entire family and her home for an unknown land where her very existence hangs in the balance- daring, and perhaps a little foolish; she thinks nothing of how her departure will affect her family- not wrong by any means, but definitely a selfish characteristic . The picture that these details conjure in our heads, a modern heroine’s illustration to be sure, are proved time and time again to be wrong once she reaches the land. The little mermaid makes no gestures to win over the prince. She is devoted to him, but any traces of her passions are gone. She seems content to watch him look at her as simply a friend, and to marry someone else. Logic seems to suggest she would find another means to communicate with him yet no measures are taken. She is as thoughtful as she always was, yet now she is selfless and a figure of quiet suffering and pain. In the end, she sacrifices her own life and saves her prince who ignorantly ruined her life. The passionate daring child of the sea is gone, replaced by a young woman who has experienced great heartbreak.

This journey of character, and the very end of the Anderson’s story, suggests greatly that the little mermaid’s life has been a quest for an immortal soul.. The trials she experiences as a human—her tongue being cut out by the sea witch, the pain and mutilation of her tail into legs, that each steps she takes will feel as if she is walking on knife points—these experiences are the quintessential example of obstacles set before a hero on a quest. And it is these obstacles that prompt the question For what? The answer to this is not the humanly reward of love or earthly happiness, but instead the heavenly hope of an afterlife. She is given three hundred years to become pure, with the eventual pay off, if she works hard enough, being the obtainment of a soul. If she is virtuous, she can achieve a fate greater than becoming sea foam, thoughtlessly floating on the waves. This, I believe, is what Anderson is attempting to relay to children. That the little mermaid was a soulless creature who cast aside passion and selfishness to live a life of piety and quiet self-sacrifice so that she may gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven. And most importantly—she did not obtain this opportunity by snaring a husband, but instead by self-sacrifice and silent devotion to virtue. Attempting to find a happy motivation in this story is impossible and I am at a loss as to why Anderson would inflict the idea of such quiet suffering on children. But it is clear through his writing that the little mermaid’s journey from the sea to the land, and ultimately to the sky and heaven, is one of great depth and religious meaning.

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Fairy Tales: Symbolizing What’s Relevant

Fairy tale origins arguably display a clearer sense of a historical period and its ideological traits of highest importance better than any other texts.  The symbolism masked behind stories of regular, everyday individuals encountering unusual situations or magic can explain to a reader vividly the state of the specific society and its social structures.  It was stated throughout our text’s introduction at various points that fairy tales were often used as an oral tradition in which families and close-knit groups would gather round to alleviate the anxiety of a stressful work day while simultaneously entertaining each other and teaching valuable lessons to children about morals rooted in fantastic stories of similar characters encountering magical creatures and adventure.  Maria Tatar also warned readers to not become too preoccupied with uncovering symbolism seemingly blanketed across various generations as said symbolism could fluctuate in its relevance to a specific culture or time period due to differing interpretations and relevance.  This specific facet of the tales interested me in that many occurrences and resulting lessons may remain stable through various generations although readers will find that characters will symbolize the most important aspects of the specific time period from which the text was gathered.

Maria Tatar stated in her novel The Classic Fairy Tales, “Some versions of Little Red Riding Hood’s story or Snow White’s story may appear to reinforce stereotypes; others may have an emancipatory potential; still others may seem radically feminist.  All are of historical interest, revealing the ways in which a story has adapted to a culture and been shaped by its social practices.  The new story may be ideologically correct or ideologically suspect, but it can always serve as the point of departure for debate critique, and dialogue” (Tatar XIV).  The classic tale of “Snow White” by Brothers Grimm tells the story of a young, beautiful girl who falls victim to the jealousy of her father’s wife.  The evil queen plots to end the girl’s life so that she may remain as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but ends up falling victim to Snow White’s clever plan to punish her for her wrongdoings.  Despite this, Snow White seems to maintain her sense of beauty, dignity, and, most importantly, purity throughout the story, which was representative of the expectations of women, and more specifically, young girls, of the time.

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Walt Disney’s interpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm character

In our contemporary society where issues of equality—whether it be gender, racial, sexual, etc.—reign supreme in the realm of social significance, we find that fairy tales are being recreated in the vision of authors who support the changing ideologies.  A more modern Snow White developed by Rupert Sanders in his film Snow White and the Huntsman displays a courageous young female who doesn’t necessarily adhere to societal rules or roles.  She wears armor rather than dresses as she fights monsters and beasts until she eventually returns to the kingdom to murder the Queen and reclaim her thrown.  This is obviously a result of a society shaped by feminist views and gender equality as the main character serves more as a strong and independent heroine rather than a damsel in distress.  I feel that this is one of the most crucial interpretations of Tatar’s novel that we can gather—fairy tales are classic tales passed on through generations but cannot remain unchanged as they gather cultural relevance and are shaped accordingly based on the need for certain lessons of morality incorporated into the upbringing of that society’s youth.

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Rupert Sander’s vision of Snow White depicted by Kristen Stewart.

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Bluebeard and Violence: This Folktale is Not Yet Rated

Bluebeard, a French literary folktale, the most famous version written down by Charles Perrault, tells the haunting story of a violent aristocrat whose new wife discovers actual skeletons in his closet – the murdered bodies of his previous wives.

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Girl, I think the least of your problems is that his beard is blue.

Its classification of being a folktale shows that it was a story passed down by generations so it might not have been originally “marketed” towards children like other texts. The inclusion of a moral, and that it is classified alongside other fairytales, obviously leads to children reading or being exposed to the story. The discussion arose in class if a story where the protagonist finds a forbidden room where her new husband literally hangs the bloodied bodies of his previous wives is appropriate for children.  (It’s not!) One classmate cited that he had only heard of Bluebeard because he read Cracked.com’s “5 Grimm Fairytales You Should Only Read to Kids You Hate.”

Here’s the link: http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/5-grimm-fairy-tales-you-should-only-read-to-kids-you-hate/

So, if childhood is so sacred, why are we doing this to our kids? While parents probably would never read Bluebeard to their children as a bedtime story, they would read or allow their children to read equally violent stories. Children’s stories and fairytales are riddled with swordfights, bewitched hot iron shoes, and evil witches being thrown into ovens. A most recent young adult bestseller The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, has children as young as 12 fighting to their deaths in a televised contest.

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If you didn’t cry during this scene you’re a monster.

The hypocrisy that arises to me, however, is how other adult themes are extremely off limits to children. In class, we discussed how sexually advanced storylines like incest are banned because they can get too real. Isn’t the prospect of a serial killer rounding up bodies in his house a little too real? It is intriguing to think of the lengths parents go to suppress sexuality and other adult themes but are open to exposing children to violence based solely on the hierarchy of what society deems important.

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Should Kids Today Read of that Beard so Blue

Crimson ichor still dripped from the eviscerated form of the young woman: not a sentence many would expect in a fairy tale intended for children. This scene described above, however, would not be out of place as a description of Bluebeard’s secret room. Many a parent would balk at the idea of having this story, where the corpses are piled seven high, exist in a children’s book today and would certainly not have it be read by their kids. However, I would argue that this Perrault classic deserves its place in children’s book and base my arguments upon two aspects: the first is that the story is beautifully written and moralistic and the second is that it hardly upsets modern sensibilities.

My first argument relies upon the story’s beauty while presenting a dark world that children must come to terms with. Perrault writing of “Bluebeard” is both quick paced and gripping. The reader is left on the edge of their seat with curiosity over “that little closet, which I forbid you [from entering]” and cannot help but wish that, despite Bluebeard’s dire proclamation that should his wife open it that “[she] may expect from my just anger and resentment”, she open the door. Once the wife reveals the gruesome mystery, the reader will wish for the wife to both survive and wreak vengeance upon Bluebeard. Thus, Perrault’s ability to draw the reader in and care greatly commends itself as a book for children. That the reader, aware of dark secrets, reacts, wanting the evil Bluebeard to be struck down reveals the great continuing need of children for morality. Even though evil may be hidden and wreak havoc, the forces for good triumphs in the end. This important example must remain.

Bluebeard Down

My second argument rails against the idea that children shouldn’t be exposed to such a “dark” story. News station continuously discuss horrific events occurring throughout the world, movies and video games, both inherently more graphic mediums, focus on death, killing, and blood.

Its a good thing we all jumped out

Well….we’re going to be on the news

In the midst of all these virtual bombardments of gore, can anyone say that a dark story will be the one thing that scars a child? A story that, contrary to most tales children will hear on the news, ends on a happy note. The answer is a resounding no. Perrault’s masterpiece must remain and continue to intrigue, teach, and be appreciated by people of all ages. Furthermore, as the story tells us, why should we forbid it from the children? They will only end up wanting to read it all the more.

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