LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Five Children and It: Have the Narrators of Children Literature Evolved with the Characters?

The 1902 novel, “Five Children and It” by Edith Nesbit, is filled with extremely amusing and interesting characters, all of whom are worth examining.  However, one of the characters that sparked my interest more than the most was that of the narrator.  Throughout our course exploring the Golden Age of Children’s literature we have read books with varying narrators that have moved from being omnipotent and moralistic observers who pause the story from time to time to deliver, in a didactic manner, the ‘lesson’ to the child, to the narrator we find in “Five Children and It”.  The move of Children’s literature from the Victorian era which was defined by principled and disciplined, good little boys and girls with rosy cheeks and angelic eyes to the children of Panther, Squirrel, Bobs, Pussy, and Lamb who celebrate how “nice and ugly” they look, was a move that I found to be a vast improvement and much more realistic. (pg. 25)  Along with this evolvement of the representation of children’s in literature, from being moral examples to celebrating the mischievousness, naive innocence, and natural whimsy of children, I believe that the narrator’s tones and role in the story has evolved too.  I think the the third person, omnipotent narrator found in “Five Children and It” helps to drive home Nesbit’s full appreciation of the naughtiness and imaginations of children that proves to be the backbone of the story.  The narrator has a dialogue with the reader, presumably a child, that is a far cry from the narrator that wove the story of “Water Babies”, when Nesbit’s narrator pauses to talk to the reader it is not to provide moralistic instruction, it is usually to do quite the opposite.  When the four older children steal the “necessities of life” to eat atop the church roof, one of these necessities being a full soda-water bottle, the narrator goes so far as to encourage the children readers to follow the messy and misguided footsteps of the four children and their comical interaction with trying to drink out of the soda bottle.

“But on thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaves when you try to drink it straight out of a siphon…But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown up to give you a siphon.  If you want to have a really through experience, put the tube in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard.” (pg. 104)

Furthering my assertion that the narrator has become just as playful as the children this story appreciates, and has moved very far away from the instructive narrator of the Victorian era, I found quite often throughout the novel that the obvious mistakes the children made in the story went not only unnoticed but sometimes, encouraged, by the narrator.  When Cyril confuses the term germ with “germans…little waggly things you see with microscopes” the narrator continues the story with niter acknowledgement or correction, much to the amusement of the readers whom are old enough to catch it.  The narrator is more than happy to allow for faulty, childish reasoning to be absorbed by the readers such as the justification that if “a country won’t sell you provisions” it is perfectly acceptable to “take them”. (pg. 99)  There are many more instances throughout “Five Children and It” where the narrator shows through his/her voice in the story, or lack thereof, how far children’s literature has truly come since the older eras, wherein not just the children are creatures of the Edwardian ears, but the storytellers are too.  Even going as far too say, after mentioning mathematics, Roman times, and Shakespeare all in one passage, “…but I fear I am getting too instructive.” (pg. 59)

*I have tagged this blog as both Prompt 4 (Character Analysis) and Prompt 10 (Free Choice) because I feel it’s kind of a mixture of both!*

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Peter Pan: the Replacement Child

J.M. Barrie and one of the Llewelyn Davies boys

When one reads any Peter Pan works by J.M. Barrie, one may note dark undertones for a tale that is depicted as lighthearted and encouraging of the free spirit. Much of Barrie’s own experiences contributed to the work and it is said this is the reason for any of his works’ peculiarities. Barrie was described as childlike, no taller than 5’4” and almost incapable of real adult relationships. This fixation on childhood may be in part due to the loss of his brother David, who died two days shy of his 14th birthday in an ice skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite child (or so we think), and Barrie spent much of his childhood dressing in David’s clothing and trying to console his mother of her loss. Barrie began to fill the shoes of what is known as a “replacement child.” In most cases, a replacement child is a child born after the death of a sibling, however, when David died, expectations for his life and future fell onto Barrie.

One can draw a few parallels between Peter Pan and David, as Peter does not grow up and David is barred from adulthood in his death. Peter & Wendy opens with the famous line, “Every child grows up, except one.” David, who died at 14, is frozen at that age in childhood. He will never be thought of as a grown man or adult, but forever as an individual untouched by the experiences of adulthood. Many people often ask why or how Peter gains the ability to fly, and one may argue that he is in fact a ghost thus having the ability to fly to “other worlds” such as Neverland. Peter Pan also buries young children in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and leads the lost souls of children in Peter & Wendy. These roles have very much to do with the dead and perhaps Peter performs these duties because he feels partial to dead children, as he is one.

Peter Pan is a mysterious figure in children’s literature that has intrigued and fascinated people always. We all experience a sense of never wanting to grow up and this has allowed Peter to remain such a prevalent character in literature, movies, and other works. Though his origins are unknown, one thing is certain: Peter and his stories are peculiar. Peter Pan works have a few minor creepy details and this may be attributed to Barrie’s childhood experiences especially given the loss of David and having to replace him in order to console his unstable mother.

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Anthropomorphization and the Human Identity

ImageIn much of children’s classics, animals are attributed human qualities such as the ability to communicate creatively through language and are often given much importance through significant character roles. Among these classics is the greatest of all: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In the novel, Baum toys with the idea of what exactly it means to be human by assigning personalities and emotions to inanimate objects such as a scarecrow and a pile of tin and rust. Baum transforms them from inactive objects and into characters with feelings, goals, and dreams. Baum explicitly addresses that these beings are not entirely human by indicating one is missing a heart and the other a brain (which are quite necessary to be alive and well), yet maintains their identity as pseudo-humans by conveying they, too, cry and experience things much like we would. Baum also experiments with anthropomorphization in giving a lion, an animal of the jungle, qualities such as “cowardly” or “brave” and the ability to speak in addition to his roar. Throughout the novel, these three nonhumans are contrasted with Dorothy who is clearly a human girl, perpetuating their differences and yet simultaneously illustrating we are not all that different.

ImageThe Tinman and Scarecrow, two characters constructed out of materials far from the animation of life, are each given significant roles in Baum’s novels despite their lack of humanity in the most technical sense. The Tinman, who claims to once be human, lacks a heart, which is necessary for life and ventures to Oz to request one from the Wonderful Wizard in order to feel emotion. Though lacking a cardiac system, the Tinman is far from heartless, often crying over dead beetles and the loss of brief acquaintances. In the Wizard’s “granting” of the Tinman’s humble request, we can see that a heart may not be entirely necessary to define the human condition, as he has the ability to feel before the acquisition of his gift from the Wizard. Much the same can be said for the Scarecrow, who is stuffed with straw and possesses a painted on face. He claims to lack a brain, in addition to lacking everything else that is necessary to be considered a human being. Despite not having a heart and brain, the Scarecrow and Tinman are the most human of all characters, often keeping in mind the feelings of others, especially Dorothy’s.

ImageThe Cowardly Lion is not very different than many of the other animals portrayed in classical children’s literature. He talks much like a human, yet can also roar like a lion of the jungle. Much like Kipling’s The Jungle Book and his classic Mowgli stories, Baum takes an intimidating beast and adapts its nature to be more appropriate for children, almost transforming a carnivorous lion into a cute and cuddly companion deserving of love and sympathy. Much like how the Scarecrow and Tinman compare to Dorothy in their lack of humanity, the Cowardly Lion is juxtaposed with Dorothy’s small dog Toto who barks yet cannot speak.

The Tinman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion are arguably protagonists as important as Dorothy herself throughout Baum’s novel. In their origins, they draw one’s attention to the human condition and what exactly it means to be “human.” Though it is a question often explored in the genre of science-fiction, such thought provoking issues indicate an overlooked complexity in children’s literature.

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Alice in Wonderland: Adult’s Contribution to Canonical Status

Virginia Woolf said of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories that they are, “not books for children; they are only books in which we become children…To become a child is to be very literal; to find everything so strange that nothing is surprising; to be heartless, to be ruthless, yet to be so passionate that a snub or a shadow drapes the world in gloom.  It is so to be Alice in Wonderland.” (Kidd, 74)  After reading Lewis Carroll’s novels The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass I feel as though I have to agree with Woolf’s assertion, that truly the Alice stories, though greatly enjoyed by children, are not necessarily the audience who identifies with the absolute most.  I think it is this quality of the Alice stories that has undeniably contributed to their enduring existence within the literary world and the world of popular culture.  Lewis Carroll did not craft these unique stories and their strong characters to be nonsensical merely for nonsense’s sake, they are, as Roni Natov describes it in her article The Persistence of Alice, Carroll exposing the, “anti-sense, anti-rational underside of our existence.” (Natov, 38) Alice in WonderlandCarroll’s novels have to them so many layers of complexity and identification for so many age groups that, though the Alice stories are categorized as canonical and a longstanding member of the Golden Age of Children’s literature collection, the experience children have when encountering one of these stories is superficial.  They enjoy the nonsense, the rule breaking, the “worlds of reversals and unexpected combinations that children find so funny,” but beyond that, the deeper messages of Carroll’s stories belong to the adults. (Natov, 52) Kenneth B. Kidd describes this awareness of adult appreciation of Carroll’s novels by observing in his article, Freud in Oz, “Carroll’s Alice books…contain no only fantastical creatures but also mathematical puzzles, educational satires, and not a little narratorial joking at Alice’s expense.” (Kidd, 74)  I think adults appreciate not only the elements of the novel suggested by Kidd or Woolf, but also I believe that adults can identify with the character of Alice, I think her vulnerability as well as her resiliency is appreciated, her constant need to make sense and order of a chaotic and nonsensical world, and her tearful frustration when her efforts fail.  There is a consistent duality in the Alice novels that reflects the duality of the adult world, ““We may feel trapped and stifled in Wonderland. But there is also a sense of freedom which comes from recognizing the truth and being forced to laugh at it, from understanding the chaos and uncertainty we have always sensed about our lives.” (Natov, 61)  I think it is mainly this quality of duality; of order and chaos, of the literal and of nonsense, the child’s eyes and the adult’s understanding, and of the idea that our stable and consistent world is just a rabbit whole away from Wonderland, that attracts and keeps adult readers and it is this audience of adult readers that has allowed and enabled the Alice stories to endure as long as they have.  Kidd noted in his article that, “Alice or Carroll appear everywhere: in popular music, television, graphic novels, musicals, ballets, operas, plays, and realist theater.  Alice has at once been preserved intact and transformed dramatically.” (Kidd, 74)  Children are not the gatekeepers of entrance into canonical status in Children’s Literature; it is the adults that ensure this status.  Deborah Stevenson states authoritatively in her article Classics and Canons that, “Ultimately, the literature’s most powerful children are ex-children.” (Stevenson, 109)  Novels that can be enjoyed and understood by children and adults alike are much more likely to be reproduced, reinterpreted, and proliferate cultures of the past and present, they will be much more likely to enter into the realm of the canon.  It is no surprise then that Carroll’s Alice stories are so iconic, so proliferated, and so enduring in their standing as one of the greats.

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