LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Malnutrition and Imaginary Meals in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan

Upon looking for sources for my paper, I stumbled upon an article that talked about how hunger and malnutrition are represented in Alice in Wonderland, as a commentary on the famines of the Victorian era. According to the article, Lewis Carroll included the tiny pieces of food, about the place, to express that Alice is essentially scrounging for her meals. She is lucky to stumble upon something, but is often left looking about for more food to return her to normal. In the Victorian era, there were enormous food shortages, causing the price of food to be raised to an intolerable level. As a result, meals became hard to come by. Considering Lewis Carroll saw this occurring, and experienced it himself, he felt the need to use it as a theme in Alice in Wonderland, and seek a solution for it.
At one point, in the novel, Alice meets the caterpillar, smoking atop a giant mushroom. When leaving, he tells her that one side will make her small, and one side will make her big. Alice then attempts to regain her original size, and upon doing so, realizes the value of the mushroom. From then on, Alice stores the mushroom pieces in her apron, thinking that she can use them as needed. This mushroom is thus Carroll’s solution for Victorian society–to find food in nature.

In Peter and Wendy, the lost boys complain about having to occasionally make believe their dinners. I personally found this to be one of the most pitiable situations in the book, and I was curious as to why J. M. Barrie might have written such scenes. After reading about the high price of food in the Victorian era, I wondered if perhaps Barrie was also making a commentary about the Edwardian era, through Peter and Wendy, by expressing that, due the food shortages, little boys and girls sometimes had to imagine they had meals. The Edwardian era, however, was described as a golden age between the Victorian era and World War I, hence I am led to believe that the food shortages improved. What I did read was about a Poor Law that was implemented, which gave relief funds to unemployed women, but not to unemployed able-bodied males. As a result, if one was married to an unemployed male, one was cut off from funds, as well. Upon reading this, I wondered about the financial situation of the Davies boys, and if the imaginary meals were an idea thought up by Barrie to quell their growling stomachs, rather than that of society as a whole. Children often play make believe, when it comes to tea parties, but in Peter and Wendy there is an obvious expression that these boys are hungry, despite having nothing,

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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.

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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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Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of a young girl seemingly on the routine path to being taught via the conventional society of the time to transform into an elegant and proper young women.  Although this seems to be a bit like many of the other fairy tales and children’s literature of the time, the protagonist quickly finds herself in Wonderland, where all convention and societal norms are displaced by pure nonsense.  To some, an appropriate question concerning the events that happen thereafter would be, “How?”  How did Wonderland come to be?  How did Alice end up there?  How did the creatures of Wonderland become this seemingly senseless society as governed by our traditional views of what society should be?  However, I believe a better question that we could be asking ourselves as readers to the author is, “Why?”

Why was Wonderland created? I believe that Wonderland in this story represents childhood.  It allows for the prolonging of that sense of purity exhibited by young children before they grow up.  Several scholars such as Rousseau believed that children had an innate sense of goodness that remained untouched until the corrupt society around them shaped them into the “civilized” citizens that they wanted them to become.  In a traditional society, questions have answers.  Animals do not talk.  Court hearings are conducted in a dignified manner.  Croquet is not played with flamingos and hedgehogs.  However, Wonderland represents the beauty of all that is not a traditional society.  It represents a colorful and unlimited imagination, which all children have the ability to possess.

A prime example comes when the Hatter presents Alice with his infamous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  Although Lewis Carroll was eventually convinced to provide an answer to his displeased audience, the protagonist originally does not know the answer to the riddle, and when she implores as to what it is, we as readers find that the Hatter is unable to provide one.  This provides an opportunity to delve into one’s own imagination to conjure up the various possibilities concerning the similarities between writing desks and ravens.  A societal staple such as a school system is not there to provide an explanation.  Whereas conventional societies teach children their multiplication tables and scientific facts based on research and the common answers, “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because I told you so,” Wonderland serves the purpose of allowing a child to figure out what they would like the answer to be.  Perhaps two multiplied by two does not have to equal four in Wonderland because there are no educational staples to teach its inhabitants that it is so.

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Artist’s depiction of Alice at the tea party with the Hatter and the March Hare

Wonderland is an escape.  It takes us back to a childhood where we were all on journeys of discovery through the daily occurrences of our lives.  Our imaginations allowed the possibilities of talking caterpillars and mice.  Why would playing cards paint white roses red for the simple pleasure of a Queen?  Well, a child may ask, “Why not?”  This story can take an adult reader back to a time when all things were possible in our minds.  Opening this book and exploring the nonsense that is its contents could equate to an adult reader metaphorically falling down a rabbit hole into their own Wonderland—a place where both nonsense and nostalgia meet.

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The Tiger’s Bride

“He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sand paper. ‘He will lick the skin off me!’ And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur,” (Carter, 66).

In the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, by Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont, the innocent and virtuous Beauty falls in love with the Beast for his kind nature, in spite of his beastly appearance. As a result, the beast’s curse is lifted and he transforms into a handsome prince. In the case of Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride”, however, the Beauty not only gives up her innocence, by showing her naked body to the Beast, but the Beast is not a kind man by nature, but a swindler who won the Beauty in a gamble with her father.
In the woods, when the main character sees the Beast, a tiger, shed his disguise and reveal his true form, she expresses feeling as if her chest ‘ripped apart,’ (Carter, 63).

Here, for the first time, the Beauty appears to show sexual attraction to the Beast, rather than mere love for his character. She is attracted by his beastly form, not in spite of it. Upon shedding her clothes, and bearing her nakedness for the first time, the Beauty experiences a sense of freedom, the shedding of social constraint and expectation to clothe oneself and restrict oneself within a certain form. She essentially sheds the disguise that society forces one to wear, to be chaste and virtuous, to appear acceptable.

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At the end of the tale, the girl is allowed to return to her father, having done her deed and paid her father’s debts. The girl decides to remain in the Beast’s estate, however, and sheds her clothes, walking naked into the Beast’s room. Here, instead of the Beast transforming into a human, the Beauty’s human flesh is shed for that of a fur coat, as she transforms into a beast, herself. At this moment, is it as if Angela Carter is expressing that humans are in fact the beasts, and the purity and innocence that we seek can only be found in the animal kingdom. Not only are there no social constraints in the animal kingdom, but the act of sexual attraction and action are simply natural, and necessary, rather than seen as something to restrict or deny, especially in the case of an unmarried young woman. By shedding the form of humanity, the Beauty and the Beast are able to be truly free, without any need for virtue, charm, or civility. They have instead returned to the purity and beauty that is nature.

Source: Carter, Angela. “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. Tartar, Maria. New York: Norton, 1999. 63, 66. Print.

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