The concept of childhood, and binary thinking of childhood and adulthood has been questioned in books (subtly) throughout the past century. In Criticism and the Fictional Child, a paradox is raised about why the separation of children and adults still exists, and why it will continue to exist. “To children’s literature criticism, and many other areas concerned with children, children are more ‘children’ than they are ‘individuals.’ …Children’s literature repeatedly refutes this, claiming that ‘individuality’ is its priority above all else… This is precisely the claim which cannot be sustained and is undermined within the field itself…The ‘child’ is an ‘individual’ within the category of ‘childhood’.” (Lesnik-Oberstein, 166). Children are categorized as individuals in a group with children. They can be “individuals” among others of their own age, but with adults, they are not “individuals” but “children.” Children’s literature itself exists on the concept of having a category for children. Without children, there would be no need for children’s literature.
The cook, the Duchess, and Alice.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice, as a child acts more mature than the adults around her. No one really pays much attention to Alice, or cares about her. In Chapter 4, when Alice meets the Duchess, the first thing that she notices is the room. “The door led right to the kitchen, which was full of smoke from one end to the other: the Duchess was sitting…in the middle, nursing a baby: the cook was leaning over the fire, stirring a large cauldron which seemed to be full of soup.” (Carroll, 44) She is exposed to chaos from the cook and the Duchess a few moments later. “the cook took to throwing the cauldron of soup off the fire, and at once set to work throwing everything in her reach at the Duchess and the baby-the fire-irons came first; then followed…sauce-pans, plates, and dishes. The Duchess took no notice of them even when they hit her.” (Carroll, 45-46) The behavior is sudden and abnormal to Alice, but the people in Wonderland have no reaction to it. It is odd that an adult would disrupt a room for no reason, and Alice is the one to act like an adult, “jumping up and down in an agony of terror. ‘Oh there goes his precious nose!’ as an unusually large saucepan flew close by it, and very nearly carried it off.” (Carroll, 46) The roles are reversed: Alice, who is supposed to be an innocent child, is caring about the baby; whereas the Duchess and the cook who are adults; are rash, and out of control. The normal in Wonderland is abnormal to Alice, it is normal for adults to throw things around the room in Wonderland; but in the real world it is a very childish thing to do. The Duchess and Alice both break down the cult of the child. The cult of the child, seeing the baby as “innocent” as Alice does, is odd in the kitchen; as the others take no notice of the baby. The cult of the child, normal in the home, is ridiculous in Wonderland because the behavior of the adults is so abnormal.
The Duchess calls her baby suddenly a “Pig!” A few moments later, he turns into one. Children will become what their parents believe they will become.
The Duchess helps to strengthen both the cult of the child and the Puritan view of childhood through her way of nursing her baby. “She began nursing her child…singing a sort of lullaby to it as she did so, and giving it a violent shake at the end of every line: Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases. (in which the baby and the cook joined): Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! While the Duchess sang the second verse of the song, she kept tossing the baby violently up and down, and the poor little thing howled so, that Alice could hardly hear the words: I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes; for he can thoroughly enjoy the pepper when he pleases.” (Carroll, 46-47) There is humor in the way that the song is sung- The cook and the baby sing along after the Duchess sings, and the Duchess uses a gentle tone of voice, like a lullaby, even as she shakes her child and sings words which advocate Puritan ideals of “speaking severely.” She gives a reason for the shake which is nonsensical. Sneezing is a reaction which cannot be controlled- especially when pepper causes it. Through the use of the poem, and the description of the way it is recited; Carroll points out that it is the adults who decide how to treat a child, children have no control over how they are treated.
However, the breaking down of the barriers in the book contradicts with the reason the book was written. It was originally a story told on a boat for his friends three girls: “We like to think that [Carroll] invented the story to amuse the young girls, but more likely, he told the tale in order to keep them quiet, to stop them from squabbling, to hold their attention, or to interrupt a flow of irrelevant questions-or perhaps even to keep them from rocking the boat and annoying him.” (Cohen.) Carroll only wanted to keep them entertained enough so that they weren’t a nuisance. Although the book subtly advocates the breaking down of the barriers of adulthood and childhood, it only exists in “Wonderland” and not in the real world.
In Anne of Green Gables, the divide between the adult and the child is clear. Matthew is sympathetic to Anne from the moment he meets her; he doesn’t mind her talking, he likes her imagination, and he “was a kindred spirit” (Montgomery, 33) to Anne. However, it is disturbing how he thinks of her as “an interesting little thing,” and after meeting her, he had “much the same feeling that came over him when he had to kill a lamb, or calf or any other little innocent creature.” (Montgomery, 22) He does not see her as a person, but rather “an interesting little thing”-a child who amuses him. He feels bad that her feelings will get hurt, but he compares it to killing an animal. With this analogy, the idea of a child as an innocent creature is put forth. Matthew forgets that although she is a child, she is a person as well. The categorization of “adult” and “child” is not seen as an issue in the book as we see Matthew as an ally. The way he views Anne is inappropriate, but it is overshadowed by Marilla’s view of Anne.
Marilla constantly represses her feelings so that she is seen as an “adult” to Anne. She praises Anne when Anne is not around: “Matthew took a fancy to her. And I must say I like her myself… The house seems a different place already. She’s a real bright little thing.” (Montgomery, 63) She does not let Anne know that she likes her; and she surprises herself. Mrs. Lynde, is harsh to Anne, she speaks about her as if she weren’t there, calling her “terribly skinny and homely.” (Montgomery, 64) Anne defends herself, and after saying rude things about Mrs. Lynde’s appearance, says “I don’t care if I do hurt your feelings… I hope I hurt them. You hurt mine worse than they were ever hurt before…And I’ll never forgive you for it, never, never!” (Montgomery, 65) Marilla stands up for Anne after she sends Anne to her room. “You shouldn’t have twitted her about her looks, Rachel… I’m not trying to excuse her. She’s been very naughty and I’ll have to give her a talking to about it. But we must make allowances for her. She’s never been taught what is right. And you were too hard on her Rachel.” (Montgomery, 65-66). She does not let Anne see that she agrees with her. She thinks that Anne being “good” is more important than showing Anne that she cares about her. “You hadn’t any right to fly into such a fury and talk the way you did to her, Anne. I was ashamed of you-thoroughly ashamed of you. I wanted you to behave nicely to Mrs. Lynde, and instead of that you have disgraced me. I’m sure I don’t know why you should lose your temper like that just because Mrs. Lynde said you were redhaired and homely.” (Montgomery, 67). The narrator is able to tell us that Marilla knows how Anne feels. “She had been a very small child when she had heard one aunt say of her to another, “What a pity she is such a dark, homely little thing.” Marilla was every day of fifty before the sting had gone out of that memory.” (Montgomery, 67-68) Marilla does remember what it is like to be called names, and she understands why Anne responded the way she did to Mrs. Lynde. She does not want to condone it however, so she places distance between herself and Anne in order to focus on Anne’s behaviour. Marilla minimized Anne’s anger as she wished to enforce the idea of “childhood” and “adulthood” being separate. It is only though the narrator that the binary thinking collapses- through Marilla’s and Matthew’s actions and words, it is enforced.
Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan leave the Wardrobe after having their adventures in Narnia.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four children, Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter, are “sent to the house of an old Professor.” (Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis, 9). He acts as the surrogate parent while they live with him during the war. It is the Professor who convinces the two older children that Lucy is telling the truth about Narnia. When the four of them come back from Narnia, he is “a very remarkable man, didn’t tell them to be silly or not to tell lies, but believed the whole story.” (Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis, 170). He is the first adult in the books we have read, to treat them as people, and not as children. He allows them to come to their own conclusions, and he does not judge them. The housekeeper however, enforces the cult of the child which the character of the Professor was meant to break. She was “not fond of children and did not like to be interrupted when she was telling visitors all the things she knew. She had said…on the first morning… ‘And please remember you’re to keep out of the way whenever I’m taking a party over the house.'” (Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis, 51) The housekeeper hardly appears in the story, and is not as important as the professor is, either in status, or in the lives of the others in the house. It is easier then for the reader to be on the side of the Professor.
C. S Lewis enforces the boundaries between the children and adults however with the introduction of The Magician’s Nephew. The book describes how Narnia was formed, and the main character Digory travelled to Narnia at the beginning of its creation. “Digory was the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into the other books.” (Magician’s Nephew, Lewis, 38). He is the one who creates the wardrobe, even though “he could not bear to chop up the tree simply chopped up for firewood, so he had part of the timber made into a wardrobe…he himself did not discover the magical properties of the wardrobe.” (Magician’s Nephew, Lewis, 171) The Professor, had he not been to Narnia before and created the wardrobe which led Lucy to Narnia; would not have believed the children, and because C.S Lewis felt the need to write a book to explain the Professor’s behaviour in the Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the binary thinking of childhood and adulthood is still intact.
In James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl uses humour to challenge the power that adults have over children. He points out flaws that adults have; deconstructing them as human beings and not superhuman beings. Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge are cruel to James, but the fear that they would present if this was a serious book is taken away once their flaws are established. “They talked about themselves, each one saying how beautiful she thought she was. Aunt Sponge had a long handled mirror…she kept picking it up and gazing at her own hideous face. ‘ I look and smell,’ Aunt Sponge declared, ‘as lovely as a rose!….’But don’t forget,’ Aunt Spiker cried, ‘How much your tummy shows!’… Aunt Spiker said ‘My sweet you cannot win! Behold my gorgeous, curvy shape’…. ‘My dear old trout,’ Aunt Sponge cried out ‘You’re only bones and skin!’ ” (Dahl, 6-7) The aunts not only talk about how lovely they are; proving that they are vain, but they also put down the other. It is hard to take them seriously, as they act very immature themselves; so what power they did have when the narrator said they “beat poor James” (Dahl, 2) is gone.
They’re not to be taken seriously. What they say is not to be taken seriously. They lose their power because their view of themselves is not correct.
Even when it looks as if James is about to get into trouble, he doesn’t get into trouble. ” ‘Beat him!’ cried Aunt Sponge. ‘I certainly will!’ Aunt Spiker snapped… ‘I shall beat you later on in the day when I don’t feel so hot.’ ” (Dahl, 9) They only get James to fear them by using empty threats. They are too lazy to do anything. If James were to realize that the aunts are only fearful because he allows himself to fear them; their power would be gone. The aunts realize that they can make James fear them, because he is a child and supposedly doesn’t have the intelligence to really see what they are like. He can only see them as scary; he has to believe them because they are adults. If the binary thinking of childhood and adults were really broken down, their threats would not work on James; and he would question them just as the reader does.
At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter’s story, told with the help of an omniscient narrator, actually presents the Dursleys first- and so the first glimpse we get- a negative glimpse of Harry, is from someone whose opinion might not be very important anyway: “The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son…but they had never even seen him. This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.” (Rowling, 7). They have opinions of Harry that we can dismiss instantly as false, because we know that the Dursleys’ judge first before even seeing him. They don’t even take the time to learn his name. “He was sure there were lots of people with a son called Harry. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure his nephew was called Harry. He’d never even seen the boy. It might have been Harvey. Or Harold.” (Rowling, 9). So, we have a depiction of adults as extremely separated from the child. They know nothing about Harry, they want nothing to do with Harry, and they make it their mission to pretend to be as distanced from him as possible. “‘Their son, he’d be about Dudley’s age now, wouldn’t he?’ ‘I suppose so,’ said Mrs. Dursley stiffly. ‘What’s his name again? Howard, isn’t it?’ ‘Harry. Nasty, common name if you ask me.’ ‘Oh yes…I quite agree.'” (Rowling, 11). So, Mrs. Dursley does know Harry’s name, even if she says it is “common.” It doesn’t make sense: They are “normal”, however, Petunia is irritated by the “common” name of Harry. There is a discrepancy: They wish to appear normal, however when their nephew is given a normal name, they are irritated by it. Harry is ignored by the Dursleys, and they pretend that he doesn’t exist, but they still keep him anyway. “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all…..Only the photographs on the mantlepiece really showed how much time had passed…Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large, blond boy…The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house too. Yet Harry Potter was still there.” (Rowling, 19). They make an effort to pretend that Harry doesn’t exist; but that doesn’t change the fact that he is there. They try to keep things as “normal” as possible, they resist change for ten years since the introduction of Harry into their lives- however, there is one thing that the Dursleys forget. In Harry Potter, we don’t value normalcy- we’re taught through the book that Harry is a wizard- he should be separated from the Dursleys, because he is part of a better, magical world. One where he is accepted and cared for. The negativity of the Dursleys is replaced by the positivity of Hogwarts and the Wizard World. It is a better place, one with friends and people who care about him. We only get these positive people in the Wizarding World however, and once back into the real world the gap between the child and the adult is apparent again. The binary thinking of adult and child is not broken, there’s a reversal: instead of the adult’s voices taking over, it’s the child’s- the adults don’t matter. We learn not to value them at all.
In this clip, Harry is a baby. It is different from the book- we are able to see the way the Wizard world views Harry first- and get a sense of his character as a child right away. We can feel sympathy for him the minute we see him. McGonnagall calls them “The worst sort of Muggles imaginable.” We don’t see the Dursleys, this is the first we ever hear of them in the movie, and the first view we have of them is not from what they think, but what someone else says of them. We don’t meet them until shortly after; and then we can judge for ourselves whether they are really “the worst sort” or if the perception of them is exaggerated. We get the shot of Harry in the cupboard for a split second; and realize that he has aged with the people. By getting a chance to see right away what is meant when Mr. Dursley says “like that” we realize that his perceptions are off. He isn’t condemning or disliking somebody who is mean or dangerous, just different. We see Harry’s world first- then go into the real world with the Dursleys. It isn’t about the adults not being paid attention to- it is about Harry understanding exactly that there is another world- a world where he is cared for. (We hear Dumbledore telling Hagrid not to cry). From the very beginning, it isn’t about the Dursleys pretending he doesn’t exist, it’s about Harry finding a place where he is comfortable.
Adults can not treat children as people without categorizing them unless there is a specific reason. It is expected that categorizing children as children, separated from adults is normal. When an author breaks those boundaries, there needs to be a reason as to why they do so. This defeats the purpose of breaking the binary thinking of adult and child, and strengthens the concept of childhood as a mystery to adults.
IMAGES (In order of appearance, everything else is in alphabetical order.)
- Carroll, Lewis Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006
- Cohen, Morton N. Introduction: Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. By Lewis Carroll. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. vii-xxii.
- Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach. New York: Puffin, 2007.
- Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 1994.
- Lewis, C.S. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Canada: Fontana Lions, 1980
- Lewis C.S The Magician’s Nephew Canada: Fontana Lions, 1980
- Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. [Toronto]: Seal, 1996.
- Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Pub., 1997.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone |Opening Scene| Prod. HPScenes Youtube. September 1 2011, Web. July 20, 2012 <www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpYHbdh9yTM&feature=related>