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The Wicked Child

froggies315's picture

After I finished reading Slaughterhouse Five on Sunday, I was mostly confused and just a little bit annoyed with Billy Pilgrim.  Throughout the week, I got successively more irritated with Billy...he became the epitome of the word pathetic.  In class today, I was thinking about Billy and all the other pathetic characters I’ve had to deal with in books and in life.  Mostly, I was irritated.  I would not let them question my understanding or my beliefs, I let their pathetic existence affirm me.  I told myself that sincerity is always better than satire.

This is interesting for me to think about in the context of Pesach, the Jewish holiday that starts tomorrow evening to celebrate spring and lots of midrashim.  One of my favorite stories from this holiday is the story of The Four Children.  Here’s an explanation, taken indirectly from this great hagaddah, A Night of Questions, via

What does it mean to be a wise child? It means to be fully engaged in the community, to know the limits of your understanding, to be able to search for the answers, to that which you do not know. At different points in our lives, we have been this child—inquisitive, caring, eager to learn and to understand, willing to ask for information we do not have, hopeful that an answer can be found.

What does it mean to be a wicked child? It means to stand apart from the community, to feel alienated and alone, depending only on yourself, to have little trust in the people around you to help you or answer your questions. At different points in our lives, we have been this child—detached, suspicious, challenging.

What does it mean to be a simple child? It means to see only one layer of meaning, to ask the most basic of questions, to be too innocent or impatient to grasp complicated questions. At different points in our lives, we have all been this child—simply curious and innocently unaware of the complexities around us.

What does it mean to be a silent child? This can be the child of the wicked child, two generations removed from the Jewish community and no longer even able to criticize, only able to stand mute. It can be the passive child, who just shows up. Or it can be the child whose spiritual life is based on faith, not rational argument, the child who hears something deeper than words, who knows how to be silent and to listen to the surrounding silence.

I think that my construction of sincerity >>> satire is a reflection of my tendency to place the the questions from the wise child above the questions from the wicked child.  My parents will tell you that I’ve been doing this for forever.  One of the things I have to re-learn every year during Pesach is that I shouldn’t do this because sometimes I am the wicked child, and sometimes, I should try hard to be the wicked child becuase the wicked child asks really important questions.  Another excerpt:

The wicked child might not be wicked at all; perhaps she is just expressing our doubts—what is the purpose of all this trouble you put yourself through at Pesah? Are you really working for freedom? Annoyed at someone who gives voice to our own fears, we react harshly to hide our feelings. The wicked child becomes our scapegoat.

Slaughterhouse Five asks me these important, wicked questions and for that, I am grateful--even if it didn't appear this way in class.  Maybe this is the last time I’ll have to learn this lesson, but I’ll bet that it isn’t.


Ayla's picture

Sincerity vs. Satire (and a response to the wicked child)

I have lots to say to your post.  

First of all, what would you rather Pilgram do?  Ok, he's pathetic, but why does Pilgram's pathetic nature bother you so much?  I think I have excused a large part of his pathetic nature because he survived - not only war - but a prison camp.  I'm surprised that you brought up a Jewish story and overlooked the connection between Pilgram and holocaust victims.  Both were prisoners of war in a sense.  Do you think all holocaust survivors picked themselves up after they were freed and proceeded to live life, doing whatever you expected Pilgram to do.  Or, do you think some of them resided into a painful lull to live out the rest of their life?  I think it's feasible that some of them married, ruined their relationship, then moved to a place by the sea, smoked too much, and day dreamed about an alien race.

Before reading the excerpts that you provided about the Wicked Child, I thought about your idea of always putting sincerity above satire.  I guess I don't think sincerity is always better than satire - and I think this has to do with my romantic side.  I would rather read Slaughterhouse Five than read a book only about the despair and woes of war and a government that forces men to fight.  Telling me directly that 'war is bad' is so overdone.  Slaughterhouse Five is different and unique - it has it's own flavor.


Maybe we aren't allowed to talk about religion in this class.  The Wicked Child story is so so sad to me.  I know it is a story meant to encourage a sense of community in the Jewish community, but this same story translated to Quakerism is devastating.  As a Quaker, I think that all of us are the Wicked Child all the time.  We do not participate in a communal service - we sit with our thoughts alone in our head.  We may speak about something we are thinking about if God so moves us, but often time I am consumed by my own troubles, my own desires, my own problems.  I question all the time how to act, what to believe, what to say.  I don't think Quakers accept anything someone else says without questioning it and finding the answer within their own light.  I know that traditionally, asking God questions is 'wicked,' and maybe that is where the root of the story comes from.  


Again, I think it is curious that you brought up the wicked child story and (possibly?) overlooked the connection between Pilgram and the children in your story.  You add the excerpt that it is important to be the wicked child because that child asks the most important questions.  You are demanding that Pilgram be the wicked child.  You don't want him to be the pathetic silent child, or I would even argue, the wise child.  You don't want him to just accept the deaths of other "so it goes."  You want him to be the wicked child - and yet your story critiques the wicked child.  You yourself say that you hold the questions of the wise child above those of the wicked child.  Am I reading this wrong?


froggies315's picture

Thanks for your response,

Thanks for your response, your thoughts have made me think a lot.  

I guess I wasn’t clear about how I’m thinking about this book and the wicked child.  What I think I was trying to say is that the whole book of Slaughterhouse Five asks the wicked questions.  This next part needs lots of qualifiers...the wicked question, for me, in this case, was: are you sure human beings are good?  Billy Pilgrim is part of Slaughterhouse Five, but he is not asking me wicked questions, he is the tool Vonnegut uses to ask these questions.  So yea, satire is important and good and I want to learn to appreciate it, this is something I have to work on.

Your reference to Holocaust survivors made me think of the book The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.   It’s the story of Leo Gursky, a pathetic Jewish man living in NYC who lived through the Nazi occupation by “becoming invisible” (which seems pretty similar to Billy’s “so it goes”), and Alma Singer, a young girl whose father has passed away and whose mother is depressed by her husband’s death and is translating the book The History of Love.  Ummmm that wasn’t a very good description, but this book is one my favorites of all time.  (maybe amazon does the book more justice?)  So what do I expect from these pathetic characters?  I’m not sure...I can understand why they are so numb. I can imagine that one obvious way to cope with these terrifying events would be to close yourself off, to detach.  I don’t know what’s it’s like to be a prisoner of war or to have to hide from governments that want to kill you; I do know what it’s like to want to detach, to want to forget, to not want to share.  From these experiences, I’ve learned that it’s important for me to talk about how I’m feeling.  But maybe this can’t work in the context of really traumatic events?  Perhaps the only way to cope with war is to detach?  Typically, I’ve coped with the wars that the US and Israel wage by refusing to engage with them, by detaching.  This has not  been good for me because sometimes my brain doesn’t work the way I want it to, and when everything comes out all at once it’s so incredibly overwhelming that I don’t even know how to begin to process.  Sometimes, my confusion manifests itself in ways that are destructive.  If my feelings about wars that neither I nor anyone I love is physically fighting can sometimes feel this overwhelming, then what is it like for the people who are actually fighting them?  What is it like to be a civilian in a war zone?  What is it like to be scared for your life?  I don’t know, but I really hope that those people who do know have people around them to help them figure out ways to cope with their experiences so that they don’t detach, because isn’t impossible to detach completely?  I’m not really sure if this is making any kind of sense...    

I’m glad you brought up Quaker Meeting too...I didn’t know that that was the idea behind Meeting.  I work at camp that has Quaker origins, but it your telling of Quaker Meeting makes me see how different silent meeting at camp is from traditional Quaker Meeting.  For me, the 15 minutes of collective silence every morning are the ones where I feel most connected to my community, like we’re all one thing with the same light in us and around us.  I am rarely in my own thoughts during meeting and though I've been "moved" to speak, I've never felt like God moved me to speak.  It's felt more like the my experiences have moved me.  Again, not really sure if this makes any sense.

I’m pretty sure that the root of the four children story comes from commentary on the telling of the Exodus in the bible.  I guess it’s written four different ways in the Torah and the rabbis decided that each way represents the way parents should tell the story depending on the child.  Also, every year a huge debate at my family’s sedar is about the word wicked, and that maybe we should strike it from the hagaddah because it does feel a little wrong to call questions wicked.