thinking about childhood

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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thinking about childhood

Allie Eiselen

As we concluded the semester with in-class group presentations, I was particularly struck by the "emotion" scripts, led by Steph Herold, Catherine Durante, Alison Reingold and Marina Gallo. Even though there was no written indication to do so, the class used children to act as characters with "happy" and "scared" emotions. This presentation led me to think about the important role that children have played in the Big Books throughout the semester.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's depicts of childhood as a time of innocence, with her poem entitled "Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies." However, her assertion seems very inaccurate considering that the childhood experience depicted in 19th century American Literature is actually filled with tremendous pain and suffering. If pain and suffering are the norm, why were we so inclined to use children as images of happiness in our emotion vignettes? Do we presume that children are happy living among such adversity? To answer these questions, we need to consider that the dangers and the memories of dangers are not only a threat to children but to the adults that they grow to become.
As a scientist of the human development, Freud says that "the early phases of development are absorbed into the later phases for which they have supplied the material...the embryo cannot be discovered in an adult...the fact remains that only in the mind is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside the final form possible"(Freud, 20). Because memories have the ability to elicit emotional responses, the way that we feel, or remember feeling in childhood, obviously affects our adult functioning. Because innocence is the defining element of childhood, this human development or "phase out" of our childish tendencies, is often symbolized in literature by the death of the child himself.
In Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw, Miles and Flora are young orphans who have been left under the care of the Governess; whose pathology undoubtedly impairs her judgments as a caretaker as well as taints the reliability of her narration. This in mind, Miles and his sister have obviously suffered the childhood loss of their biological parents and more suffering is implied by hints that deviant sexual behavior is the cause of the Miles' expulsion from boarding school.
According to the Governess's description in the beginning of the novella, should we choose to believe it, she is struck by Miles' "positive fragrance of purity." However, as her paranoia progresses, the Governess accuses Miles of plotting evil deeds with the ghostly inhabitants of Bly. As time passes, the governess depicts the progression from childhood innocence to a tainted maturity as she shifts from benevolent to demonic attributions of Miles.
Miles desire to leave Bly and to "see more of life" (361) is an indication that that he has outgrown a childish dependency on the protection of home. He has made up his own mind and no longer feels like a helpless little boy. Employed as a segregate parent to the children, the Governess is disturbed by the visible development of Mile's adult characteristics and demand for independence because it undermines role as the authority figure. "It was extraordinary how my absolute conviction of his secret precocity (or whatever I might call the poison of an influence that I dared but half to phrase) made him, in spite of the faint breath of his inward trouble, appear as accessible as an older person—imposed him almost as an intellectual equal"(371). The older that Miles gets, the less ignorant he is to the realities of life's suffering and the "precocity" that the Governess describes is an increasing knowledge of his "unnatural childish tragedy." (372)
The reader does not have the luxury of childhood faith and so we grow up with Miles and learn to distrust the Governess as well. Considering her pathology, Miles' reported association with demons and ghosts, could be merely a symbolic construction of the Governess' fear of a power struggle. If we interpret the Governess' "great betrayal," (402) as testimony of rape, then she has figuratively killed all that remained of the purity and innocence of Miles' youth. Miles' death at the end of the novella is the symbolic death of his childhood as "his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped."(403) Given another turn of the screw, if Peter Quint did have sexual relations with Miles; when the Governess demands the truth about Miles affiliation with the ghosts, she is actually expelling him from the childish bliss of repressed trauma.
Perhaps due to the sinful circumstances from which she was born, Pearl was not naive as the other children. "Pearl's early partial awareness of her parents' suffering, makes her a somewhat more mature child: "the infant's eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter; and putting up her little hand she grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her face the look of a much older child." Pearl is not content to be only partial informed. She insists on the whole truth and asks her mother to answer her questions about the meaning of the scarlet letter.
As Pearl discovers the truth about her mother's ignominy and her father's identity as well as physical and mental suffering, she grows from an elfish child to a noble woman. Although it pains Hester to observe and feel responsible for this absence of innocence in her young daughter, over the course of The Scarlet Letter, she views her "remarkable acuteness and precocity" as the beginning of the development of esteemed characteristics and "the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage, and uncontrollable will, and a sturdy pride..." Because her birth is the product of her parents sins, Pearl has never been wholly innocent. The moment that s the spell of Pearl's childhood is finally broken is when Dimmesdale publicly accepts his paternity on the scaffold: "The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it."
Hawthorne praises the shift from childhood to adulthood as symbolic of the shift from religious submission to independent thinking. Interestingly enough, Dimmesdale is a "father" in more ways than one. Perhaps the duality of his character, as a sinner and a saint, suggests that if we honor the Lord as our father, we can never grow out of our childish tendencies or reach adulthood at peace with our world. Peace, however, does not imply that adults are free from the pains of earthly tragedy. Nor does it seem that any amount of freedom to could possibly separate adults from suffering either.
Mark Twain's Huck Finn, is particularly noteworthy as a case study of the loss of innocence and the subsequent death of childhood. because Huck tries to escape his awful circumstances in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and pretends to die. When Huck is resurrected, he finds his world as dangerous of a place as when he last left it. Thus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an account of an adult mind occupying a child's body. Huck is not an ignorant character by any means. His awareness of the pain and suffering around him, makes him wish that he were dead, again:
"WHEN I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody's dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it's spirits whispering -- spirits that's been dead ever so many years -- and you always think they're talking about YOU. As a general thing it makes a body wish HE was dead, too, and done with it all."
Huck's astute adult observations make him fully aware of the gravity of his situation, but do not feel that any amount of conformity to religious or societal standards will solve his problems and so Huck decides to run away from his problems. The instances when Huck seems most childish in the novel are those in which he is dependent on Jim as a father figure, or is voluntary submission to Tom's unthinking cruelty freeing Jim. Perhaps Tom functions as religious preacher by insisting on strict adherence to the written word, even if he does not understand the meaning of what he reads. Although he admires Tom for living the ideal childhood, Huck does not agree with his blind religious faith. Huck's ability to distinguish right from wrong without a reliance on religion or society, show that his free will makes him capable of more mature thinking than many of the adults around him.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe', Little Eva suffers from a fatal illness, and yet somehow she is not affected by life's pain in the same way as the other children, nor is she the same sort of image of adulthood maturity. Stowe depicts Eva at the end of her life as content, the image of the innocence and purity of a perfect Christian child: On the face of the child, however, there was no ghastly imprint, - only a high and almost sublime expression, - the overshadowing presence of spiritual natures, the dawning of immortal life in that childish soul." How is Eva's experience so different from Miles, Pearl, and Huck?
In his 1930 repot of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that "Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures." By palliative measures, Freud is referring to the dependency on a Divine salvation. Freud criticizes such by saying that "The derivation of religious needs from the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrivable, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from the childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection."
According to our definition of childhood, as a time of protection from full realization of inherent suffering of the human life, Freud suggests that faith in the power of Providence is synonymous with childhood helplessness. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne criticizes the Puritanic Code for stunting the development of adult self-efficacy by its promotion of helplessness. The punitive restriction of behavior and thought was a powerful mechanism of control in the New World and Hester's sin is viewed as a direct threat to the power of the religious rule: "The discipline of the family in those days was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues." Maybe an acceptance of the Lord as a father figure prolongs the childhood of religious subscribers, who are spiritually dependent and childishly faithful throughout their lives. To the extent that faith gives hope of an afterlife; perhaps they are content not to question the religious authority or to insist on the truth of their mortality.
Perhaps the death of the fervently religious Eva, is much different from the other children's deaths because she believes herself to be a child of the Lord. this way her devotion and "infantile helplessness" extends her childhood and blinds her to the real pain and suffering of her life. Following this logic, the comfort of the death of a child that Stowe describes is not due to a jarring loss of innocence; rather it is due to the acceptance of a religious doctrine and a hope that dying is relief from the evils of the earth and a gateway to eternal happiness.
When comparing Eva, to the afore mentioned children of 19th century American Literature, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Stowe's goals as a writer were very specific. Consistent throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin are blatant biblical references and illusions which Stowe uses to convince her Christian readers that by promoting the institution of slavery, they are defying the will Christ. As an image of Christ herself, Eva is cannot function as an immature child. Stowe reports Eva's definite level of maturity and says that "If it must be told, the thing that struck a deeper pang to his heart than anything else was the daily increasing maturity of the child's mind and feelings. While still retaining all a child's fanciful graces, yet she often dropped, unconsciously, words of such a reach of thought, and strange unworldly wisdom, that they seemed to be an inspiration."
Not only is Eva accepting of her own suffering, but she is cognoscente of the suffering of others as well. Stowe strategically couples Evas faith in Providence with her antislavery sentiments. Stowe says tells her reader that "When you see that deep, spiritual light in the eye,--when the little soul reveals itself in words sweeter and wiser than the ordinary words of children,--hope not to retain that child; for the seal of heaven is on it, and the light of immortality looks out from its eyes." As the Lord's disciple, the message that Eva's wise character sends to the reader is that a fight for abolition will guarantee immortality.
Mark Twain probably would have agreed with Freud's disgust at Stowe's appeal to the moral sentiments of the Lord's children. In fact, Twain makes fun of Eva's type of character all together with the paralleling Emmeline Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Eva, Emmeline is a young, bedridden white girl. Before dying at the age of fourteen, Emmeline wrote many tribute poems to the dead. The utter foolishness of Emmeline is that she was a quantity over quality gal who "could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think...she would slap down a line, and if she couldn't find anything to rhyme with it would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead." Thus, Twain agrees that no matter how old you are, it is foolish not to think about what you are doing (be it writing poetry or reading the Bible) and that such is so pathetic of an existence, that you may as well die.
What do we, as young adult readers, learn from these "coming of age" experiences?
During our first discussion of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we were asked as a class to describe our initial impression of Jim. We called out answers of "foolish," "childish," and "ignorant;" but soon wanted to describe ourselves with the same adjectives as we were made aware of the multidimensionality of the text. The in-class performance of Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn was a great way to visualize the differences between the skeptic and the naive reader. Although the script utilized the same words, with only a few stage directions, they took on a completely new meaning.
Although we have spent this semester learning new approaches to reading through an application of the lenses of biology, philosophy, economics, and psychology, we found ourselves to be no better than Tom Sawyer, and all too willing to join his adventures. Whichever lens is applied, its function is makes us think critically. In other words, being a reader seems to insist that the reader abandon their innocence and childhood.
Not that all readers are adults by any means, but literacy does prompt development to the extent that it is what and how we read that changes us. In as much as we adopt the stories that we read as our own, or connect our situations to the stories of the characters we read about in literature, we come to experience the story itself. By searching for meaning, truth, and knowledge, the reader can not ignore the reality of their emotion experience, nor can they remain ignorant of the emotional experience of the others around them. Because Huck never had the luxury of parental protection, by running away from society, he is actually trying to run away from suffering. Huck's Peter Pan desires to relive his childhood, suggest that perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

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