Literary Themes Childhood


In 1960, the French historian Philippe Ariès advanced the hypothesis that the idea of childhood was practically nonexistent before the early modern period. The controversy about the existence or absence of the idea prior to that time in history gave rise to a host of studies on childhood. But what does the word childhood mean? Our awareness that it refers to a distinct period of human life is natural, but how do we determine its duration? How long does childhood last? Many psychologists and specialists in children’s studies conclude that childhood is an endlessly complex term. All have agreed that it refers to a set of experiences and behaviors, characteristic for the earlier part of our lives, meant to prepare us for adulthood and active life. As to its duration, individual differences should be taken into account.

In this sense, childhood is defined in opposition to adulthood: One is no longer a child when one becomes an adult. However, this theory has not sufficed, and the growth of research on the subject is telling. The common denominator of many studies on childhood is the attempt to grasp its essence, to define the experience of being a child and to explain the nature of children. One of the most important conclusions these studies have drawn is that our notions of childhood have changed. They have adapted themselves to society and to its conception of what a child should be. Thus, the ideas about childhood during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries evolved continually. Writing and literature tell us more about this evolution. Childhood has for long been one of the central themes of English literature.

Children were the subject of a great number of Elizabethan lyrics, and we can find them in the works of Dryden and Pope. However, childhood as a truly substantial theme arose with the novel, and its importance gradually increased through the 18th century. Later on, the theme developed and matured, and we can easily find its numerous ramifications in the literature of the 19th century as well as the 20th. Today, it is seen as essential for the critical understanding of the literary production of the 19th century and the Victorian period. In addition, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the steady emergence of a real literature for children, either for their instruction or entertainment. Thus, the child has been either the subject or the object of a plethora of writings since the 18th century. These writings reflect the dichotomy of childhood, which was seen as a symbol of growth and development on the one hand and as a symbol of regression and ignorance of the world on the other. Authors such as James Janeway (A Token for Children, 1671–72) spread the doctrine of original sin during the 17th century and constructed highly moralizing, religion-oriented visions of childhood. All of these were based on the theory of the Christian “fallen state” and looked upon children with pessimism. Childhood was seen as the most decisive period for the acquisition of the fundamentals of spirituality and for the construction of true faith.

However, the thinkers of the 18th century promoted reason as one of the highest virtues. The century became a period of transition, of which childhood was the supreme symbol, celebrating the cult of nature, the purity of mind and soul, and the triumph of innate goodness. Contrary to what was professed in earlier centuries, childhood was perceived in an increasingly positive light. Soon it became a favorite theme of the sentimental novel, and the poverty and misfortunes of guiltless, insightful, and virtuous children were an object of considerable import and frequent discussion in the works of many women writers (for example, Elizabeth Bonhote’s Hortensia; or, The Distressed Wife, 1769). The period saw the emergence of the idea that in childhood, the concepts of imagination, sensibility, and nature were joined in one. The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Émile (1762) on this representation of childhood in the literature of the times is undeniable. But sentimentality was not reserved to the 18th century only, and in her early novels, George Eliot molded childhood according to the same principles. Her children were portrayed as carefree and unencumbered with adult sorrow and the awareness of death.

An interesting peculiarity of her work is the attention Eliot pays to baby-talk and children’s ways of talking. For William Blake (e.g., Songs of Innocence, 1789) and William Wordsworth (e.g., “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” 1807, or “We Are Seven,” 1798), the child became a theme of a certain weight. ForBlake, childhood signified innocence; for Wordsworth, the child had natural piety and wisdom, and his famous line “The Child is father of the Man” (“My Heart Leaps Up,” 1802) became an increasingly popular motif. The child and the process of growing up were common metaphors for the regeneration and renewal of society, while childhood was seen as the equivalent of humanity in its infancy. Gradually, children became symbols of hope and childhood synonymous to new beginnings. Such was the case in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–61). The child in Dickens grew to be the incarnation of spontaneity, love, and innocence on the background of the ugliness, squalor and inhumanity of industrial London. Dickens offered his readers a view through the child’s eyes, creating a palpable experience of childhood. Indeed, many of his novels bear the names of children—Oliver Twist (1837–39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), Dombey and Son (1846–48), David Copperfield (1849–50), Little Dorrit (1855–57). Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (1847) explored the victimization, loneliness, and isolation of children within a hostile environment. Virtually deprived of childhood, the girls at the Lowood school for poor and orphaned children are vowed to a life of slavery and an early death. Jane Eyre fed on a strong heritage of gothic villainy and persecuted femininity to denounce the rigid education and brutal practices of the schooling system. While Brontë chose to give the reader an account of the negative effects a difficult childhood might have on an adult’s life, Henry James focused some of his writings on children exclusively. James was mostly concerned with the innocence of childhood and how this innocence can be corrupted if the family circle is unbalanced.

The major themes of both What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) are knowledge and ignorance, and they explore a number of problematic Freudian concepts, among which are children’s exposure to sexuality and early contact with death. During the second half of the 19th century, Lewis Carroll was one of the authors who wrote extensively for and about children. His Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and Sylvie and Bruno (1889–93)were specifically produced for an audience of children and even their cover art was conceived in such a way as to please children. Carroll’s correspondence with his editors is one of the numerous testimonials that a real concern about children and childhood had developed. Moreover, Carroll’s writings contain a great deal of information about what it meant to be a British child during the Victorian period. Laden with political implications and comments on the British Empire, Alice’s world places a heavy burden on the shoulders of its youngest subjects whose childhood is to prepare them for servitude. Almost at the same time in America, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) appear as stories of childhood escape, of willful isolation from society and a continual struggle against conformity. In line with the tradition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of children (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852), Twain’s works discuss freedom and liberty in a reaction against the limits and constraints of society. All of these are themes that echo William Blake’s natural, joyful, carefree, and enlightened romantic child. During the 20th century, childhood developed into a favorite theme for an ever-increasing number of genres. The examples vary extensively, from C. S. Lewis’s indirect portrayals of children at times of war to the poems, diaries, and writings by children (e.g., Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, 1947) and children writing of the various experiences of their own childhood.

While in earlier centuries childhood was a preparation and a period of growing up, the early 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of the idea of holding on to childhood with authors such as J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan, 1902–06) and Ray Bradbury (Dandelion Wine, 1957; Farewell Summer, 2006). They represented the magic, wonders, and transience of childhood. The scope for the study of childhood in literature is wide indeed. Today, researchers are asking more questions. They are discussing problems that had never been looked into before, and their work has uncovered a remarkable variety in the portrayal of children and childhood in literature, beyond the fundamental polarities of the good and the bad child. Studies, among which are those of Jacqueline Banerjee, Andrea Immel, and Michael Witmore, have shown that childhood stands at the heart of many works of literature from which it was initially thought absent. Thus, from the 20th century onwards, there has been a global and unprecedented interest in childhood.

See also Augustine, Saint: Confessions of St. Augustine; Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird; Morrison, Toni: Beloved; Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace; Winterson, Jeanette: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit


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