The Season of Play: Constructions of the Child in the English Novel



Childhood and the child are cultural myths replicated and reinvented through representational practices of history, science, literature, material culture, woven in, and by, discourses, or discursive traditions, which inevitably embody priorities, beliefs, the feelings of people, of time and of place. The child I propose to write about is thus mainly a cultural phenomenon, and partly also an ideological construct, and not a ‘real’ child. Being mainly a representation through discourse the child is inseparable from its representation procedures and unattainable with total objectivity. Let me argue further that it is inevitably linked to adult memory processes which aim at retrieving the past. From the moment ‘childhood’ was allowed to exist, that is, to be represented iconographically or discursively as different from adulthood, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries,2 it has been framed — and especially so in the literary milieu — by a powerful tradition of selective and nostalgic recallings by adults of their first years of existence. This tendency became particularly striking towards the end of the eighteenth century when, in the Enlightenment, the child became the object of educational preoccupations and came under closer observation by teachers and parents, and when in Romanticism an ideal of the child as ‘Father to the Man’3 was created; and it has circulated since then, notwithstanding the substitution of this notion of the ‘child of god’ by successive others, which contradict or develop it in some way.


Eighteenth Century Child Character Representational Practice Semantic Figure Psychic Reality 
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  1. 1.
    Author’s note: I am grateful to Alvaro Pina who discussed with me many of the ideas of this text and who supervised the dissertation (M. Morgado, A Estação do Brincar [Castelo Branco, 1994]) from which it is abstracted.Google Scholar
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    See V. Caputo, ‘Anthropology’s Silent “Others”: A Consideration of Some Conceptual and Methodological Issues for the Study of Youth and Children’s Culture’, in V. Amit-Talal & H. Wulff (eds), Youth Cultures. A Cross-Cultural Perspective (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 19–42.Google Scholar
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    R. Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). As the notion of ‘structure of feeling’ and the whole cultural theory of Raymond Williams has lately been brought to the fore, through successive approaches in the cultural studies area, it deserves some theoretical backgrounding. According to Laura di Michelle (‘Autobiography and the “Structure of Feeling” in Border Country’, in D.L. Dworkin and L.G. Roman (eds), Views Beyond the Border Country [New York and London: Routledge, 1993], pp. 21–37), the concept was first used by Williams in Preface to Film (1954) to mean a shared general culture and was further re-worked in Culture and Society (1958). But Bernard Sharrat (‘In Whose Voice? The Drama of Raymond Williams’, in T. Eagleton (ed), Raymond Williams. Critical Perspectives [Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989], pp. 130–49) had already argued that in Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952) Williams had been working with ‘structure of feeling’ in the sense of a correspondence of new author(s), new epoch and new structure of feeling in a web of continuity with the past and new creative responses to life experiences. This idea has often been connected with Lucien Goldman’s notion of ‘genetic structure’ which, however, was discarded when, in Marxism and Literature, Williams himself rephrases and reworks his concept. I will quote him extensively, in support of the argument I have developed in the body of the text: For structures of feeling can be defined as social experiences in solution, as distinct from other semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available. Not all art, by any means, relates to a contemporary structure of feeling. The effective formations of most actual art relate to already manifest social formations dominant or residual, and it is primarily to emergent formations (though often in the form of modification or disturbance in older forms) that the structure of feeling, as solution, relates. Yet this specific solution is never mere flux. It is a structured formation which, because it is at the very edge of semantic availability, has many of the characteristics of a pre-formation, until specific articulations — new semantic figures — are discovered in material practice; often, as it happens, in relatively isolated ways, which are only later seen to compose a significant (often in fact minority) generation; this often, in turn, the generation that substantially connects to its successors. It is thus a specific structure of particular linkages, particular emphases and suppressions, and, in what are often its more recognizable forms, particular deep starting points and conclusions, (pp. 133–4). My attention has been called to the fact that I may be sharing Raymond Williams’s theoretical imprecision concerning the notion of ‘structure of feeling’. Accordingly, what Williams has not taken into consideration is that there must be simultaneously several structures of feeling of the various and different cultural and subcultural systems of an epoch. Structures of feeling are not entirely separable from other co-existent structures of meaning, values and thoughts (Alvaro Pina, personal communication).Google Scholar
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    I refer to the eighteenth century to prove my concordance with the old thesis of Philippe Ariès (op. cit.) who sees the child emerging as important to, and as different from, adults, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, though it had been discovered in the thirteenth century. Ariès has been much contested lately, mainly for his ‘presentism’, for using criteria of the present to analyse the past; and for the fact that what he says regarding the past not having a concept of childhood is untrue. What the past did not hold, argue his opposers, is our concept of childhood. We should not talk of an absence of the child prior to the thirteenth century, but mainly of a ‘dissimilar presence’. See for example David Archard’s argument in Children, Rights and Childhood (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).Google Scholar
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    I mention these titles as instances of first-person narratives and do not wish to mark them as exemplary in any way. For reference: I. McEwan, The Cement Garden (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978);Google Scholar
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    I advance this designation — counter-culture — with caution, since it purports explicit political and ideological forms of opposition to dominant culture and ‘alternative’ institutions, while in subculture resistance revolves mainly around symbolic forms of resistance (D. Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style [London: Methuen, 1979], p. 148). Note that we are in the realm of textual children whose actions — as it will become clearer from the close readings of novels — do present themselves as ‘alternative’ structures of meaning from those of adult narrators. Subculture in Hurst’s terms means basically the linguistically proved identification of specific characteristics inherent to the speech of child characters as represented fictionally. From a sociological perspective, subculture has been constructed as a feeling of identity, experienced by a group of young people, based on style, on a shared symbolic code of dress, language, objects put to alternative uses. In Hebdige’s (op. cit., pp. 5–19) point of view subculture involves forms of resistance to hegemony and it constitutes itself as a contradictory and opposing strategy of the principles of cohesion, consensus and of the ‘silent majority’. Subculture is immediately linked to ‘deviants’ who are simultaneously those groups who are struggling ‘within signification’ (p. 17), trying to generate discursive and symbolic ways of signifying and of opposing the dominant orders. As such, subcultures are invented, produced and put to work by the groups of youngsters themselves, they are their ‘voice’ made up of gestures, objects used legitimately and illegitimately, styles of dress, conspicuous in their own spectacularity.Google Scholar
  19. (A) child subculture(s) is/are seldom spectacular in the same sense of calling attention to it/themselves, inviting criticism, aversion, condemnation. I think that there still are, as in the organization of youth subcultures, objections to the adult hegemony, also expressed obliquely, especially through an alternative discourse of play and games (see I. Opie and P. Opie, Children’s Games in Street and Playground [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969]), of silence (silenced groups — as are those of youngsters and children — will not adopt a linguistic voice easily and part of their experience lies probably hidden from language, especially because they are [by adults’ scientific definitions of them] less articulate linguistically, most of the time still wrestling at fundamental levels with how patriarchal language frames the world into a certain fashion), of cries and ululations, gestures, drawings, music and even of the engagement with the material culture which seeks to engulf them in adult meanings.Google Scholar
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    That we have taken the child too much for granted has been recognized in several disciplines concerned with child study; in sociology, anthropology, psychology, literary criticism, pedagogy. It is relevant, however, that it is in the margins of all these disciplines that the implied knowledge that ‘the child’ is not a stabilized subject of study may be uncovered, that new approaches are needed even if they impose a rearrangement of disciplinary relations and the inclusion of so far excluded practices which might menace the canonic subject matter of each discipline of knowledge. Michel Foucault’s Archaelogy of Knowledge (London: Tavistock, 1972) is still worth consulting on this view.Google Scholar
  21. See also the very interesting article of J.-A. Wallace, ‘Technologies of “the child”: towards a theory of the child-subject’, Textual Practice, 9, 2 (1995), pp. 285–302, in which she forwards the idea that ‘the child’ and ‘childhood’ function as points of aporia and anxiety in the field of theory, by which she means that there is an absence of the child subject or of the child in self-representation in the theoretical discourses which concern the child.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    J. Kristeva, Desire in Language (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980).Google Scholar
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    See especially M. Klein, ‘The Psycho-analytical Play Technique: Its History and Significance’ (1955), in J. Mitchell (ed), The Selected Melanie Klein (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996).Google Scholar
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    D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Psychoanalysts believe they are able, through play analysis, to listen to the child’s subjectivity and inner feelings, which the child is incapable of expressing otherwise. This core of the child’s subjectivity, however, is, according to Jacques Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (ed. J.-A. Miller, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), nothing more than a cultural space towards which converge resonances of the words spoken by parents, their silences, which may have been understood or misunderstood, their projections, desires and discourses. And even psychoanalytical discourse has not been able to break free from the constraints of adult over child: either the analyst-as-adult has to interpret (in this case translate into verbal language) and thus superimposes his/her voice on what the child expresses through play, or the unconscious itself of the child is seen as invaded by adult presences from the very beginning.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    R. Kipling, Kim (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 [first publ. 1901]).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    The Turn of the Screw was published in book form, for the first time, in 1935, but it was written by James in 1889 (H. James, The Turn of the Screw [London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1957]).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Underlying my cultural reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as centrally showing the adult-child impossible relation or limit situation is the very productive reading by Shoshana Felman (S. Felman, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, in S. Felman (ed.), Literature and Psychoanalysis: the Question of Reading Otherwise [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982]) in which she emphasizes that the ‘Turn of the Screw’ is the act of interpretation, that the text ‘constitutes a reading of its two possible readings, both of which, in the course of the reading, it deconstructs’. She calls The Turn of the Screw a magistral fiction which turns the table on the reader, who instead of reading is read into the story. Felman’s Lacanian analysis relates the content of the letters the reader is never allowed to look into (about Miles, from the governess to the tutor, which is ‘nothing’) with the manuscript supposedly written by the governess and which arrives as a letter, by mail, at the house where the guests are assembled to listen to its reading. By exposing the construction and deconstruction mechanisms of the story itself, Feldman’s reading is implicitly suggestive of the cultural reading I advance. It is the how rather than the what the story signifies which is the central theme. It is the relation between adults (listeners, tellers, characters, producers of meanings, authors, narrators) and children rather than the children as angels or as devils that I am interested in. One further interesting point to make is the connection between this Jamesian story and Barrie’s Peter Pan in the context of a certain structure of feeling in literature at the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, which might be recovered by critical discourse as the theorization of the adult-child power relation at the turn of the century.Google Scholar
  29. Though K. Reynolds (Children’s Literature in the 1890’s and 1990’s [Plymouth: Northcote House, 1994]) has specifically written on these connections, she has significantly failed to address this very interesting discursive link which seems to substitute fiction for the critical discourses on it.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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