The ideological debate in literary studies - Critical tradition and ideological positioning - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


The ideological debate in literary studies


Character and action: structuralist insights

As already noted, the work of New Critic Northrop Frye (1957) had been influential in establishing a structuralist tradition in the criticism of children’s fiction in the USA in the early 1970s. From Europe a different tradition began to make its influence felt in Britain in the later 1970s and 1980s, particularly with regard to the treatment of character and action. The Russian formalist Vladimir Propp (1928/1968) suggested in his study of the Russian folk tale that character was not the source of action, rather it was the product of plot. The hero was the hero because of his or her role in the plot. One can go back to Aristotle for similar insistence that it was not character but action that was important in tragedy (Aristotle 1965: 39) and such views were echoed by the pre-war critic Walter Benjamin (1970) and in Tzvetan Todorov’s work (1971/1977).

In Britain the Leavisite tradition had, by contrast, tended to emphasise the importance of psychological insight in characterisation, and had seen characters themselves as the source of the action of the story, and it is easy to see how the work of authors writing in English such as Philippa Pearce, Nina Bawden, William Mayne, Maurice Sendak, Anthony Browne or Aidan Chambers, to take a list not entirely at random, lends itself to such approaches. By contrast the work of popular authors, such as Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, more easily lends itself to structuralist analysis: their protagonists are heroines and heroes primarily because that is their plot role, not because there is anything in their psychological make-up that makes them inherently ‘heroic’.

Such structuralist approaches need not be limited to popular texts, and can be applied with equal usefulness to the work of authors at what is often regarded as the ‘quality’ end of the market. To take an example, the character of Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) could be seen on the one hand as a rounded psychological creation, by turns blustering and repentant, selfish, self-seeking and replete with hubris. His exploits can then be seen entirely in terms of his personality. Structuralist analysis, on the other hand, might see him as comic hero, archetypal overreacher, functioning as the disruptive element in the social order that is necessary for the book’s main plot to develop, and thus acting as a pivotal point for the articulation of the conflict between the uncertainties of the newer machine age and the more settled life of the rural idyll, a conflict which is one of the major themes of the book.

Robert Leeson (1975/1980) led the attack on the application to children’s fiction of the then prevailing British tradition of adult literary criticism. He writes: ‘these days, turning to adult lit-crit is like asking to be rescued by the Titanic’ (209). He locates the debate about characterisation in a specifically ideological context, suggesting that enthusiasm for psychological characterisation is a bourgeois trait. The old tales, he argues, echoing Propp, didn’t need psychology, they had action and moral. The claims made by traditional ‘lit-crit’ for such characterisation are elitist, and have little application for the general reader. J. S. Bratton, too, rejected the Leavisite tradition in her study of Victorian children’s books: ‘the liberal humanist tradition of literary criticism offers no effective approach to the material’ (Bratton 1981: 19), although she draws on Frye as well as Propp in her resort to structuralism (see also Sarland 1991: 142).

The critique of the position which sees character as the source of meaning and action comes from a wider and more ideological perspective than that of structuralism alone, and structuralism itself has more to offer than insights about character and action. More widely, structuralism draws on semiotics to explore the whole range of codes that operate in texts and by which they construct their meanings; it also takes a lead from Levi-Strauss (1963), who related structural elements in myths to structural elements in the society that gave rise to them. This becomes a central tool of ideological critique, allowing parallels to be drawn between ideological structures in the works and those in society at large.


The underlying ground of ideological value

Marxist literary criticism analyses literature in the light of prevailing economic class conflict in capitalist society. This conflict is not slavishly reproduced in the ideological superstructure, of which literature is a part, but it is always possible to trace it in some form in individual work. The liberal humanist tradition, by contrast, is not so much concerned with class conflict as with materialism itself. The ideological conflict then becomes materialism versus humanism and the paradigm distinction to be made about the work, pace Henry James, is that between art and commerce. Terry Eagleton (1976) and Catherine Belsey (1980) are among the major critics of the Leavisite tradition, identifying its liberal humanist roots and analysing its escapist response to the materialism of bourgeois capitalism. Furthermore, they argue, by ‘naturalising’ its values as common sense, liberal humanism conceals its reactionary political role, although the idealist nature of its position is often clear enough in its claim of transcendent status for those same values and for a universal ‘human nature’ in which they inhere.

To take an example, a liberal humanist reading of The Wind in the Willows might see it as celebrating the values enshrined in notions of home and good fellowship, in opposition to the threatening materialism of the wide world with its dominant symbol of the motor car. A case might be made that the recurrent plots and sub-plots, all of which involve explorations away from and successive returns to warm secure homes, culminating in the retaking of Toad Hall from the marauding weasels and stoats, have a ‘universal’ appeal, since such explorations and returns are the very condition of childhood itself. An ideological perspective might note, by contrast, the resemblance of those secure warm homes to the Victorian middle-class nursery, and comment upon the escapism of the response to the materialism of the wide world. Such an approach might further recognise the underlying feudalist presuppositions that are hidden within the ‘common sense’ assumptions of the book, and might identify in the weasels and stoats the emergence of an organised working class challenging the privileges of property and upper-middle-class idleness. Jan Needle’s re-working of the book, Wild Wood (1981), starts from just such a premise. In addition, the celebration of fellowship is an entirely male affair: the only women in The Wind in the Willows - the gaoler’s daughter and the barge-woman - have distinctly subservient roles, and claims for universality just in terms of gender alone begin to look decidedly suspect.

Belsey also suggests that from the liberal humanist perspective people are seen as the sole authors of their own actions, and hence of their own history, and meaning is the product of their individual intentions. In fact, she argues, the reverse is true: people are not the authors of their own history, they are rather the products of history itself or, less deterministically, engaged in a dialectical relationship with their history - both product and producer. The grounds for Leeson’s argument, above, are now clear, for a criticism that espouses psychological characterisation as a central tenet of ‘quality’, and that insists that the stories in which those characters find themselves should be rooted in the inten- tionality of those characters’ psyches, is liberal humanist in assumption, and will fail to expose the ideological nature both of the fiction to which it is giving attention, and of the fiction that it is ignoring.

In liberal humanist criticism it is the author who takes centre-stage, and Belsey identifies ‘expressive realism’ as literature’s dominant form over the past 150 years: reality, as experienced by a single gifted individual, is expressed in such a way that the rest of us spontaneously perceive it as being the case. Grahame’s intention is assumed to be that readers should see childhood as a time and place of adventure within a secure framework, and readers are to take his word for it. The resort to the author’s intention as the source of meaning in the work, known to its critics as the ‘intentional fallacy’, had already come under attack for circularity from the New Critics, since the primary evidence for the author’s intention was usually the work itself. Belsey takes the argument one step further, suggesting that expressive realism operates to support liberal humanism, and thus, effectively, to support capitalism itself. Ideological perspectives insist, in contrast, that texts are constructions in and of ideology, generally operating unconsciously, and it is the job of the critic to deconstruct the work in order to expose its underlying ideological nature and role. Thus, far from being the unique insight of an individual with a privileged understanding of the world, The Wind in the Willows can be seen as resting securely within a continuum of escapist response to developing bourgeois capitalism that stretches all the way from Hard Times to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Peter Hollindale (1988) takes on a number of the perspectives outlined above, and applies them to his discussion of ideology in children’s books. He distinguishes three levels of ideology. There is first of all an overt, often proselytising or didactic level, as in books like Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler (1977). Then there is a second, more passive level, where views of the world are put into characters’ mouths or otherwise incorporated into the narrative with no overt ironic distancing. (There is a famous example of this from Enid Blyton’s Five Run Away Together (1944), analysed by Ken Watson (1992: 31), in which the reader is implicitly invited to side with the obnoxious middle-class Julian putting down a member of the ‘lower orders’.) Finally, there is what Hollindale calls an ‘underlying climate of belief’ which he identifies as being inscribed in the basic material from which fiction is built. It is possible to detect a hankering after the old transcendent certainties in Hollindale’s work; nonetheless, he does substantially shift the ground of the debate in regard to children’s fiction, recognising the complexity of the issues.


Postcolonialism and ‘othering’

To these debates may be added the perspectives of postcolonial studies. The work of Edward Said (1993) draws our attention to the ways in which the assumptions of imperialism are often buried so deep in the dominant culture as to be invisible to those who live within it. It was only after the successful resistance of the colonised which led to the throwing off of the imperialist yoke that such perspectives began to penetrate the discourses of the dominant culture, leading us to look anew at the ideological assumptions of much of our cultural product.

Within that product a number of things can occur. The first is that imperialist assumptions are built into the text quite overtly, with imperialist and racist sentiments put explicitly into the mouths of the characters (see Cullingford 1998).

Second, the ground of ideological assumption can mean that the evidence is there in the text, but that commentary has not noted it. Said’s own expositions of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Austen’s Mansfield Park are cases in point. In children’s fiction a glance at the work of some of the canonical names provides obvious examples. Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water (1939) comes replete with the language of imperialism: ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ abound, ‘natives’ being adults, and ‘savages’ being other children with whom the central characters enter into a war game. When ‘the savages’ embark upon a raid the descriptions are explicit enough: ‘Except for their faces all three were shiny and black. All three were in bathing things, but it was hard to see where bathing things ended and mud began. The savages. There was no doubt about it’ (Ransome 1939: 220). Secret Water operates as an imperialist text at a more structural level, too, since the whole book is about the central family’s and in particular John the oldest boy’s agenda, given him by his father, to explore the estuary upon which they are camped. As Said suggests: ‘The main battle in imperialism is over land’ (Said 1993: xiii), and in the course of the book Secret Water the central invading family maps and names the land; they even recruit a local boy as a ‘native guide’.

The operation of imperialism does not occur just at the material level of physical occupation and subsequent economic annexation. It also, Said suggests, operates at a cultural and ideological level. This is exemplified in The Story of Dr Dolittle (Hugh Lofting 1922): in line with the characterisation of the Africans as both primitive and stupid, Lofting’s story also offers us an almost prophetic narrative of colonisation, cultural hegemony, decolonisation and postcolonial influence. The arrival of the white man in the form of the good doctor and his animal helpers plays out the initial colonisation of imperialism (his ostensible reason for being there is to cure the monkeys of some mysterious disease which is decimating the population - the eeriest of pre-echoes of the AIDS story of the final years of the twentieth century). The next stage, in which Prince Bumpo wishes to be like the hero of The Sleeping Beauty, then demonstrates the operation of European cultural hegemony, as, in order become such a hero, Bumpo himself has to turn white. Dolittle, with some misgivings it has to be said, for it is to be a painful process, bleaches his face, but does not even attempt to sort out problems that might ensue. Instead he appropriates the natural resources of the country in the form of the pushmi-pullyou and, in a classic trope of de-colonising irresponsibility, sails away leaving Bumpo to his fate, commenting only that the whiteness will probably wear off in time. He does, however, promise to send Bumpo some candy, hence prefiguring precisely the ways in which the former imperial nations have continued to exercise neo-imperialist economic hegemony over their former colonies through the operation of economic aid with all its concomitant controlling mechanisms, and through the direct supply of arms to any of them that looked as if they were on ‘our’ side, no matter how dubious their governments or how appalling their human rights records.

In both the above examples, imperialism was encapsulated in both the language of the text and the structures of the narratives. In other examples imperialism is silenced. In The Wind in the Willows, for instance, the Rat silences the Mole’s interest in the Wide World, while later the Mole physically restrains the Rat from going to explore it, re-establishing English domestic order in order to erase the threat of the ‘other’, the ‘out there’.

Finally there are those texts which raise the issues of xenophobia, racism and imperialism and succeed in challenging prevailing ideological assumption. Bradford (2001) suggests that it is in particular those books that are about boundaries that bring out such issues, and offers an analysis of some Australian and New Zealand fiction to make her point. Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind (1998) and Gaye Hi^yilmaz’s The Frozen Waterfall (1993) do just that, the former looking at relationships between Australians and the immigrant Japanese community during the Second World War, and the latter looking at the contemporary experience of Turkish immigrants in Switzerland. Hi^yilmaz’s earlier Against the Storm (1990) is perhaps even more challenging for English readers since it portrays in uncompromising terms what it is like to be young and living on the streets of Ankara, a far cry from the standard fare of most children’s books in English.

Both Said and Hourihan suggest that the discourse of imperialism is structured around a process of ‘othering’, a process that it shares with the discourses of racism, of xenophobia, of class distinction, of paternalism, of homophobia. Each of these have their particular ideological formulations which can be identified in terms of the particular group that is othered. In current neo-imperialism, terms such as civilisation, freedom, democracy are set against terms such as terrorism and fundamentalism and formulations such as ‘the evil empire’, all of which are designed to preclude understanding and debate. As postcolonial readings can help us to understand the imperialist ideologies that characterise particular texts, so anti-racist readings, class-conscious readings, feminist readings and queer readings can help us to understand the racist, paternalist, class-biased and homophobic ideologies that also characterise texts. Such readings, however, also have the ability to penetrate the surface of the text to demonstrate the ambiguity underneath, as I have attempted to do in my readings of popular literature (Sarland 1991).

As a further example and in an area that is continuously re-erased in children’s literature, a queer reading of The Wind in the Willows might note that the central relationship of the book, that between Mole and Ratty, is very much one of two men living together in domestic bliss. Indeed, Philip Hoare quotes Peter Burton to the effect that the appearance of Pan in the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter would have lent itself to just such a queer reading at the time of the book’s original publication (Hoare 1997: 80).


Circumstances of production

Within the Marxist tradition it has long been recognised that literature is a product of the particular historical and social formations that prevail at the time of its production (see, for example, Lenin 1908, 1910, 1911/1978; Plekhanov 1913/1957; Trotsky 1924/1974). Children’s books have not received such attention until comparatively recently. Bratton (1981) traced the relationship between British Victorian children’s fiction and its various markets - stories for girls to teach them the domestic virtues, stories for boys to teach them the virtues of military Christianity, stories for the newly literate poor, to teach them religion and morality. Leeson, in his history of children’s fiction (1985), suggests that there has always been a conflict between middle-class literature and popular literature, a distinction which can be traced in the content of the material and related to the market that it found. He draws attention to the roots of popular fiction in folk tale, which had political content which survived (somewhat subdued) into the written forms. Leeson thus raises a question-mark over the perhaps somewhat more determinist analysis offered by Belsey and Eagleton.

More thorough exploration of the issues in contemporary children’s fiction has come from feminist perspectives, with a collection of studies from Australia of popular teen romance fiction edited by Linda Christian-Smith (1993a). Christian-Smith herself (1993b) provides a particularly powerful analysis of the economic, political and ideological circumstances of the growth in production of romances for teenagers and/or ‘young adults’, which is now a global industry, with most of the publishing houses based in the USA. She traces the relationship between the imperatives of ‘Reaganomics’, the emphasis on family values in the rise of the New Right in the 1980s, and the need to enculturate young women into the gendered roles that serve such interests.