Repost: The Stifling Role of Child-Mother

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content. In retrospect, I'm astonished to see and recall that I actually counted all the words spoken by each child. I mean, I'm glad I did, but wow, that took forever.] 

Narnia Recap: If you've never heard of The Chronicles of Narnia, you might want to start here with the deconstruction vote, and then follow to here for the discussion of the deconstruction vote.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 1: Lucy Looks Into A Wardrobe

Four is frequently the magic number in children's literature, at least in terms of protagonist children. With four children, you can have two girls, two boys, a wide range of ages (and therefore a broad audience appeal), and the author can do all sorts of cute tricks like perfectly alternating the genders by age (boy, girl, boy, girl) or by introducing pairs of boy-girl twins. The Bobbsey Twins features four children of the twin-pair variety, the Boxcar Children features four children of the alternating variety, and the Chronicles of Narnia starts the first published book in the series, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, with a family of four young children: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

The existence of four child protagonists is useful for other reasons beyond gender symmetry and age spread, and will particularly aid an author looking to divvy up his protagonists along standard narrative tropes. The younger children can get into scrapes, make the important accidental discoveries, and endear themselves to any adult-figures in the story; the older children can perform the scary and daring feats, rescue and protect the younger children, and perform any particularly tedious tasks set for them by the adult-figures. Further narrative tropes are segregated by gender: the youngest girl will usually be cute, lovable, and tractably innocent; the youngest boy will be called upon for lightly bratty behavior and naughty shenanigans. The oldest brother will, of course, be the daring leader of the family and surrogate father figure, and the oldest daughter will almost always be saddled with the burden of being the practical, nurturing surrogate mother.

Childrens' books -- particularly classic ones -- are something of a paradox in many ways. The narratives are often crafted around the absence of parents, for how can a child truly have fun, or be subjected to exciting danger, or have the opportunity for daring adventures when parents are hovering nearby? And yet, at the same time, the youngest readers of these series (or, at least, so the authors seem to believe) will suffer the occasional anxious pang and will need to be assured that they are still in caring hands, and that a kind benefactor is still looking out for them. Clearly, a Mother isn't called for -- Mothers are tall and powerful and can send children to bed on a whim -- but perhaps a child-mother is in order. Child-mothers are surrogate mothers who are also children; little girls like Wendy Darling who tell stories and cuddle and make suggestions, but who rarely have the power to enforce an absolute order. They are mothers in miniature, and too often in literature they only exist to serve the needs of their more interesting siblings.

In her incredible book, The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason writes of the Bobbsey Twins:

The books create an illusion that adventure is the process of learning the roles, although the roles of Mamma and Daddy Bobbsey are dull. Nan is "quite a little housekeeper" and nursemaid to Flossie and Freddie. "She seemed like a little mother to them at times, though she was only four years older." (The Bobbsey Twins at School, p. 72) Nan, like Bert, is tops at anything she tries, which isn't much. She wins a peanut race easily and is interested in "patches and tidies" and making jumble chocolates. The reader, at least, is able to lose herself in the excitement of the book, but what is Nan doing? [...] Bert gets to do some clever things, like build an ice-boat, but Nan Bobbsey does nothing whatsoever in the whole of the Great City of New York except buy a workbasket. Nan is ten, when a little girl is too old for dolls and pranks, too young for boys and barred from their games, halfway between Honey Bunch and nymphet. Bert is going to paddle his own canoe somewhere, and Nan is wistful.

   "Wouldn't you let me paddle with you?" asked Nan. "I know how -- a little."
    The Bobbsey Twins in the Great City, p. 167

Nan's alienation is probably not noticeable to the child [...] She has a firm role -- as mini-parent, non-child, serious-minded little woman.
With that in mind, I think it's very telling that the first interaction we see of the four Pevensie children, newly relocated to the country to escape the bombing of London, is this:

   "We've fallen on our feet and no mistake," said Peter. "This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like."
   "I think he's an old dear," said Susan.
   "Oh, come off it!" said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. "Don't go on talking like that."
   "Like what?" said Susan; "and anyway, it's time you were in bed."
   "Trying to talk like Mother," said Edmund. "And who are you to say when I'm to go to bed? Go to bed yourself."
   "Hadn't we all better go to bed?" said Lucy. "There's sure to be a row if we're heard talking here."

And with that rather elegant introduction, the reader already knows all they need to know about the four children of our story. Peter is the oldest, brave and courageous and full of excitement for the adventures he imagines ahead of them. He isn't fearful of the strange odd-looking old professor they've been sent to live with; he's already planning just how much the children can get away with in their new vacation home. Lucy, the youngest, is the eldest Peter's foil -- sweet and timid and nervous, she tries to smooth over arguments and avoid conflicts, fearing a row if the children are caught up past bedtime. As the most innocent of the children, she will be the one to first discover Narnia; as the sweetest of the bunch, she will be The Healer and Aslan's particular favorite.

Edmund, of course, is the Other Boy -- not the oldest boy and not the youngest child. In a mystery series, he would be the brassy, mischievous child whose poorly conceived shenanigans puts the others in danger, but who is loved by his siblings nonetheless. In a series like the Bobbsey Twins, he would be spoiled by his doting mother; in the popular psychiatric thought of the early 1900's, he would likely have been imagined as being his mother's "devoted little man", the male child she could love as her own, spoil without consequence, and expect tenderness from in return. In contrast, as we can see from her introduction, Susan is already well ensconced in the restrictive child-mother role of the eldest daughter -- her first line of dialogue is immediately rebuked by the candid Edmund as being deliberately imitative of their mother; her second line of dialogue is a matronly counter that it is Past Everyone's Bedtime.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (TLWW) is a very conversational novel, and really showcases C.S. Lewis' undeniable talent as a writer. A great deal of the action unfolds through the conversations and interactions of the Pevensie children, both between themselves and with others, and their actions and speech patterns have a skillful and natural flow. The characters of the children are not wholly original, perhaps, and do conform very conveniently to common narrative tropes in childrens' literature, but they are for the most part very colorful characters within their stereotypical bounds, and it's such an easy thing to sink effortlessly into the prose of the book.

And yet, if the value of a character is measured by the extent of their role in a novel, it might follow then that the value of a character in a conversational novel is measured by their share in the conversation. Of all the words spoken by the Pevensie children in the novel, the speakers of those words can be mapped out as such:

Lucy, as the Discoverer of Narnia has quite a head-start on the other children: her introductory conversations with Mr. Tumnus The Fawn that establish much of the world-building in this novel put her in a definite lead over the other children, with a gap which even the loquacious Peter can never quite bridge. Edmund, as The Traitor, is at a distinct disadvantage in the conversation department -- he spends so much of the novel either sulking in silence, answering the Witch in short fearful bursts, or fully knocked unconscious for much of the battle aftermath, that it's not unusual for whole pages to go by without him saying anything at all.

And yet, somehow, Susan manages to speak even less than the frequently silent and moody Edmund. Once the four children arrive in Narnia, she never leaves either Peter or Lucy's side, and she is even one of the two witnesses to Aslan's heroic sacrifice and resurrection, and yet her speaking parts are noticeably subdued. When she does speak, she speaks sensibly and with the voice of experience -- urging the others to borrow the warm coats in the wardrobe before trekking through the deep snows of Narnia, and being the first to notice their lack of food and what it might mean for the long term -- but despite her age and wisdom, her voice lacks the authority of brother Peter. Susan is the peacemaker and the nurturer, and though she may dispense good advice, it is always within the power of her siblings to ignore it. Peter, the destined high king, gives orders, but Susan provides only suggestions.

In the first chapter of TLWW, the children settle into their new home. Peter suggests ways and means for them to enjoy themselves, coming up with fun exploring ideas when the children are trapped indoors by the rain. Edmund grumbles a lot and expresses the discontent one might expect from a young child separated from his home and his parents by the tragedy of war, but brightens at the thought of spending time outdoors looking for exotic animals. Lucy, sweet and innocent, climbs into a wardrobe to feel the soft, reassuring coat fur on her face (and don't I remember a rabbit-fur coat of my mother's that I always felt the same way about?) and in doing so discovers a magical portal to a fantasy realm filled with adventure and talking animals.

Susan, on the other hand, gets to speak four lines in this first chapter: she calls the odd-looking professor an "old dear" in deliberate emulation of her missing mother, she attempts unsuccessfully to send Edmund to bed, she consoles the younger children that the rain keeping them indoors must stop soon, and when the children each cry out the animal they most look forward to finding in the nearby countryside, she counters a meek "rabbits" to the other childrens' more exotic eagles, and foxes, and badgers.


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