Representations of the Damaging Childhood in Literary Works: Part 1

Some years ago now when I was researching for my MPhil (Master of Philosophy) degree, and looking at representations of the damaging childhood in literary works, I chose four significant literary works for discussion in the exegetical component to my degree: Oliver Twist, a novel by Charles Dickens; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an autobiographical novel by James Joyce; Our Kate, an autobiography by Catherine Cookson; and Angela’s Ashes, a memoir by Frank McCourt. These four books were chosen because, as an aspiring writer, I considered them to be valuable as models for techniques and methods that could be adapted for my own use, and for things to do and not do, when writing my own memoir, which I entitled The Carpet Child, about my own damaging childhood.

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was chosen as a model for the writing of The Carpet Child because it has the vivid quality of pathos and the startling effect of nightmare within dream, that is, it upsets the reader’s own psychology. In his 1867 Preface Dickens’ states that his purpose in writing Oliver Twist is to create within the reader an awareness of the social disasters being born from the inherent evil in the Benthamite ideologies of the then ruling parliamentary party in the Victorian England of the day (13-16). The Carpet Child takes a lesson from Oliver Twist. In order to bring the reader to full awareness of the horrors and effects of a damaging childhood which is due to external causes, and hence to a fuller awareness of relevant social issues and topical subjects, The Carpet Child seeks to upset the reader’s own psychology by vividly realising the child’s nightmare world within the dream. In respect to material, The Carpet Child does not look to any other author’s work. Nor is it written in the style of any other than mine; but it does take lessons from the four works chosen as models for the writing of my memoir.

Each of the four works chosen as models for the writing of my memoir focuses on the damaged child’s subjective thoughts and feelings and experiences—this is also the focus in The Carpet Child. This is not to suggest that The Carpet Child is the literary equal to any one of these four chosen works. Each of these works uses the damaged child as the focal point in the writing, and each deals with the childhood which, because of external causes and social conditions, is potentially damaging to the child in its formative years. Each of the authors creates a literary landscape which the reader can enter.

These four significant literary works differ one from the other in genre and writing technique; but they show that it is the duty of the author who writes a narrative of the damaging childhood to give to the reader a literary experience which is honest to the experience but enjoyable and moving because vividly realised and convincing.

What Dickens, Joyce, Cookson, and McCourt all do, is create a formal picture of the accepted but inadequate practices of their times in combination with the subjective thoughts and feelings and personal experiences of the suffering child; and in so doing give a rounded picture of the horrors of the damaging childhood within a social context. These works create a sense of history. As an aspiring writer, I felt that these books not only offered me a valuable tool-box of unusual methods and a wide range of techniques from which to choose, but also created within me an awareness of the potential problems when writing about the damaging childhood. For instance, there is the problem of how to avoid alienating the reader with the damaged child’s self-pity; and then there is the problem of how to convey the damaging childhood narrative from a child’s perspective whilst yet maintaining the vision of a mature author. Another problem is how to attach to the reader’s own reality whilst keeping the young, innocent and suffering child as the focal point in the writing. These writers created within me an awareness that the subject of the damaging childhood could weigh heavily upon the reader. So in this exegesis I studied how each of these authors wrote about the damaging childhood, how they treated it, and in so doing learnt things to do, and things not to do, when writing about my own childhood.

Dickens’ novel and Joyce’s autobiographical novel may well be considered to be foundation works on the damaging childhood. In his book, Dickens uses the damaging childhood to urge social reform, and Joyce uses it as a means by which to demonstrate his aesthetic theories and create a “new” kind of creative writing.

Works cited:

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations London: Queensway,  n. d.

—, Preface (dated 1867) Oliver Twist. By Dickens. London: Queensway, n.d.  13-16.

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