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Demon or Doll:
Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture
Theory and Cultural Studies
Ellen Pifer. Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture. U of Virginia P, 2000. 272 pp.
Although Ellen Pifer, the author of brilliant studies of Nabokov and Bellow, recognizes that our view of childhood is colored by terrifying images of violence committed by children against children or by adults against children, she refuses to use such easy phrases as "child abuse." She realizes that, perhaps, novelists know more than glib sociologists and psychologists. Thus, she reads literary texts--What Maisie Knew, Lolita, and White Noise--because they offer readers "a good chance, therefore, of a dual awareness." She writes: "To examine the images of childhood reflected in a novel, a patently constructed world of words, is to become more conscious of the cultural and epistemological implications of those images for us and our culture."
I know of no other book on this topic that examines so many varied novels. Such critical studies as Muriel Shine's The Fictional Children of Henry James and Naomi Sokoloff's Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction are more limited in scope and less attuned to textual readings. But Pifer also discusses novels by Goldinj Kosinski, Lessing, Rushdie, Morrison, and McEwan. (I should point out that she does not examine stories. I wonder what she would do with the perverse "Pages From Cold Point" by Paul Bowles, in which an adolescent boy seduces his father).
I want to start my review with What Maisie Knew. This novel, according to Pifer, battles the easy assumptions of "innocent" children--the Romantic images offered by Dickens or Lewis Carroll. (But are these children really innocent?). Maisie knows that the world is complicated: "While James's readers have cause to admire Maisie's precocity, they [End Page 1072] also recognize in the burden of knowledge she assumes the unambiguous death of her childhood." In a striking analysis of the leave taking of Sir Claude, Pifer attends to every word James employs, and she demonstrates the underlying sexuality of both Claude and Maisie.
Pifer continues with an examination of Lolita, illustrating that the novel qualifies the Romantic legacy: "Only through the medium of art can Humbert restore to the child he tyrannized--the child whose 'life,' as he says, he 'broke'--some semblance of the freedom and autonomy he otherwise denied her." And Pifer, in a high-flying critical act, dares to assert that Nabokov's novel is oddly indebted to the monstrous text Frankenstein: "Humbert's striking kinship with the protagonist of Mary Shelley's novel appears to have gone unnoticed--perhaps because the characters appear to have little in common." She continues: "Monster and nymphet--each of these 'marvels' of creation, offspring of Promethean imagination, provokes torment in its creator." The child as monster, the novel as monster--both texts imply that all creation is somehow flawed. Look at the peculiar design of the novels. Even their titles are "warped." "Lolita" exists merely in Humbert's mind; the monster is not named "Frankenstein." These works demand rereading because of their various narrative ploys, their perverse epistemologies.
When Pifer gets to White Noise she argues that the Gladney children "possess special powers of discernment and knowledge [. . . ]." They apparently know more than their death-obsessed parents. They are "mysterious agents of radiance." The two-year-old Wilder cries out "saying nameless things," hinting at a primal knowledge beyond media language. The children sense that the world isn't totally dominated by death-talk
All the novels discussed by Pifer, although indebted to the Romantics, confront cultural changes in the Wordsworthian innocent. Pifer eloquently charts the indebtedness of these novelists to the Romantics and their own variations upon their ancestors. I trust that I have suggested, at least partially, the importance of Pifer's book. It will surely become a classic text for future readers.
Forrest Hills, NY