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  • Dwarf, Small World, Shrinking Child:Three Versions of Miniature
  • Caroline C. Hunt (bio)

The tiny hero in a world of big people goes back to the earliest days of children's literature; Tom Thumb comes immediatend, as well as later figures like Le Petit Poucet and Andersen's Tommelise. In another kind of story, a child protagonist of normal size consorts for a time with smaller beings; Snow White is the obvious example from fairy tale, while many other tales also present morally significant interludes with very small creatures (often semihuman). Swift in the eighteenth century set the pattern for that kind of exploration beyond fairy tale as did Carroll a century later for yet a third variant, in which a child's body size fluctuates uncontrollably; and no later adapter has ever improved on either Gulliver or Alice.

Whatever the precise situation of the miniature character, the appeal of the underlying idea, the miniature, is great. Perry Nodelman and Susan Stewart, among others, point out the relevance of Claude Lévi-Strauss's dictum that all works of art may be viewed as, essentially, miniatures (Nodelman 199, Stewart 48, 54). Stewart, whose highly theoretical On Longing includes, in a chapter on miniatures, examinations of doll houses and miniature books as well as more conventional texts, considers the miniature to be "a metaphor for the interior space and time of the bourgeois subject" (xii). Nodelman, more practical in orientation, identifies the main reason for this appeal: "So when these small beings prevail over insurmountable odds, as they always do, they represent a potent version of the wish-fulfillment fantasy: the very small can triumph over the dangerously large, the very powerless over the exceedingly powerful" (199).

Imagine a protagonist of keen intellectual perception—but, at the same time, one who is ignored or underestimated by nearly everyone. Within the limits of text length, syntax, and vocabulary that govern writing for children, the straightforward presentation of such a character might resemble a diluted version of Notes from [End Page 115] Underground: unbalanced, almost paranoid. Dostoevsky's antihero touches on this dwarf/child comparison in describing himself as a child whose classmates "began by degrees to grasp that I had already read books none of them could read," even books "of which they had not even heard" (83). As an adult, he says he has "a great deal of amour propre"; he then goes on, significantly, "I am as suspicious and prone to take offence as a humpback or a dwarf" (30, my italics).1 The direct portrayal of such a degree of alienation is not a usable option for a "normal" child protagonist—yet many children, in particular children who are keen readers at an early age, experience precisely this combination of a highly developed perceptive faculty with a lack of importance in the eyes of others. The metaphor of miniaturization addresses this dilemma by presenting a protagonist who is independent, resourceful, and intelligent but very, very small.

To be a dwarf is to differ from the norm. The metaphor allows an author to suggest something abnormal, perhaps pitiable, about the small protagonist. The small size of the body presents a tangible symbol for a small degree of importance or status—"stature," in both senses. To be a dwarf is to remain permanently at the disadvantage that children, literally, outgrow. The dwarf, however, more than other humans differing from the physical norm, has played a part in European and Oriental culture for centuries, as outlined by a sympathetic Leslie Fiedler in the opening chapters of Freaks. Little people have been not only curiosities but jesters, courtiers, even prime ministers. In fiction, the dwarf or other single miniature character, usually presented as a very small adult, can articulate in adult language the humiliation and powerlessness felt by dwarf and child alike.

Although excellent work has been done on various aspects of this topic, most writers have dealt with "the miniature" as a single idea. In practice, though, most readers experience a story about a solitary tiny hero rather differently from one about an entire tiny society—and very differently from a story about someone whose body size fluctuates. Rather than repeating the...


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pp. 115-136
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