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  • Unknowns Made Known:Nancy Drew's Enigmatic Evasion
  • Eloise Knowlton (bio)

Childhood, a time of discovery, fosters a literature that reveals in its explicit depictions of discovery the implicit goal of children reading: approaching and mastering the unknown. As the engine that drives plot, the unknown—the enigma—is in some degree vital to all stories. Moreover, in children's and adults' literature alike, the unknown must be built into narrative in a way that makes it recognizable as the unknown. As Roland Barthes puts it in S/Z, "an enigma [is] distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense, and finally disclosed" (19).

But different genres of literature construct this identifiable unknown differently. In situating the unknown as the unknown—and as a certain kind of unknown—narrative structure strips it of much of its mystery, already to some degree providing an answer to what it is we want to discover. A murder mystery is not, for instance, a mystery at all. It is a confined quest to answer a defined question: whodunit? Generic parameters, those necessary frames, help to locate a particular enigma within a field of certainty. Enigma, then, is both the engine driving a narrative's plot, and the lacuna at the heart of it. Without some grounding in certainty, the reader cannot enter into the world of the story.

One of the characteristics that allows us to distinguish among various genres is just how much enigma, and of what kind, a narrative allows. Mainstream cultural production (such as television and Hollywood-style movies) generally allows for a limited and highly stylized kind of enigma; we know the limits of what may happen next. Only in this way can our curiosity can be directed to that specific end around which the pleasure of the story inheres: will the lovers reunite? Will the policeman's gunshot go awry? Avant-garde or "high" art, on the other hand, is generally understood to devote itself to enigma on a different scale or a different level. Much twentieth-century art is dedicated to a deeply disturbing sense of the unknown and the unknowable, where form itself is in question. When we read or see Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, not only do we wonder what the play is about and where it is leading, but we also cannot even be certain that the narrative is proceeding in a way that could ever set up, then dispel, an unknown.

Children's literature shares with adult texts the difficulty of enigma. On the one hand, in order to be recognizable as a story at all, the children's story must narrate some enigma, either in the plot or on the functional level of the language itself: what word comes next? At the intersection between reader and unknown, the narrative's enigmatic element directly reaches out to the child; what may be to us a too readable tale is radically enigmatic for beginning readers. They have not yet learned the conventions or the medium of narrative. A six-year-old reading must surely feel something of what we feel when faced with Beckett: a radical uncertainty, enigma of a far more pervasive and disturbing kind than that offered in the book. Learning to read—a book, the world—is in a sense learning to write over radical enigma, giving it a familiar face.

Thus enigma is a crucial part of a children's book, but it must be contained. Enigma "in the wrong places," so to speak, fails the young reader in several ways. First, enigma insufficiently defined and answered does not reward the reader's efforts in decoding the words on the page. Frustration results if one cannot be sure whether one missed the point because one read a text wrongly, or whether the point was not there to be read. Second, a story that fails to become legible in predictable ways will fail to initiate young readers into the standard cultural mores they learn in the reading, a vital function of children's literature as a class. Third, in reading a story, children learn not only what is in the tales at hand, but they learn also the forms of stories, forms...


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pp. 19-22
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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