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  • Children's Literature and the Pleasures of the Text
  • William F. Touponce (bio)

Historians of children's literature generally agree that children's literature evolved "from primer to pleasure" (Mary F. Thwaite) or "from instruction to delight" (Patricia Demers and Gordon Moyles). Most historical accounts of children's books depict a steady increase in playful and entertaining textual features, starting in 1744 with John Newbery, which by 1850 had created a literature whose unashamed raison d'être was to give pleasure to children. Harvey Darton's enduring history of children's books in England, for instance, begins with the following assertion: "By 'children's books' I mean printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, nor solely to make them good, nor to keep them profitably quiet" (1). Recent textbooks in the field, such as Perry Nodelman's The Pleasures of Children's Literature (1992), also attest to the contemporary awareness of children's literature as essentially a literature of pleasure.

In what follows, then, I will take pleasure as a given. What I want to focus on is that despite this general recognition by historians and critics that children's literature is a literature of pleasure, few sustained theoretical accounts of literary pleasure-whether Freudian, Marxist, or formalist-structuralist-do not displace pleasure onto the body of theory, transforming the spontaneous pleasures of children's texts into something far less intense. As Jean-François Lyotard argues, theory seems to desire an immobilized body; it is médusante: "Medusa immobilizes, and this is theoretical pleasure [jouissance]" (115). However utopian it may seem, I suggest that we expand our critical practices so that more pleasure gets into theory than is currently allowed. Concentrating mainly on the public record-that is, on what children's texts themselves seem to be saying to children about pleasure-I would like to talk about the prospects of rehabilitating pleasure as a theoretical and critical notion of some importance to the debate about the cultural significance of children's literature.

Since pleasure directs my investigation, let me order my argument according to the degree of pleasure allowed by theory, beginning with Bruno Bettelheim and the psychoanalytic school. Although I enjoy Bettelheim's readings of fairy tales, I find that what he often ends up talking about is not pleasure at all but its rival, desire, a notion that is much more central to the theoretical concerns of psychoanalysis than is pleasure. Bettelheim's fairytale children are always desiring subjects bent on transcending the various lacks (castrations) imposed on them by infancy. Frequently, too, his readings of fairy tales turn them into moral allegories of psychic development because for Bettelheim, the fairy tale is "the primer from which the child learns to read his mind in the language of images." Thus the gingerbread house of "Hansel and Gretel" can never stand for anything but "oral greediness," the ambivalence of which stage-to eat is to incorporate but also to destroy the pleasure object-needs to be overcome. In the psychoanalytic staging of desire, children are never allowed to have their cake and eat it too. Once we give in to oral greediness, we are regressing, and cannibalism is not far away. Pleasure-the gingerbread house-acts only as a lure, a deception (Bettelheim 161).

As far as pleasure is concerned, it seems not to matter whether one's theory of object relations is derived from Freud, from Jung, or from Lacan; in actual critical practice an allegorizing tendency tends to take over and displace the spontaneous pleasures of the text. This displacement of pleasure by forms of [End Page 175] allegory in critical reading seems unavoidable-perhaps due to the very logic of children's texts themselves-since any interpretation of a figure or image might be termed allegorical.1 Moreover, allegorical reading tends to moralize the text, and this tendency forms my main objection to it. But in some cases (see my discussion of Joel Chandler Harris, below) where history has masked the meanings of a text, socially progressive critics may legitimately feel the need to use allegory as a mode of interpretation in order to recover "revolutionary...


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