Moving in a different direction from the usual critical examination of a particular era or genre's hegemonic characterization of childhood, Richard Locke's Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels considers ten works of differing style and structure and investigates how the authors incorporate a particular child's story to explore or evade more extensive social and moral issues. Notably, Locke moves beyond a single, thematic focus and considers several varied critical uses of children. For his study, he selects well-known but widely differing characters and works, ranging from Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip from Great Expectations to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to Miles and Flora from The Turn of the Screw to Peter Pan and Holden Caulfield and, finally, to the rarely included Lolita and Alexander Portnoy. The ten works that comprise Locke's study all "use children caught in violent situations as vehicles of moral and cultural interrogation" (4).
In his introduction, Locke asserts the importance of children as critics of their worlds. He states: "They [the selected child characters] are icons, figures that are taken to embody fundamental possibilities and problems, even long after their historical contexts have vanished" (4). Key to Locke's approach is his desire "to examine how these books about children work as literature . . . that invite and resist interpretation and support and provoke rereading" (4). The thematic descriptions Locke provides for his choices offer a broad range of significant topics: social-political reform, celebration of American democracy, racial and cultural slavery, "imprisoning regressive psychological fixations," "childish social delusions," and "intellectual and moral vanity" (5-6). Although Locke's explanation often begs the question regarding his choices of literary texts, his selections do provide an interesting range of character types and social situations, and his admission that he has selected these "particular ten novels" because of his admiration of them is apparent (6). In his subsequent attempt to provide "a general historic background," Locke offers an insightful but too brief overview of influences such as Blake and Wordsworth and of a variety of pertinent texts up to the present (11).
Locke first investigates three novels by Dickens, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, to argue that the regenerative power of a naturally good childhood will sometimes counter or at least mitigate the moral, emotional, psychological, and physical prisons individuals may confront or that the detrimental influence of a damaged childhood contributes to or facilitates [End Page 81] these aspects of imprisonment. Locke exposes a shift in Dickens from a belief in a sympathetic and inspiring moral icon in Oliver to a realistic, "late-maturing" David Copperfield, and finally to Pip as a "disillusioned exile," demonstrating a decline from "triumphant progress" into "stoic moral realism" thereby restructuring the traditional bildungsroman (49).
Locke's chapter on Mark Twain conflates the examination of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the prominent focus on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Exploring both texts and title characters, Locke acknowledges the popular reading of both as a celebration of American character and freedom but posits his own more cynical reading of loss and decline. Recognizing the affirming values and insights Huck gains in his earlier adventures along the river, Locke closely examines the novel's final chapters and argues for a pessimistic reading of the conclusion. He asserts that Huck's agreeing to meet with Tom and Jim refutes his earlier denouncement of "sivilization," and connects the Territory with "cruel, deluded, childish 'fun' and games" thereby suggesting that there "is no possibility of liberty and justice, and the pursuit of happiness is just a boys' game" (85). Locke persuasively argues that the initial perception of Huck and Tom as representatives of American freedom shifts to the defeat of those ideals as they fail to sustain their insight and return to seemingly inescapable social attitudes and games.
Locke's subsequent reading of The Turn of the Screw turns from the implicit social criticism of both Dickens and Twain's texts and emphasizes James's use of children, Miles and Flora...