- Tamed Imagination:A Re-reading of Heidi
The "impossibility of children's fiction" has been a cliché ever since the expression was first used in the title of Jacqueline Rose's well-known work in 1984. While Rose and several scholars after her focus on the dilemma of adult writers' frustrated attempts to recapture their lost childhood, and while other critics, like Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, interrogate writers' distorted conceptions of the fictional child, relatively little attention has been paid to a more profound contradiction in the essence of children's literature: that between adults' almost compulsory need to socialize children and adults' nostalgic idealization of childhood as innocent and blissful.
In this essay I will discuss this contradiction using Johanna Spyri's classic children's novel Heidi (1880), which represents the very essence of idyllic, Arcadian children's fiction. It has, however, also been read by Malcolm Usrey as a "convert-and-reform" novel in which "the reformation and conversion of Heidi's grandfather is the major plot" (Usrey 233). That is, the format of a children's novel is merely a pretext for Spyri to portray a child protagonist who is a vehicle for the more important work of portraying a sinful but repentant adult's redemption. Usrey's is a fully legitimate interpretation, but in my eyes it considerably reduces the dimensions of the novel and does not account for its vast popularity among young readers. Its chief appeal seems to be the affirmation of childhood, firmly connected with the affirmation of nature and a natural way of life, rather than emphasizing, as Usrey suggests, adulthood and the oppressive values of civilization. With the beauty of the setting underscoring Heidi's innocence, she is an irresistibly attractive character who presents the adult author with a way of interrogating the values surrounding adulthood that she represents. Ultimately, Heidi and her grandfather combined provide the reader with a depiction of the inevitable effects of fully entering the Symbolic Order, so Heidi provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate some of the psychoanalytic theories that inform children's literature.
Heidi starts with the archetypal pattern of myth, fairy tale, and children's literature: the protagonist experiences physical and emotional dislocation, as the five-year-old orphan Heidi is sent to stay with her grandfather, who is called "the Aim-Uncle." This is, however, not a Cinderella-like exile connected with humiliation in which a formerly uplifted protagonist is deprived of her privileges. In fact, we do not know much about Heidi's life prior to her arrival at AimUncle's mountain hut, other than what we learn from her aunt's account to a curious neighbor: that Heidi's mother died when she was one year old and that she has since then been first in the care of her grandmother and later in the care of another old woman, "shut up within four walls" (29). From this background we cannot decide whether Heidi's transition is a degradation or an ascent; however, the mountain symbolism rather suggests the latter. More important, however, one of the initial scenes, in which Heidi takes off her clothes and shoes and enjoys the feeling of mountain air and sun on her bare legs and arms, symbolizes both her liberation from civilization because she is "able now to move at her ease" (17) and her unity with nature, the discarding of a tangible, protective, but confining border between Self and the world, much like the process Carole Scott identifies at work in Beatrix Potter's books (192-98). In this scene, "Heidi and the goats went skipping and jumping joyfully" (19). She becomes literally part of nature, merging into it as she layer by layer strips off her restrictive clothes. This liberation process is conscious on Heidi's part, as she says that she will not need her clothes anymore because she wants "to go about like the goats with their thin light legs" (22). Thus, Heidi also exemplifies "the green-world archetype" as described by Annis Pratt and Barbara White (16-37).
Furthermore, Heidi not only immediately adapts to the new situation, but she enjoys it immensely and manages at...