- Imprints of the Mind:The Depiction of Consciousness in Children's Fiction
The incentive to reflect a characters' internal life is a relatively recent development in Western literature, often connected with Henry James and Virginia Woolf. In children's literature, this tendency has only become prominent during the last twenty or thirty years. Mikhail Bakhtin's terminology can explain this phenomenon for us: it is a shift from epic toward polyphonic discourse, from depicting primarily an external flow of events to attempting to convey the complex nature of human consciousness. Bakhtin's concept of the dialogical nature of the novel, as opposed to the epic in "Epic and Novel," is extremely helpful in pinpointing the specific aesthetics of children's literature, as several critics have done, most recently Robyn McCallum in Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction (Bakhtin 3-40; see also Nikolajeva, Children's Literature 95-120). Yet while McCallum is primarily interested in how the dialogics between self and society, culture, and ideology govern the construction of subjectivity, and thus examines the connection between thematic and narrative aspects of texts, I have in this essay chosen to concentrate on the purely textual relationship between the author/ narrator and the character.
A children's novel is constructed in a dialogical tension between two unequal subjectivities, an adult author and a child character. In "Discourse in the Novel" and especially in "The Author and the Hero in Aesthetic Activity," Bakhtin explores the relationship between the authorial and the figural discourse, that is, narrations that can be ascribed to an autonomous narrative agency or to a character respectively.1 This complex relationship results in a variety of blended narratives that have been classified as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, Erlebte Rede, free indirect discourse, dual-voice discourse, narrated monologue, and so on (see Pascal 8-32; Martin 130-51). All of these techniques presuppose that authors, through their narrators, enter the minds of their characters and are able to convey their state of mind to readers by means of language. This statement in itself presents a problem since language does not always have adequate means to express vague, inarticulate thoughts and emotions—an argument found in much postmodern criticism.
In children's novels, the duality of the voice is further enhanced by the asymmetrical power position of the author (in most cases an adult), the narrator (who may be an adult or a child), and the character (in most cases a child). The particular poetics of children's literature thus demands that when applying analytical tools from general criticism, be it narratology (Genette, Chatman, Rimmon-Kenan, Bal) or speech act theory (Austin, Pratt, Banfield, Lanser, Fludernik), we must necessarily adapt them by taking the specifics of children's literature into consideration, which is the goal of this essay.
Although the questions of subjectivity, narrative perspective, and authorial control in children's fiction have been investigated from a variety of vantage points,2 there are few special studies of the portrayal of internal life in children's fiction.3 A general consensus about children's literature seems to be that adult writers can easily recreate a child character's mind, while logically it should be infinitely more difficult than to reflect the mind of another adult. By analogy, it is often questioned, especially by feminist, postcolonial, and queer theories, whether male writers can successfully depict the internal life of female characters, or white writers of black characters, or heterosexual writers of homosexual characters. This skepticism is based on the unequal power positions, in which the "oppressors" presumably have limited possibility to understand the mentality of the "oppressed." Even though all adult writers have been children once, the profound difference in life experience as well as linguistic skills creates an inevitable discrepancy between the (adult) narrative voice and both the focalized child character's and the young reader's levels of comprehension. The infamous "double address," although primarily referring to the implied audience rather than the textual perspective, nevertheless conveys the essence of the dilemma (Wall 9, passim). The many successful attempts to breach this discrepancy—for instance, by using strong internal focalization of a child character or the first...