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  • Colonialism in R. L. Stevenson's South Seas Fiction:"Child's Play" in the Pacific
  • Timothy S. Hayes

Nothing can stagger a child's faith; he accepts the clumsiest substitutes and can swallow the most staring incongruities.

—"Child's Play" (1878)

Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man's imagination. His life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud; there will be some golden chamber at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a bull's-eye at his belt.

—"The Lantern-Bearers" (1888)

Perhaps more than any other Victorian writer except Lewis Carroll, the career of Robert Louis Stevenson was often closely tied to the ideas of childhood imagination. He first achieved popular success with a series of works—Treasure Island (1883), The Black Arrow (1883), and Kidnapped (1886)—that were conveniently (though not entirely fairly) categorized as "boys' fiction." Stevenson made his interest in childhood more overt in his poetry collection A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). Yet as Fiona McCulloch has noted, critics have rarely explored connections between Stevenson's fictional portrayals of childhood and a number of equally compelling essays he wrote during this period that contemplate the stories and imaginative play that often define childhood.1 No one has yet taken a further and important step: examining Stevenson's essays on childhood imagination in the context of the decidedly adult fiction that the author created in the 1890s. This is particularly true of the 1878 essay "Child's Play," his most extensive exploration of the rules of storytelling and play among children and adults.2 [End Page 160]

Written more than a decade before his starkly realistic South Seas novellas, "Child's Play" draws a contrast between children's and adults' uses of stories and reveals just how comparable (and often interdependent) both may be. Stevenson's understanding of the intricacies of telling stories at any age also offers a prism through which we can view The Beach of Falesá (1893) and The Ebb-Tide (1894).3 This is because these two works offer haunting portrayals of two individuals who prove most successful at manipulating both their environments and their peers primarily through their brutal replication of the essential features of "child's play" as described by Stevenson, Case and Attwater. Though they possess a sober understanding of the deadly stakes of the predicaments they face, both men also demonstrate an absolute adaptability that enhances their ability to suspend reality and to "make abstraction of whatever does not fit"4 into the state of affairs that they seek to preserve. By examining Stevenson's essay as well as the fictional lives of Case and Attwater, we can discover how, despite the author's clear doubts about the colonial activities of various European countries, his late fiction suggests whites could still effectively assert control over the Pacific islands that became his final home.

The Essentials of "Child's Play"

Though the majority of "Child's Play" explores the highly imaginative nature of play among children, Stevenson begins by explaining the purpose of such play through a decidedly mundane example: eating mutton at dinner. Neither children nor adults find such food appetizing by itself, Stevenson insists, but their remedies for such blandness take very different forms. For adults, "cold mutton is cold mutton all the world over" and can only be improved by adding pickles to the meal; children, conversely, require no additional flavors but rather possess both an ability and a commitment to storytelling that fulfills their need: "But for the child it is still possible to weave an enchantment over eatables; and if he has but read of a dish in a story-book, it will be heavenly manna to him for a week."5 Why do adults possess nostalgia and regret for childhood that Stevenson contends are "not wholly justifiable"?6 Because imagination sparked by even the simplest "storybook" can give a child the power to turn "mutton" into "manna." Such seeming miracles are achieved primarily through the essential process of abstraction, one that Stevenson...


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pp. 160-181
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Will Be Archived 2021
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