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The Criminal and the Community: Defining Tragic Structure in A Child of the Jago By Richard Benvenuto Michigan State University Arthur Morrison remains an unjustly neglected writer, for even though Robert Calder's recent bibliography of Morrison criticism contains eighty-six entries, many of these are contemporary reviews of Morrison's books (he was not neglected in the 1890s) or amount to no more than brief mention in more general studies—three pages, for instance in Granville Hicks's Figures in Transition; five scattered references in Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties} Even Jocelyn Bell, in a sympathetic, longer study, considers Morrison more of a craftsman than a creative artist, essentially limited to photographic images of the outside of things and people, without inner analysis of character—a view that is largely echoed by Vincent Brome.2 Serious Morrison scholarship still essentially begins and ends with P. J. Keating, who has written the closest thing we have to a Morrison biography, and who stresses Morrison's importance for having established "the tone of slum fiction in the Nineties."3 Morrison's most powerful contribution to the slum fiction of the 1890s was A Child of the Jago (1896), the harrowing story of Dicky Perrott, his father, Josh, and the desperate ghetto their family must survive in. Theft, extortion, assault and other crimes are everyday occurrences in the Jago, where violence is epidemic and sometimes escalates to savage brutality—in a gang fight, one woman stabs another repeatedly in the face with the jagged edges of a broken bottle. In this hard place, where the strong and the cunning prey on the weak and the gullible, Josh is already a confirmed thief, and Dicky, at eight or nine years old, quickly learns the necessity of becoming one, although he is easily tricked by a dishonest dealer in stolen goods, Mr. Weech, into stealing for him. One of Dicky's early thefts, or "clicks," leads to a lifelong feud with the Ropers, a respectable family forced into the Jago by unemployment. Though a dedicated slum priest, Father Sturt, does bring compassion and discipline and some hope into the Jago, winning a grudging respect even from Josh, Josh remains a determined and ruthless criminal and is ultimately convicted of murder. Dicky, on the other hand, though he admires and emulates his father, has a capacity for genuine and better feelings. He loves his little sister, Looey; he regrets having taken the Roper's clock and tries to replace it with a stolen music box; basically honest, he seizes the opportunity, when it is given to him, of working as a stock boy in a small store. But Dicky, too, has no real chance to escape the Jago. Weech misses the profits from Dicky's stolen goods, and causes Dicky to lose his job. At seventeen, worn-out, despairing of 153 Benvenuto: Defining Tragic Structure in Ά Child of the Jago' any future but one of repeated hardship and crime, Dicky dies—shortly after Josh is executed—in one of the street wars that periodically erupt in the Jago or on its boundaries. Morrison knew his material intimately, and though he does succeed in his purpose of maintaining distance between himself and his characters, and of not allowing his emotions to intrude, he had very strong feelings about the conditions of life in the Jagos of London's East End: It is the artist's privilege to seek his material where he pleases, and it is no man's privilege to say him nay. If the community have [sic] left horrible places and horrible lives before his eyes, then the fault is the community's; and to picture these places and these lives becomes not merely his privilege , but his duty. It was my fate to encounter a place in Shoreditch, where children were born and reared in circumstances which gave them no reasonable chance of living decent lives: where they were born fore-damned to a criminal or semi-criminal career. It was my experience to learn the ways of this place, to know its inhabitants, to talk with them, eat, drink, and work with them. For the existence of this place, and for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 153-161
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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