Susan Hill’s ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ and L.P Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ Essay
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A comparative study of the role of children and the presentation of the experiences in fiction as illustrated in Susan Hill’s ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ and L.P Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’.
‘The world of the child is often one of intense emotion, confusion, pain and suffering and is a rich source of material for the novelist’
Having only been alive for about twelve years, the lead characters of I’m the King of the Castle and The Go-Between are inexperienced.
The ‘intense emotion, confusion, pain and suffering’ that a child would go through is caused by this. Adults have the advantage over children. They have faced these things before and got through them; the knowledge and experience from childhood that they use to get through bad times as adults is what helps them. Not having such weapons, children react very differently. I’m the King of the Castle has a prime example of a boy, Charles Kingshaw, being bullied and not knowing what to do; as this had not happened before, he does not have the experience. Leo, the main character of The Go-Between, is an example of how a pursuit of knowledge can harm a naï¿½ve, inexperienced boy. A novel with children in these situations can be very emotional and is thus ‘a rich source of material for the novelist’.
The similarities that these books hold become apparent very early on. The main character in both are boys and of roughly the same age. Both Leo and Kingshaw have a personality that makes them vulnerable to the bullying which takes place. Romantic, sensitive Leo was easily manipulated into being the go between for Marian and Ted; his imaginative nature meant that he would always wonder what was in the notes, but his ‘ethical’ beliefs, based on a school boy’s code which everyone followed, meant he that could not read the notes as they were always sealed. ‘In class and out I had often passed round notes at school. If they were sealed I should not have dreamed of reading them; if they were open I often read them – indeed, it was usually the intention of the sender that one should, for they were meant to raise a laugh. Unsealed one could read them, sealed one couldn’t: it was as simple as that.’
Kingshaw was also very imaginative; his encounter with the crow in the field gave him a weakness, which Hopper exploited. His imagination ran wild, terrifying him in the case of the red room and the crow. ‘He thought that the corn might be some kind of crow’s food store, in which he was seen as an invader. Perhaps this was only the first of a whole battalion of crows, that would rise up and swoop at him. Get on to the grass then, he thought , get on to the grass, that’ll be safe, it’ll go away. He wondered if it has mistaken him for some hostile animal, lurking down in the corn.’ He was both attracted and repelled by the red room and what it held, as Leo was with the deadly nightshade. ‘I was prepared to dread [the deadly nightshade], but not prepared for the tumult of emotions it aroused in me. In some way it wanted me, I felt, just as I wanted it; and the fancy took me that it wanted me as an ingredient, and would have me.’
Though Kingshaw had a brief friendship with Fielding, and Leo had Marcus, they were both, to all intents and purposes, alone. Marcus, being ill, gave Leo the chance to start being the postman, and by the time he was well again Leo was too caught up in it. ‘The more I thought about these expeditions in Marcus’s company the more impractical did they seem and the less I liked the prospect of them. Nor, though I practised in deceit and an uncritical upholder of the no-sneaking tradition, did I relish the idea of deceiving Marcus – not on moral grounds, for any system of ethics, as distinct from the school code, I barely recognised – but because I felt it would spoil our relationship.’
If Marcus had been there the whole time, Leo would not have been able to start taking the letters. The fact that the boys were both in a new, strange environment, Leo visiting some rich friends and Kingshaw having to move in with these strangers as his Mother was hired as the housekeeper, did not help the feeling of being alone. The only person Kingshaw had was his Mother and, in an effort to fit in, his mother sided with Hooper over Kingshaw in most situations even though Kingshaw was innocent. ‘”Charles, how can you speak like that, how can you be so naughty?”
“I didn’t touch him.”
“Then why ever should Edmund say that you did? I am quite sure he would have no reason to tell an untruth.”
“Oh yes, he would, he’s a sneaky little liar, he’d say anything. Well I didn’t touch him.”
“Oh, what a way to speak! You make me so ashamed of you.”‘
In The Go-Between it was the adults, the supposed carers, who were doing the bullying. In a way, it was similar to I’m the King of the Castle, as it was not only Hopper bullying Kingshaw, but the adults, too, bullying them into being friends and siding with Hooper.
The similarity in the way the boys relate, Leo and Marcus in The Go-Between and Kingshaw and Hooper in I’m the King of the Castle, is also different. Both pairs of friends are fighting physically and verbally. However in the case of Marcus and Leo it is in jest; it is the way they relate as friends, although they are almost rivals. ‘Often when we talked there was a spirit of verbal rivalry between us; we trod the knife-edge between affection and falling out;’ Yet in the case of Kingshaw and Hooper it is meant as harm: ‘”You’d better shut the window,” Kingshaw said, “it’s my window now.” Hooper turned, hearing the new note in his voice, considering what it meant, and hearing the tremor of anxiety, too. He raised his fists and came at Kingshaw. The scrap was brief and wordless and violent.
After that first fight, Kingshaw realises he is capable of a violent act. Hooper has brought out violent impulses in Kingshaw that he did not know were there.
Leo, however, never reacted violently to the bullying adults. Though both Kingshaw and Leo almost allow the bullying, Leo does not realise they are bullying him into taking the notes so reacts differently. Whereas Hooper’s bullying is more obvious, Ted and Marian are more subtle. Leo does what Marian and Ted say because he likes them. He admires Ted as a male role model substituting for his father and he thinks he is in love with Marian. Also Ted exploits his quest for knowledge, especially about spooning, and his inquisitive nature. ‘”Well,” [Ted] said, “Let’s make a bargain. I’ll tell you all about spooning, but on one condition.’
I knew what he was going to say, but for form’s sake I asked:
“What is it?”
“That you’ll go on being our postman.”
I promised, and as I promised the difficulties in the way seemed to dissolve. Really he needn’t have added that final bribe.’
Kingshaw, however, acted as he did because of his fear of Hooper.
However the power did occasionally switched to Kingshaw. When they were in Hang Wood during the storm and when they were climbing the castle, Hooper became afraid, and Kingshaw was the ‘King of the Castle’ for a little while, but the power always returned to Hooper. Leo never had the upper hand though. He kept taking the notes right to the end.
The most obvious technical difference between these two novels is the narrative. The Go-Between is a first person narrative. It is Leo as an old man looking back at his summer in the house. This gives the story a bias as you can only see the thoughts of Leo, giving the reader a sympathy towards him. I’m the King of the Castle is, however, in the third person narrative. In this way, it is more neutral. You can see the thoughts of all the characters, and feel a sympathy for each, in a different way.
It helps one to understand the characters a little better. Like the opening of the novel where Mr Hooper comes back from visiting his dying father. ‘I am only showing respect now, to behave towards my father as I should because he is dying, because he is almost gone away from me.’ This helps the reader see that Mr Hooper is a caring man yet is unable to show or act upon his emotions.
Because of changing social circumstances, it is harder to understand the thoughts and actions of Leo. It is hard to accept his naivety. In our society, a twelve year old boy would have no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that these secret ‘business’ notes were in fact love letters but in the 1900s there was no media or social acceptance of discussing personal relationships. ‘Totally ignorant as I was of love affairs, and little as I knew about their conventions, I felt sure that when a girl was engaged to a man she did not write letters to another man calling him ‘darling’. She might do it up until the day of engagement, but not after. It was automatic; it was a rule: like leaving the wicket at cricket when you were out; and it scarcely crossed my mind that to comply with it might be painful.’ However the idea that a twelve year old boy might kill himself as a result of bullying is more believable as this still happens in today’s society as it did in the 1950s.
Both books have a suicide at the end though in I’m the King of the Castle it was the bullied and in The Go-Between it was the bully.
Though these books hold some similarities they are also quite different. Though they both present the children in the same way, having similar personalities and experiences, they present those experiences differently. The role of these children also differs; Kingshaw is seen as a victim, and, though Leo is a victim too, in some ways he is almost considered the hero of the novel.