The Presentation Of Childhood In Adult Literature Essay
The Presentation Of Childhood In Adult Literature
“The child’s inability to interpret the adult world is often central to the presentation of childhood in adult literature.” Compare the presentation of childhood in ‘Spies’ and ‘Atonement’, considering to what extent you feel this comment is applicable to these texts.
As is frequently the case with novels written for adults with children as the main protagonists, the presentation of childhood emphasises the innocence of those at a young and often tender age. When the real world is like a dream, everyday activities are play and adults are a separate species with baffling social conventions, a child will often try to understand grown up aspects of life, but will make genuine misunderstandings instead. Many writers look back on their youth with fondness and use these misunderstandings for either comic intent, such as in Frayn’s Spies, or for life-altering tragedy in McEwan’s Atonement.
In these two novels, as well as the prominence of childhood and memories being recalled as an adult, there is also the historical context to be considered in how this affects the presentation of childhood. Both novels are set during the Second World War. Life in Britain in the 1930s and 40s was an era of transition for society, during which the rise of the urban working class had led to significant changes in politics.
Because of the war and the sudden absence of huge amounts of the population’s men, families as units were changing – more women were working at the same time as being mothers. However, the class system still held a firm grip on society, with every individual aware of their own status. It dictated what they would achieve or become, if anything, in life. This is shown in ‘Spies’ as Stephen feels inferior to his friend Keith. He is aware he comes from a less well off milieu and goes to a different school. In ‘Atonement’ Robbie Turner suffers all his life from the discrimination that comes with being working class and the son of the Tallises cleaning lady.
In ‘Spies’, the character of Stephen is portrayed sympathetically, but not always sentimentally, by his older self. Humour is used frequently to invite the reader to laugh at Stephen’s inadequacies or false conclusions. But with the distance created by the maturity of the narrator, Stephen’s childhood troubles and traumas can be viewed with a sense of perspective. In the first paragraph of the novel, the narrator says, “I’m a child again and everything’s before me – all the frightening, half – understood promise of life”.
Stephen is constantly fearful and held back by his crippling inability to be brave. He has a ‘fight or flight’ mentality, twinned with a habit of avoidance. This is demonstrated by his childish habit of physically shutting his eyes when in a dangerous or tense situation, vainly trying to escape. Another aspect of his extreme anxiety is his terror of germs – “everything about them (the children in the Lanes) is plainly laden with germs” and his understandable fear of Mr Hayward. The narrator relates Stephen’s feelings honestly and does not hold back embarrassing details – his being teased by his classmates, or his crawling into his parents bed after a nightmare.
As a child passing into adolescence, there develops an emerging sexuality with the influence of Barbara and awareness of his own mortality and vulnerability, but he still has irrational thoughts and feelings that as an adult he does not find so all-consuming any more: “The imagination ages, like everything else. The intensity fades. You don’t get as afraid as you used to” Chapter 11, p232. Barbara’s character symbolised by her blue bobble purse, both intrigues and unsettles Stephen.
This is shown in Chapter 5 when she intrudes into the hideout in the bushes, “smiling her big mocking smile, making herself entirely at home.” p96. Stephen is outraged by her very presence and goes off on a ranting description – “There’s something girlishly self-satisfied about the bobbliness of the leather and the shininess of the popper that offends me almost as much as her intrusion.” Unable to process his real feelings, he blames objects for his bad moods. He rejects anything feminine, which is a classic trait for young boys unable to understand ‘girlhood’.
The naivety of childhood is captured in ‘Spies’ because there are so many misunderstandings on Stephen and Keith’s part about what is really going on in the Close and who is potentially a spy. The narrator frequently asks rhetorical questions about how much the child knew, and whether he should have noticed any inconsistencies in the stories he actively believed at the time.
‘Atonement ‘is similar to ‘Spies’ in that it has a child protagonist, the precocious and intelligent Briony, but she is in contrast to the introverted and paranoid Stephen. Both Briony and Stephen make assumptions about the adults around them. The narrative structure of ‘Atonement’ is different to Spies in that it has the added post-modern twist of a narrator who takes a writer’s liberty to change what really happened.
While ‘Spies’ concerns only one small ‘world’ of Stephen, Briony’s older ‘self’ writes about the wider world, with the part two concerning Robbie in occupied France. It could be said that “…while ‘Atonement’ is a grand panorama, ‘Spies’ is a claustrophobic, brooding miniature” – (Geraldine Brooks, Slate.com.). However, it is difficult to completely agree with this view in light of ‘Spies’. As it is still primarily concerned with documenting life during the war, the definition of the ‘wider world’ become looser and all points of view, whether from an overseas soldier or a sheltered child, could be considered valid and important.
Childhood in ‘Atonement’ is centred on the one crucial misunderstanding that Briony makes, and that causes tragedy to reverberate in the ruined lives of Cecilia and Robbie. Because of her inability to understand that Robbie’s interest in Cecilia is perfectly normal as an adult, she then has a fantasy that he is a ‘sex maniac’ due to the shocking letter, and she is not capable of seeing her older sister as a willing participant in the library.
As events in the house snowball and she interprets cousin Lola’s silence for confirmation of her suspicions of Robbie, she is more than happy to be useful and give the statement to the police that condemns him. Later in her life she realises her mistake and gains humility, trying to atone for what she had done. But Briony is perhaps not the only one to be blamed, for in Cecilia’s letter to Robbie in part two her perspective shifts culpability from Briony’s mischief more to the inattentive, uninsightful adults: “They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back. She was a young thirteen, I know.”
Also significant in the presentation of childhood in ‘Atonement’ is the gulf between the adults and the children. On pondering her interruption of the library, Briony realises that Robbie must hate her. She describes it as “another entry, another first: to be hated by an adult…Children hated generously, capriciously. It hardly mattered. But to be the object of adult hatred was an initiation into a solemn new world. It was promotion.” Briony longs to be more grown up and thinks that she has knowledge of the adult world. But her excited girlishness and tendency to over exaggerate prevents her from ever being convincing. Briony teeters at the brink of adolescence, just as Lola “longed to throw off the last restrains of childhood.”
In reading ‘Atonement’ we see the child of 1935 – the scene of the ‘crime’ – through the eyes and pen of the adult of the 1999 coda. At the beginning of chapter 13 it says with the insight and irony of the adult, “Within half an hour Briony would commit her crime.” The novel includes aspects of the coming of age genre, or ‘Bildungsroman’. The story of Briony’s individual growth and development takes place in the context of wartime and the certain kind of romanticism that often comes with stories of WW2 childhood (the mixture of awareness and innocence, with the innocence being corrupted by the war and devastation going on around them).
If the child’s inability to interpret the adults around them is central to the presentation of childhood in adult novels, then it is realistic to say that both ‘Spies’ and ‘Atonement’ use the full resources of an adult mentality remembering her/himself. They are both adult narrative voices reflecting ‘atmosphere of innocence oppressed by knowledge’. Stephen and Briony are too young to process the adult world, so they have their own interpretations, and these lead to consequences that affect the outcome of the stories.
Spies, Michael Frayn, 2002 Faber and Faber
Atonement, Ian McEwan, 2002 Vintage
Spies – York Notes Advanced by Anne Rooney, 2007
Atonement- Text Guide by Robert Swan, Philip Allan Updates 2006
Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan’s Atonement by Brian Finney, 2002 http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/mcewan.html