Reviews 2009

A New Wave of Innocence in Children’s Literature

Novi val nedolžnosti v otroški literaturi: kaj sporočata Harry Potter in Lyra Srebrousta? [A New Wave of Innocence in Children’s Literature: Conservative backlash and the significance of Harry Potter and Lyra Silvermouth]. Lilijana Burcar. Ljubljana: Sophia, 2007. vi + 205 pages. 18 € (paperback).

The importance of a book, be it fictional, factual or scientific, can be judged in my opinion by the new perspectives it opens to the reader and the insights it offers into one’s socially conditioned experience. An eye-opening book must function as a lens that enables the reader to view our complex contemporary human condition from another, previously undisclosed angle, shedding light on the workings of the globalized world we now live in. Thus, reaching for new dimensions, a well-researched and innovative book offers cognitive and emotional tools for understanding the surrounding world and the positions we take and how these can be transformed. The impact of such books, of course, always depends heavily on the extent of the reader’s motivation and the book’s persuasiveness. Lilijana Burcar’s A New Wave of Innocence in Children’s Literature convincingly fulfils all of these criteria.

In her detailed and subtle discourse analyses of two best-selling series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Burcar employs feminist theories and poststructural theorems, introducing into the scientific discourse on childhood a necessary and much often overlooked perspective. The approach also stands for a novelty in the Slovenian context, where some attempts at gender criticism have been made, but none of them on such a large and consistent scale. The author first provides an overview of the various types of childhood imaginaries and child icons that have been shaped and defined by different socio-political contexts in the recent history of Western thought. Two types of children are foregrounded: the Romantic innocent child and the knowing child. Positioned as a child of nature, an innocent child is also perceived as existing out of time and place. It functions as an emptied sign and as a projection screen of adults’ social desires and fears. Still, the child is understood to be a holistic being, nature-bound and ruled by instinct. Society can either discard it or acknowledge it as a savior. The knowing child is socially embedded and active. It is not a blank slate but a subject caught in the processes of becoming, for just like the adult, a child too is enmeshed in discourses of class, gender and race. The innocent child, on the other hand, is objectified and lacks subjectivity.

By introducing a gender perspective in the second chapter, Burcar provides an insight into the interdependence of literary production for the young and socio-economic changes. The gender patterns associated with the rise of genres that addressed boys through adventure books and girls through household tales, have not been entirely undone. As the author argues, contemporary best-sellers for children such as Rowling’s and Pullman’s series, have reintroduced and naturalized gender binaries alongside the revival of the innocent-child paradigm. The massive comeback of the latter stands in stark contrast to the numerous attempts at complex presentations of differentiated childhood found in alternative fiction and the literary production that marked the last quarter of the twentieth century.

On the basis of performative theories of gender Burcar foregrounds how problematic the reductions to monolithic gender identities of femininity and masculinity are and exposes their conservative ideology. In both oeuvres, of course in different ways and to a different extent, a neoconservative return to fixed gender categories can be discerned, which inevitably results in the denial of subjectivity, independence and a new “domestication” of the girl-child. This thesis is of special interest as literary critics often praise the seeming progressiveness of Rowling’s and Pullman’s female figures, the equality in gender-representation, the richness of ideas, and so forth. And – honestly speaking – even as adult readers we let ourselves be seduced by the authors’ strategies, fostering uncritical, superficial, consumer-like reading. Lilijana Burcar’s book draws in our gaze, displaces our perspective and focuses our attention on the subtext, that is, to the texts’ inherent ideology.

The third chapter concentrates on the fictional world of the two oeuvres and deconstructs their discourses. Convincingly and in great detail the author examines from different angles how Rowling constructs the boy-figure as an autonomous, self-contained personality, a hero and savior, and how the female figures are disqualified, their personalities reduced and broken. Harry stands out as the “innocent child,” while the “knowing child” Hermione is consistently marginalized. This kind of gendering reaffirms the patriarchal order through the imagery of the innocent child and thus helps to reinstate a conservative social structure. A precise reading of His Dark Materials leads to similar results for the girl-child. Although, as Burcar claims, the trilogy opens with a highly complex exploration of childhood where children are not blank slates but dynamic and socially conditioned subjects, upon the introduction of the boy protagonist the complexity shifts to the boy’s side and the girl is reconfigured by losing her independence and shrewdness and all the characteristics that pertain to a knowing child. She is instead turned into a particular version of a helpless and innocent, merely intuitive child – an obediently silent and submissive figure, dependent on the thinking and actions of the rational boy protagonist. In both series the universal figure of childhood is a boy protagonist while girls are symbolically included only to be marginalized.

As Burcar emphasizes from the very start, the return of the romantic icon of the innocent child is directly tied to the reaffirming of conservative gender politics and the literary socialization of young readers that goes with it. Under the cover of a newly awakened discourse of innocence and a seemingly apolitical discourse of the child, a hidden voyeuristic sexualization of children, childhood and adolescence can be detected in literature for the young. It is especially disconcerting that in a world that recognizes the importance and the vital impact of female work and public participation, girl readers are cunningly socialized to accept supportive roles, to be disempowered as readers and are seduced to accept a second-rate or even marginal positioning as natural.

Neva Šlibar
University of Ljubljana, Slovenia