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Thread: Infantile literature

  1. #1
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Infantile literature

    Infants (as all parents know) are endlessly fascinating, and our relationships with them are among the most important and evocative we can experience. Nonetheless, there seems a dearth of serious literature about infants. Perhaps it is because drama (dialogue) is the essence of literature and infants can't talk. Perhaps it i s because literature is a very human endeavor, and loving and caring for infants is something we share with other animals. Tolstoy (I recall) wrote several birth scenes, always from the man's perspective, and chronicled Anna's inability to fully love the child she bore with Vronsky. Literature is replete with children; infants, not so much.

    Of course mythology chronicles miraculous births: Luke, for example. Hermes steals Apollo's cattle as a one-day-old baby. I've been trying to think of modern fiction in which infants play an important role. Mowgli escapes Shere Khan as an infant, and Mother Wolf's defiance of the tiger (along with Mowgli pushing his way to her breasts for a meal) makes for a great scene -- so it's not impossible to write affecting scenes about infants. Perhaps the distance European fathers maintained from infant care (along with the fact that the pen was in their hands) explains it.

    My question: why is this vital portion of human life ignored by novelists (if it is), and can Litnetters point me to other famous novels featuring infants?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Infancy is quite a narrow age range. I think of it as between four and six. I think of two and three-year-olds as toddlers. I think much older children as teenagers or adolescents. There does not seem to be an adequate word in English for children between seven and twelve. I have heard the term 'tween', which I do not like, and the term 'juvenile', which seems a bit too scientific or actually not a noun. Infants can speak and run around, but are still very dependent on their mothers, and do not understand the world very much outside their family, friends, teachers, home, primary school and playground. They may be learning the alphabet, simple sums and spelling, but mainly they do fun activities. Children a little older start to become more aware of the world.

    The Victorians were not too bad about featuring infants in adult books. There is Eppie in Silas Marner. Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dickens often wrote child characters: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip, Esther Summerson, Jo the Sweep to name a few.
    Last edited by kev67; 04-13-2018 at 08:48 PM.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I think of "infants" as less than 3 years old. I can't remember if Eppie qualifies. Children between (say) 5 and 12 are literary staples, especially for literature designed to be read by those in that age group. Infants are featured in short picture books meant to be read to infants --but not so much in novels.

  4. #4
    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Yes, Eppie would qualify.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    Infants (babies) are an alien species, like cats or dogs. (IIRC, the word "infant" actually means "without speech.") Any novel about them would have to be a beast fable like "White Fang" or such. Babies, however, are not independent so they would not make very satisfactory protagonists.

    In modern fiction there are as many female as male writers and the continued absence of any great baby novel suggests that the problem is not gender related.
    Voices mysterious far and near,
    Sound of the wind and sound of the sea,
    Are calling and whispering in my ear,
    Whifflingpin! Why stayest thou here?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Interesting, it seems I was wrong about my definitions. I thought infancy came after toddlerhood because we have infant schools, which we start after 4.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

  7. #7
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    There are lots of books about dogs and horses (Old Yeller, White Fang, Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, James Thurber's Dog stories, etc.). Although babies are alien, they also are a part (half) of some of many adults most important relationships (and those relationships are the main subject of most literary novels). There are also famous novels about parent - child relationships (Fathers and Sons, Pere Goriot, etc.). It must be a problem of dramatizing the relationship (I think), which makes it difficult to put it into words. With so many novels (in general) obsessed with love, it just seems strange that one of the most loving and significant relationships for most people has received such short shrift.

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    The infant could not act much in the story by itself. It would have to be mostly an observer. Third person narrative, of course. I have thought about this before and am convinced it could be made to work. It would be a stern challenge. In fact, I must admit to having started such a novel a while back. In my work the character only stays an infant for a few chapters. A work in which the technique eventually runs out and returns to normal narrative is what I had in mind.

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    On the other hand, Theodore Roethke accomplished the writing of poetry from the perspective of an infant which was magnificently successful. Poetry from the perspectives of old women too. I will take Roethke's old lady meditating over any of the old women in Yeats.

    Some lines I remember in Roethke's child voice.

    A deep dish.
    Lumps in it.
    I can't taste my mother.
    I know the spoon. Hoo.
    Sit in my mouth.

    or again...

    Even Steven all is less
    I haven't time for sugar.
    Put you finger in your face
    And there will be a booger.

    In case you meant to include poetry with the fiction, I do recommend some Roethke. He is actually the only author I know of to have ever written out of an infant's perspective in any literary form. I believe these poems can be found in Praise To The End. Hope my memory is accurate as to the book. Roethke also wrote a book of children's verse (I am Says The Lamb). These were more like normal children's poetry. Roethke could not help being original, though, even if he was being imitative.

    There once was a cow
    With a double udder.
    When I think of it now
    I just have to shudder.

    It was too much for one,
    You can bet your life.
    It had to be milked
    By a man and his wife.

    A recording is available of Roethke reading these very poems and others. He was one of the best readers ever, ranking with Dylan Thomas in that department.
    Last edited by desiresjab; 04-16-2018 at 11:35 PM.

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    Inexplicably Undiscovered
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    They're pre-verbal, hence no thinking skills as we know them. Still, there are several "adult" books with a child as their protagonist. Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum immediately comes to mind. If you include pre-adolescents, Huck Finn is an exemplar.


    I've read plenty of reviews describing the book in question as "infantile." But I think that's a less literal reference.

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