Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Breeding "Reptiles of the Mind": Blake's Dialectics of Vision and Stead's Critique of Pollitry in the Man Who Loved Children

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Breeding "Reptiles of the Mind": Blake's Dialectics of Vision and Stead's Critique of Pollitry in the Man Who Loved Children

Article excerpt

Unquestionably the scene most frequently adduced as a potential interpretative key to the action of The Man Who Loved Children is that constituted by Louie's play Tragos: Herpes Rom, (1) while high among contenders for the most neglected episode is her nightmare described simply as "hard-soft." As an act of defiance and a play within the unfolding drama of the Pollit household, Louie's fledgling composition invokes comparison with Hamlet's play within a play and similarly assaults the conscience of a tyrant. It is also performed in approximately the fourth act, raising expectations of impending crisis, whereas her "hard-soft" nightmare occurs near the midpoint of the narrative as the second of two recurring dreams and seems without repercussions. The first dream is described in more detail and is repeated elsewhere. It is of a Native American on horseback, whose hoof-beats coincide with the blood throbbing in her temples, his onward course with her own bold images of personal fate. Whereas this dream evokes "beautiful thoughts," the second leaves her screaming and baffled to describe, much less comprehend, its enigmatic contents: "'Hard-soft, hard-soft,' a dream without sight or name, which her hands dreamed by themselves, swelling and shrivelling, hard-soft" (232). There is no iterated description of this terror, nor is its putative link with her dream of manifest destiny elaborated on in the novel. Commentary has faithfully replicated this silence. Its focus falls inevitably on the fore-grounded family drama, exploring the clash between Sam and Henny Pollit variously in feminist, psychoanalytical, social realist or postcolonial terms, as well as seeing in Louie an embryonic portrait of the artist, whose development is complemented by Teresa's in For Love Alone. (2)

Subsumed within these critical approaches, and never investigated comprehensively, is an authorial concern with the shaping and potentially usurping power of strongly held perceptions. Usually the prominence of this issue is attributed to the novel's much-discussed autobiographical basis, that is, to Stead's attempt, in the course of writing, to work through deeply troubling family experience and, in particular, to grapple with her father's overbearing nature. As she avowed in a late interview, prior to its composition she had been a prey to uncontrollable, apparently unmotivated fits of crying "every two months.... I didn't know it then, but it was because of my terrible experiences as a child" (Rowley 258). Her relentless dissection of a dysfunctional family, in turn, was cathartic and dominated the book's reception. It assured that the novel, when published in October 1940, caused few ripples among a reading public increasingly engrossed by war in Europe; reissued in 1965, the book was acclaimed as a quintessential portrayal of family life. Randall Jarrell struck the keynote in his introductory essay to the new edition, where he sought to demonstrate that "The Man Who Loved Children knows as few books have ever known--knows specifically, profoundly, exhaustively--what a family is: if all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children" (5). Isidor Schneider, a Communist like Stead herself, was alone in grasping the work's potential ideological relevance. He extolled the novel as a dramatization of Friedrich Engels' Origins of the Family and sent a copy of it to the Comintern in Moscow (Rowley 270-71). Understandably this reading failed to find favor among promoters of the book at the height of the Cold War. (3) Nevertheless, it did raise the crucial question of the work's wider application and potential analogies. For Stead's preoccupation with usurping perceptions would have been lent special urgency, and was perhaps colored, by fierce ideological clashes in the late 1930s; while similarly neglected is the likelihood that she encountered this recurring dilemma in other sources. …

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