A Loss beyond Imagining: Child Disappearance in Fiction

By Morgado, Margarida | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

A Loss beyond Imagining: Child Disappearance in Fiction


Morgado, Margarida, Yearbook of English Studies


All through the twentieth century media accounts of child kidnapping or abduction acquired solidity and projection, especially in American and British contexts (consider, for example, recent parental abductions and paedophilia court cases that have been documented by the media). One could almost argue that child disappearance (the disappearance of children from the home and the disappearance of childhood) constitutes a hegemonic social and cultural construction of the late twentieth century and a dominant structure of feeling. Within present webs of meaning, the child lost by parents, the non-existence of children, kidnapped, abducted, and killed children, the absence of children from the family are all related cultural phenomena, also connected to the several theories that warn that childhood is disappearing or that we are witnesses to the `end of childhood'. Though related, however, they mean contextually in several different ways depending on which audiences are being addressed and to what purpose, as is the case with texts about children and texts directed at children as readers.

It is not exclusively in contemporary culture, however, that there is mention of the disappearance of the child. Past constructions have always dealt with images of a lost, abducted child, side by side with images of children's deaths, and interpretations have been offered of their cultural, social, institutional, and emotional meanings. My argument is that child disappearance is being woven into our contemporary notions of `the child' in particular ways that do not resemble those of the past and which are dictated by specific historical conditions: We are living a moment of cultural transition in the ways of defining `the child' and `the family', a period of globalization and new information and communication technologies that pervade the home and every other sphere of life. (1) Our time is shaped by several discursive forms of `the end of childhood', of the `pollution' and `robbing' of children, and of the conceptual `crisis' of how to make meaning of children in material conditions that, having revealed and condemned the associations of children with work, violence, or consumption, still cannot keep up the boundaries of an imagined and desired safe world of childhood. This is a time in which discourses on childhood address simultaneously the absence and the presence of children: their absence in adults' recollections of childhood and their presence as real individuals who either differ from or resemble adults.

Despite the many theories that support (and contradict) the disappearance of children and which have given rise to debates in the human and social sciences, little has been written of their implication for children's literature, though it is hard to evade its implications, since children's fiction is based on the presence of the child (reader, character, memory of an adult writer, the child within the adult). How the notion that childhood is disappearing has an impact on children's books is a question that needs to be addressed and a central issue in the clarification of literary and cultural constructions of the child. The first step towards the desired clarification is to consider why, how, and whence children disappear. It will come as no surprise to learn that the family is an institution from which children are disappearing and thus a central location in which to discuss the implications of the cultural phenomenon of child disappearance. Secondly, it is important to deal with the forms and conventions of representing child disappearance and the feeling of loss in fictions of and for the child and to acknowledge the difficult relationship of children's fiction and its criticism to representations and constructions of the disappearance of children, particularly as bodies, physical presences.

The issue of the disappearance of childhood is not adequately approached as a set of arguments for or against. …

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