Children's Literature Despite Its Name, Literary Nonsense Research Paper

Pages: 5 (1583 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Sophomore  ·  Topic: Literature

Children's Literature

Despite its name, literary nonsense plays an important role in the history of culture, and particularly in the case of children's literature. However, while literary nonsense in children's literature has frequently been discussed according to its potential for humor that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, the relatively subversive nature of literary nonsense in children's literature has been largely ignored, except for when that nonsense is considered a form of political satire, as in the case of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Upon investigating the role nonsense plays in a variety of children's literature, including not only Alice's Adventures in Wonderland but also Stuart Little, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the Secret Garden, it becomes clear that nonsense functions not only to provide a kind of ageless humor, but also to subvert the dominance of the adult world. While nonsense in children's literature may appeal to adults and children alike, the true importance of it lies in its ability to demonstrate how the assumptions and ideologies of the adult world are as arbitrary and nonsensical as any of the fantastical elements included in these works.

To begin, it will be worthwhile to partially define the notion of literary nonsense as such, in order to better contextualize the subsequent analysis of the texts mentioned above. In his book Philosophy of Nonsense, Jean-Jacques Lecercle describes nonsense as representing "metasense," meaning that "the negative prefix in 'nonsense' is the mark of a process not merely of denial but also of reflexivity," because nonsense literature constantly forces the reader to acknowledge a kind of conflict between the avatars of authority in the form of "rules of grammar, maxims of conversation politeness" and the extra meaning that is created by the gleeful subversion of these avatars (Lecercle 2-3). Thus, nonsense literature does not merely mock established preexisting forms of literature or speech, but rather depends on them in order to make its point, because, as nonsense, it does not directly make a point. This is because the extra meaning contained in nonsense comes not from what it "means but rather what it does" (Rieder 47). Nonsense is not meant to be understood itself, but rather to reveal something about the underlying structures and assumptions that it is playing with by breaking down the reader's usual interpretation of those elements (Andricikova 25).

Of all the texts discussed, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is perhaps the most well-known, or at least the one most well-known for its nonsensical nature. While it has frequently been regarded as a form of political satire for its representations of the Red Queen, nonsense permeates the entire story, from its subject matter to its narration to the actual language spoken by many of the characters. However, to see how the nonsense in the book manages to subvert adult standards of behavior and culture, one need not look any further than Alice's initial descent into the rabbit hole. As she is falling, Alice wonders if she "shall fall right through the earth," and remarks to herself "how funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward" (Carroll 3). Her misconception about gravity and the nature of the planet is obviously ridiculous, but it serves to set up the next bit of her inner monologue, where she imagines having to ask whether she is in New Zealand or Australia (Carroll 3). She attempts to curtsey while falling through the air, and it is here that the book reveals the nonsensical nature of social customs. Curtseying, like all other physical demonstration of social nicety, evolved over time and has no actual bearing on an individual's worth, but, like almost all other socially determined customs, attempts to present itself as a natural and practically inherent practice. By having Alice worry about curtseying while falling down a seemingly endless rabbit hole, the book uses its nonsensical plot to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of social conformity and custom.

Similarly, Stuart Little uses a nonsensical premise in order to challenge the reader's assumptions regarding "proper" behavior and conformity to arbitrarily established rules of society. While the story of a little mouse born to human parents has plenty of nonsense in it already, the truly subversive nature of this nonsensical content is arguably demonstrated best not by Stuart himself, but rather by Harriet Ames, the tiny woman he meets near the end of the story. Exhibiting nonsense literature's fondness for "maxims of conversation politeness" and traditional representations of authority, the scene in which Stuart learns of Harriet features the titular character talking to a storekeeper. The storekeeper tells Stuart that one of Harriet's "ancestor's used to be a ferryman here in Revolutionary days," and that "her people, the Ameses, are rather prominent" (White 104). Rather than reinforce the notion that someone's worth stems from his or her family, however, this scene actually demolishes it, because Harriet's ancestry seems to have no bearing on the most important feature about her, namely, her height. By reiterating traditional demonstrations of authority or legitimacy in a nonsensical context, the book challenges the ideological standards of the adult world while maintaining the facade of normality.

In Winnie-the-Pooh, much of the book's nonsensical challenging of traditional modes of thought comes in the narrator's interactions with Pooh and Christopher Robin, because they are some of the few instances of a child interacting with an adult in the entire book. The book reveals the tendency of adults to go along with seemingly nonsensical statements or behavior because they are unwilling to admit that they view them as such. For example, when inquiring about Winnie-the-Pooh's name, the only answer the narrator gets is a seemingly exasperated question from Christopher, "Don't you know what 'ther' means?" (Milne 5). The narrator is unwilling to admit his ignorance, so he simply agrees with Christopher, and this interaction reveals something essential about the adult world, something that the book attempts to demonstrate throughout. Adult society is absolutely dependent upon not questioning a variety of nonsensical or arbitrary standards, and the narrator's decision not to inquire further about Pooh's name demonstrates just how easy it is for these standards to remain unquestioned out of a desire not to appear foolish or ignorant. Thus, nonsense in Winnie-the-Pooh, like other children's literature, serves to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the standards and assumptions which govern the adult world.

Of all the texts considered here, the Secret Garden is arguably the least nonsensical, because it revolves around a relatively bleak story and central theme, even if by the end nearly everyone is happy. Nevertheless, the book deploys some of the same methods of literary nonsense in its narration. For example, when Mary notices that Colin's manners are atrocious, she thinks about how she "had indeed been rather like him herself and since she had gradually discovered that her own manners had not been of the kind which is usual or popular. Having made this discovery she naturally thought it of enough interest to communicate to Colin" (Burnett 293). The most interesting part of this narration is not the fact that Mary recognizes that she had previously been rude, but rather that this rudeness is merely categorized as manners which were not "the kind which is usual or popular" (Burnett 293). This description is important because in many ways it has the same effect as nonsense in other stories; namely, it reveals that the standards of the adult world are arbitrarily defined according to what is popular, and are not based on any underlying, essential truth or moral dictate.

Nonsense in children's literature plays a crucial role because it serves to educate children about the reality of the world, and particularly the fact that the ostensibly inherent meaning and standards of the adult world are anything but. By subverting standards of behavior, thought,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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