Term Paper: Children's Literature

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Symbolism in Children's Literature

Animals might be cute and attractive characters in children's literature but they usually carry great symbolic values. One of the most foundational examples of the way in which an animal character can be read as a symbol of society is found in Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Within this work there are countless examples of the ways in which the treatment of the character, Black beauty and the treatment of women by the masculine society of the Victorian era can be closely matched, the whole autobiography of the horse as it is called, in fact through its early life, the breaking in to its later life as an injured overworked unrecognized steed and finally to his place as the carriage horse for a group of young ladies can be seen as a timeline for the life of a woman from a loving home where she is taught manners, to a marriage where she realizes the depth of her toil and responsibility to the glory years of her place as the caretaker of her children.

The artful personification of the animal, and the fact that the story is told in the first person allows the language to flow together with symbolic meanings of the life of a woman, at the hands of a masculine world, where her place must be realized and unfairness occurs despite or even because of her role as a subservient. In fact the development of good character, as a good and obedient wife follows much of the same lesson plan and the language used by the character to describe ideals could be easily translated into the language of finishing school for young aristocratic ladies of the time. In this passage the horse is telling of the lessons he learned from his mother about the need to always be obedient and good to his master and others, as it would result in better treatment and greater contentment. "She told me the better I behave the better I should be treated, and that it was wisest to always do my best to please my master." (Sewell, 1907, p.15)

The work even touches on issues of class, as they would be applied to women of high birth at the time. Another lesson from mom gives the indication that deportment is paramount to ones image as a good classy person.

I wish you to pay attention to what I am going to say to you. The colts who live here are very good colts, but they are cart-horse colts, and of coarse thy have not learned manners. You have been well bred and well born; your father has a great name in these parts, and your grandfather won the cup two years at the Newmarket races; your grandmother had the sweetest temper of any horse I ever knew, and I think you have never seen me kick or bite. I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play. (p. 2)

In Victorian society the importance of class was paramount to the status of women, both for seeking "good" marriages and for their ability to live a good life as a member of her society, well respected and refined. Within the story there are many points where such a message is clear, as the ideal for Black Beauty is that he will act refined and therefore be given the best work, which was in turn the least work. Black beauty was born and bred for the glory of a place as a carriage horse, the glimmering and proud lead of the most affluent transportation, and a symbol of the masters wealth and privilege. Victorian women were defined by their male ancestors, see above quote about the importance of Black Beauty's father and grandfather, and their ability to gain such a match as to not have to work. The ideal was the ability to hire in enough help that the angel in the house would simply be a manger of the household, under the decisions of her husband, of coarse. The ideal was repeated over and over again in the literature of the day.

The most important factor in defining the aristocracy of a woman was thus the position of her male relatives. Various accounts point to the emergence of the non-working feminine ideal as an imitation of aristocratic feminine precept and practice. 65 Thus, in acquiring leisure, a woman of the middling ranks believed herself to be acquiring both social status and an enhanced femininity. It is significant that proponents of this kind of feminine ideal allied in their perfect women both femininity and social status -- as, for instance, in Tennyson's 'The Princess', Ruskin's 'Queen's Gardens', and (in a heavenly parallel) Coventry Patmore's 'Angel in the House'.

1998, p. 20)

The work most symbolic of the ideals of the era is associated most often with Coventry Patmore's Angel in the House, a long poem detailing the pride and love a man feels in his wife's ability to always be genteel and run his household, at his bequest, so smoothly as to make his leisure life a joy. The vision of her beauty

The popularity of such literature is unparalleled in its time as the women in the marginal classes, such as the upper middling class or the lower aristocracy, and their mothers and future husbands sought a manner in which to teach and convey the messages of the age. A young girl born for marriage must understand her role as an ever congenial arm of her husband who would have the final word in everything and would treat her well only if her ability to please him was well made. Pleasing one's husband was done by following his every desire, be it spoken or unspoken and running his household as smoothly as humanly possible so he might have a haven to return to when his day of leisure or supervisory activity, is over. "Angel in the House was immensely popular and sold a quarter of a million copies in his lifetime." (Oliver, 1956, p. 1)

The era was steeped in the ideals of the aristocracy and women were a commodity based upon their ability to emulate the standard of the best, the obedient and subservient wife, admired for her ability to get along and please her partner and not for her ability to think or act on her own behest.

Only a Victorian could have written the Angel in the House, with its philosophy of love set in that secure era of prosperous rural deans and beautiful girls who have little else to do but order the house and enjoy the pleasures of country society. (Patmore, 1949, p. 6)

The similarities between the ideals of the culture of Black Beauty and that of his human peers are uncanny. In fact the work could even be accused of being used as a training manual for young ladies, as that was the most common reader of such fiction, at a stage when they were to young to gather such standards from the lives of fictitious women, who were often taught the same things in human literature as their real peers were being taught by their society. Propriety ruled the day and could make or break the individual, man or women at any stage in their life, but especially in their early years, as they were being groomed for their life as a wife or husband to a Victorian marriage, an institution stifled in household mores and taboos.

Sewell's work even has a point where the main character guides another young colt into "proper" behavior, so her masters might better treat her. Ginger, was a horse who had not been treated with the kindness that Black Beauty had as a colt and therefore she was ashamed of her unruly behavior.

Well" said she, "if I had had your bringing up I might have as good a temper as you, but now I don't believe I ever shall." "Why not?" I said. "Because it has all been so different with me," she replied. "I never had anyone, horse or man, that was kind to me, or that I cared to please, for in the first place I was taken from my mother as soon as I was weaned and put with a lot of other young colts; none of them cared for me, and I cared for none of them." (Sewell, 1907, p. 21)

The description, by Ginger of her early life brings to mind another work of literature, famous at the time in which a young Jane Eyre is relegated to a boarding school at a young age, where conditions treatment and love were scarce.

In a letter to the superintendent of the school which Jane would attend, her aunt, who greatly dislikes her speaks to the master of the school about her… [END OF PREVIEW]

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