Child's eye view
Saturday 7 November 2020
I recently answered a question on this website about an Extended Essay that proposed to deal with the technique of using a child narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird. It seemed to me to be an interesting project, and a useful research question… and it led me to consider why there are many novels which choose to present their stories through the eyes of a child. After all, novelists are not children, and neither are the vast majority of readers. So why is the childs-eye view so popular?
To start with, there is the assumption that a child’s vision of the world is innocent. What a child sees and describes is simple and direct, without adult prejudices and judgements, and so we imagine it is more ‘honest’. It may be confused and even obviously wrong (we’ll come back to that), but we believe that we are not being deceived. The notion of innocence also overlaps with an obscure nostalgia for childhood – the feeling that childhood is fundamentally safe and uncomplicated. Now, those ideas about innocence and nostalgia are both questionable, but they are there in the background, influencing our responses to child’s eye stories.
More directly, the use of a child as narrator has a dynamic impact on how a novel functions – the reader has to interpret what the child reports, and thus is more closely involved in the story. For example in Room by Emma Donoghue, the five year old narrator Jack reports his adventures in what he sees as the rich and fascinating world of a single room – but we wonder what he’s doing there, and it’s only after more than 50 pages that we work out that he and his mother are imprisoned there. But why and how? So we read on, gripped by the gaps in the child’s knowledge (and our own).
By the way, there is sometimes a credibility problem with child narrators – for instance, how many five year olds are capable of writing a 500 page novel? But hey, you can say the same of many adult-narrated novels – could any narrator really remember dialogues in profuse detail many years later? We all agree to suspend our disbelief when we step into a fiction. But there is one point in Room where my disbelief is strained. Towards the end, Jack’s mother is interviewed on television, and both the language used and the complex implications of that language are way beyond what a five year old child could ever grasp, let alone recall. At this point, the Author’s Message has invaded the Child Narrator’s World, and in my view, this grates, deflating the involvement.
The child’s eye view does not have to involve a child narrator. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is handled through standard third-person narration, but it is told consistently from the child’s point of view. We look over nine year old Bruno’s shoulder, we see what he sees and how he sees it, and we share how he thinks. The key element is that Bruno doesn’t understand much of what’s really going on, and makes mistakes. When the Fuehrer comes to dinner with his parents, Bruno thinks he’s called ‘the Fury’… and then the family moves to a place that Bruno thinks is called ‘Out-with’, but which we work out is actually Auschwitz. In essence, Bruno lives in a bubble of childish innocence, but we adult readers know that the bubble is surrounded by brutal reality. Bruno can’t imagine why the people in the camp wear “striped pyjamas”, but we know why… and the terrible poignancy of the contrast of knowledge moves the reader to take a clear moral stance.
Probably the most brilliant child-narrator novel is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Six year old Scout involves us in her world of childish pleasures, dramas and adventures, and this gradually expands to include her perceptions of the adult world which involves racial prejudice and hatred. As Scout understands more, so do we; and in the end, the contrast between the world of a child and the world of adults embodies a profound moral argument - innocence and generosity are much preferable to bigotry and violence.
And anyway, apart from the moral lessons and the grim elements, stories told by children are often just full of charm and fun !