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Towards an ethics of children’s Gothic

April 2, 2012

“While traditional Gothic narratives introduced the ambiguously attractive character of the hero-villain, the moral lines have always been clearly drawn. That is, the Gothic maintains that evil is undeniably evil, no matter how attractive it may be, and its corruption must be as forcefully and completely expelled as possible. Nowhere is there any suggestion that evil might simply be misunderstood, or forgivable, or in anyway assimilable to everyday life as a positive force. Nor is there a suggestion that the victims of the Gothic hero-villain are in anyway complicit in their fate. Though no one essay in this collection takes on the challenge of articulating an ethics of children’s Gothic, several show ways in which the Gothic is managed within the texts they discuss, and in so doing reveal a range of ethical responses. One would expect that in the most traditional scenario of children’s Gothic, the child characters would mimic their female counterparts in adult Gothic as the innocent, unwitting victims of an external malevolence. Their rescuers would also come from outside their ranks, and the narrative arc would produce a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good whose denouement would include the sound expulsion of the evil that threatened them. Indeed this is the way some children’s author’s Gothic plays out, even when it has its tongue in its cheek. Most children’s authors, however, such as Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket, while preserving the child’s innocence and the utter externality of the evil that threatens, innovate by giving the child some clever weapon with which to fight their attackers. James’ Giant Peach, Matilda’s psychic energies, and Sunny Baudelaire’s efficacious bite, for instance, enable the children to put up a good fight and sometimes even roundly defeat their enemies.” (7)

Recent children’s Gothic… reflects our culture’s changing attitude toward the innocence of children, as well as what seems to be a cultural shift in our willingness to unilaterally assign blame. When ten-year-olds kill two-year-olds for kicks, when children take weapons to school and rain down death on their classmates, when they post sexy pictures of themselves on, when they enthusiastically join in their culture’s jihad, we have to revise our sense of what they know and who they are. Sure we blame the adults who shamelessly exploit them, but we also begin to experience a sense of unease about the degree to which they are complicit in their own exploitation. In keeping with a more general trend to complicate victim/abuser status, we begin, in a strange way, to dignify the child by granting him or her complex motivations that are not the results of a bland innocence. Perhaps they are not blank slates after all, or, if they are, all the protection in the world can’t keep them from the tangled web of what we once located as a teratology, but might have to revise into a more [-p.8] nuanced understanding of what it means to be human.” (7-8)

Ref: Introduction, pp.1-14 in Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis (2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the borders. Routledge: New York


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