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The relationship of power between child and adult in The Fire-Raiser

May 3, 2012

The role of childhood in the shaping of the adult is something of a theme in Maurice Gee’s writing. Erin Mercer pays some attention to it in her analysis of The Fire-Raiser in terms of its gothic and realist elements. Having just read an article that uses a Foucauldian lens to consider the discourses surrounding teacher-child interactions in a classroom (Millei, 2005), I read Mercer’s mention of it with interest.

Mercer writes: “As the boys cower in the hay which Marwick viciously forks, they realize that everything has changed: “Adults were brutal, and the game had turned to death. A step had been taken that changed the nature of things” (p. 85). Marwick’s pursuit reifies a world with deadly and destructive consequences, one in which Irene’s petty ability to control her parents by making herself faint is rendered useless. While the children might be subject to the vagaries of their parents and teachers, particularly Phil who is left to fend for himself, none of them has had to deal with the level of abuse the fire-raiser has suffered. His damaged psyche is a result of childhood trauma and abuse meted out by his mother; his need for fire stems from being locked in a cupboard (we are not told for how long) as punishment for failing to prevent his sister Lucy’s death by drowning. Despite the fact that this accident occurred nearly four decades ago, both Marwick and his mother continue to be ruled by it. In fact, the antipathy they show towards the children using the river is influenced by the fact that Lucy drowned in that very swimming hole.” (29)

The tensions between adult/child and adulthood/childhood seem also to connect with the gothic elements Mercer looks at (the haunting of the present by the past etc.). Consider for example, when Mercer writes: “After Mrs Wix’s tale of the past, Kitty daydreams about Mrs Marwick in fine dresses and at garden parties and compares that with her present life in the dark parlour with the old photographs and the yellowed sheet music on the piano. This comparison makes her feel “very sad, and frightened too, at the danger and dreadfulness of life, and the mystery of time passing by and making things old, and things that happened long ago staying alive and turning people into different shapes” (p. 102). The past is both idyllic and a threat: once beautiful but now corrupt, it can never be relived and never truly escaped. Marwick especially resents his mother’s journeys “into the past where he was at fault” and responds by completely repressing that past.” (32)  [NOTE: check out the ‘Kitty plays the piano’ scene of the series at NZonScreen.]

This whole discussion brings Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting, The Changeover and The Tricksters to mind…

Ref: Erin Mercer (2010) ‘Monstrous Identities: Critical realism and Gothic Fantasy in Maurice Gee’s The Fire-Raiser’ The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 45: 23-35

The other article I refer to is: Zsuzsanna J. Millei (2005) ‘The Discourse of Control: disruption and Foucault in an early childhood classroom’ Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Volume 6, Number 2, pp.128-139

Note also, other resources related to The Fire-Raiser:


From → Gee Maurice

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