Friday, July 27, 2012

Love's Loss in Literature: Motherless Children

Grimm’s tales and Disney’s extensive film collection are full of motherless children. Little Hansel and Gretel and awkward Bambi must manage the world without the protection and nuzzling muzzle of a mother.

Mother is the vessel for our very existence. She nourishes us and teaches us how to live. Without her, how will her children flourish?

In literature, sometimes they do not flourish at all. William Blake’s little chimney sweep, sorely in need of a parent of either gender, and finding neither, looks to God for his consolation. In his vision, God delivers a pristine heaven where motherless children find joy after a miserable existence on earth.

Listen to Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper,” as performed by Toby Jones:

Motherless children, as implied by Blake’s poem, are also at the mercy of adult machinations. Chimney sweepers were small and little, barely old enough to pronounce the work they sought: sweeping chimneys. They were often unclothed when dropped into the chimneys so that their flammable clothes would not abbreviate their working lives. They were poorly clothed when not inside the sooty brick because they just weren’t worth the expense. They didn’t live long or outgrew their usefulness quickly.

Dickens’s novels are full of children similarly lost and alone in this world. Orphaned Oliver Twist suffers in and out of the orphanage, his future in doubt when he falls into the hands of Fagin who uses him for personal gain. Ebenezer Scrooge is another motherless child, denied the company of his father, condemned to boarding school even at holidays because Ebenezer reminds the father of the wife he lost giving birth to the son.

Little Jane Eyre endures as much hardship as Oliver Twist, and she grows to doubt her very worth in this world because the people entrusted to care for her after her parents pass are spiteful and mean-spirited. Yet Naomi, the motherless child in a contemporary novel, Obasan by Joy Kogawa, also doubts her worth even though loving, devoted relatives care for her after Japan’s declaration of war against the allies during World War II prevents Naomi’s mother from returning to her child. Little Naomi’s transformation from a secure child into an insecure adult suggests that being motherless in this world is the first cause of self-doubt.

Still, more hopeful outcomes for motherless children also exist in literature, and Crescent Dragonwagon’s book for children is an excellent example. In it, the child asks the mother for reassurance about big dogs, thunder, lightning, deep snow, and snakes. The child also fears a world in which others do not like her and above all else, a world in which her mother is not nearby. Dragonwagon writes:

But what if someone hates me?

You feel lonely and sad.  You walk and walk until you come to a small pond. You kneel in the grass by the edge of the pond, you see something move.  You put out your hand and a tiny frog hops onto it.  Very carefully you lift your hand up to your ear and the frog whispers, ‘Other people love you. Maybe that person will love you again, maybe not, in any case it’s all right.’

But what if nobody likes the way I dance?

You go dancing in the woods, alone in the crackling leaves.  One day you meet someone else dancing in the woods and you dance together.  You throw leaves on each other, you lie down in the leaves.  Then you go home and draw pictures and drink warm Milk together.

But what if you die?

My loving doesn’t die. It stays with you, when you remember you and me; you say, ‘What can I do with so much love?  I will have to give some away.’ So you love thunder and lightning, dogs and snakes, snow and planting cabbages.  You dance with other people in the leaves and run away with them. You love them and they love you, and you eat raisins together, so yes, it will be okay.

A mother’s love may not wash away the chimney sweep’s soot. It may not be able to overcome the cruelty of some orphanages or abuse at the hands of adults. It may not be able to erase the wounds that war inflicts upon even those not on the battlefields, but if the Mother can communicate that her love is infinite and immeasurable, the child will have enough with which to thrive.

Reading Challenge: Read some or all of the following.

·      Two William Blake’s poems, “The Chimney Sweeper,” one from Blake’s collection, Songs of Innocence and the other from Songs of Experience
·      Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol or both
·      Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
·      Obasan by Joy Kogawa
·      Will It Be Okay? By Crescent Dragonwagon

Keep a box of tissues by your side for weep you will--for the griefs that small children must bear, for the weight of those griefs upon their small forms, for the adults who could render aid and do not.

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of a motherless child, real or imagined. Make his griefs known and felt. Allow that child to overcome and triumph.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words

We all hope that children will not walk a coarse course in this life.

Coarse describes language, cloth, paths, or thoughts, revealing them to be rough.

Course is a word that means a direction or path. Course can also mean a subject or class that students study in school and one part of a multi-course meal; e.g., the appetizer or entrée.