Monday, June 25, 2012

Distributive Justice In Victorian Children's Books


I was a little under the weather the past few days, and as entertainment I decided to read a bunch of Victorian children's novels.  Children's novels -- because what's nicer when you're sick than kids' books?  Victorian -- because of the copyright laws.

If you don't already know, if you have an e-book reader you can read many many out of copyright books, downloadable from various sources but mostly Gutenberg.org.  You used to be able to read these books with the amazing app Stanza, but Amazon bought Stanza and closed it down or something so that people would use the Kindle app and be tied to the Kindle versions of the books.  That's too bad.  But now there's an app called MegaReader ("MegaReader"? really?) that does pretty much the same thing. 

The way the timing works out, many books that are just now out of copyright are from the Victorian era, or just after it.  (Info about duration of copyright at this wikipedia page).  It's kind of interesting, actually, the way the law functions to reacquaint readers with a specific time that moves forward as we do.

I started by rereading some known favorites:  The Secret Garden; A Little Princess.  Then I realized I'd never read Doctor Dolittle, so I read a couple from that series.  Then I found the Pollyanna books, and was like "OMG you mean the idea of "being a Pollyanna" = "being annoyingly optimistic" comes from an actual book and I didn't know that already?"

What struck me on reading them all the same time was their shared obsession with the problems of suffering and poverty and the ... shall I say "limited"? ideas they bring to bear on the problem?

Doctor Dolittle is about a kind and good man who never wants anyone to be unhappy.  So far so good!  His solution to the problem of money, though, is just not to think about it ever.  He takes things as they come, does good where he can, and ignores the rest.  It's the animals, especially the wise parrot, who organize things so that there's food on the table. 



And speaking of food, the animals are often the poor and downtrodden in this book, which recounts the misuse of horses, the pains of animals in zoos, and the sufferings of fish in aquariums.  So ... when it comes right down to it, what do we do about the fact that people eat animals and animals often eat one another?  That doesn't come up in the book.  I thought the kind Doctor would have to be a vegetarian at least, but the topic never arises.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so be nice to everybody and try not to think about it very much.

With A Little Princess, I remember even when I was a kid I was weirded out by way the happy ending has lovely Sara Crewe transformed back into a wealthy and happy child and her best friend Becky transformed into ... her maid? 


Sara starts off wealthy, but through a mistake is thought to be a penniless orphan. She's put upstairs with the domestic servant Beckie.  The book recounts their sufferings with horror, and the book is clearly about how awful it is to be poor in England in the late 1800s.  I guess to a certain imagination, the answer to the suffering of the poor is not to lessen inequality but just for rich people to be nicer to poor people.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so be nice to poor people and their lives won't suck so much.

The Pollyanna books don't really get to the problem of poverty 'til volume two.  The first book is all about Pollyanna being Pollyanna.  She teaches everyone to play the "glad game" -- where you find something to be glad about in every situation.  It's to the book's credit that when Pollyanna is in an accident and thinks she's crippled for life, she cannot play the game at all -- her only consolation is that other people she's been nice to over the years drop by with warm wishes.



In volume two, Pollyanna goes to Boston to stay with a family friend for a few months, and there she encounters actual poverty:  people who haven't enough to eat, and live in squalor.  She can't find anything to be "glad" about about that situation either.  Her solution is to make friends with some poor people, and then make life better for them.  In the course of the books she arranges two formal adoptions of poor orphaned children by wealthy and previously sour-minded adults.

Moral:  poverty is bad, so find a few poor people and bring them to live with you in richlandia.

Pollanna seems to have more advanced thinking on the subject than anyone else; at least she actually wants to make poor people richer instead of just tossing them a muffin here and a kindly word there. 

The adults in the book warn Pollyanna, though, that too much in this direction leads to "socialism." So she'd better be careful.

Plus ça change.

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