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Childhood. A word that conjures up many images. The most frequent of which being the clich�d sight of a happy and energetic youngster running or playing joyfully with his friends. However childhood is not always the perfect, playful paradise that many people seem to remember. Throughout time and the world, most people have led very different childhoods. Some happy, some not so happy, and some nightmarish. Many writers have picked up on this and so childhood has become one of the most common themes in novels throughout the last 00 years.

Novelists have written many varied accounts of the experience of childhood over the years, and I am going to analyse three novels from different time periods. The three novels are all written in very different ways and all show childhood in varied and diverse manners.

Like many of Dickens novels, Hard Times puts the societal problems of his day on trial. In this work, the problems Dickens scrutinises are those of the poverty-ridden, dehumanising factory towns that sprung up all over England during the Industrial Revolution. In the world depicted in the novel, workers are treated as little more than interchangeable parts in the factorys machinery, given just enough wages to keep them alive and just enough rest to make it possible for them to stand in front of their machines the next day.

Written in 1854, the story follows teachers and students at a utilitarian Victorian school, and although being written primarily to entertain the reader, has subtle undertones, which denote Dickens’ anti-utilitarian views.

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He slightly exaggerates the children’s experiences of the children, who are themselves at the brunt of the utilitarianism system to make the reader see just how improvident and nonsensical the establishment really is.

The schools of Dickens day were very different from ours. He has set out to make a strong point with the book, and sets the dark, dingy scene very well. While the reader reads the book, they are in many cases, inadvertently being influenced by the subject matter, and begin to sympathise with the students. This is exactly what Dickens wanted � to spread his message that children are precious and should be brought up with love, care and proper instruction for life; that they are not just simple “empty vessels” ready to be filled with tedious “facts, facts, facts.”

Dickens begins the novel in a classroom, which he uses as a microcosm and representation of the inhuman world outside. In Dickens opinion, this classroom has been intentionally created as a factory whose express purpose is to manufacture future workers.

Even the first line of the book “Now, what I wants is, Facts,” Displays a school where nothing is left to the imagination, and where students are filled with dull, dreary, mind-numbing facts, so that they may develop and grow without thoughts of their own, and a guaranteed job in the dirty, astringent factories. This is similar to Charlotte Bront�’s Jane Eyre in that it displays a world devoid of hope and passion, where regardless of talent of aptitude, all children are brought up in the same manner to a thankless and fruitless life.

“The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom,”

Plain, bare - devoid of all colour, sentiment and emotion. Monotonous - droning, repetitive and soul destroying. With just three short adjectives Dickens invokes a feeling of isolation and despair within the children’s hearts to the reader. And the description of the schoolroom as a “vault” further strengthens the hopelessness and confinement of the children’s situation and the eventuality that they will all suffer almost identical fates in an industrial hell.

Both he and Charlotte Bront� use clever wordplay to create names of characters. In Hard Times, the children’s spirits gradually being ground away by the humdrum, uninspiring Mr Thomas Gradgrind. And their sparkle of youth being fizzled and choked out by the obnoxious Mr M’Chokumchild. While in Jane Eyre the children’s lives are being grated upon by the ever-malevolent Miss Scatcherd; the word Scatcherd sounding very much like the scratch.

The children have been ground away and moulded to such an extent that when a pupil is asked to describe horse he replies with “Quadruped, gramnivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.” This shows that even something as majestic as a horse has been broken down into simple boring facts, the list being almost programmed into the boys mind and then the answer being produced like an item off the factory production line.

Dickens keeps reinforcing the children’s predicament with repetition of the phrase “The emphasis was helped by…” In total he uses the word emphasis/emphasised 6 times on his first page; the large passage of text describing Gradgrind beginning and ending with “The emphasis.” The repetition of the word emphasis is just another way in which Dickens is strengthening Gradgrind’s cyclic tedium of dullness, as even the description of his character is a boring monotony, with the same words being used over and over. Also the repetition of the word square to describe Gradgrind, “square wall of a forehead”, “square coat, square legs, square shoulders” is used. A square being the most regular and plain shape there is. This just further adds to the feeling of reiteration and tiresomeness in the children’s lives.

That is where Dickens’ great strength lies; in his description. His clever use of repeated adjectives and his ability to make a place and/or character seem so real to the reader, thus making them understand the children’s dire situation, are his main weapon against the utilitarian notions of his day.

He has successfully portrays childhood in a pessimistic way, to invoke the opposite, optimistic standpoint within his readers.

With The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, written in 18, Sue Townsend portrays childhood in much the opposite way. She has very shrewdly picked up on teenage lifestyle habits, either from memory or by scrutinising teenage behaviour meticulously. In this way she portrays childhood in a light-hearted and humorous manner. The accuracy and comic timing of the book have made it a cult classic

The story’s protagonist is a stereotypical adolescent by the name of Adrian Mole. He has all the characteristics and problems associated with teenagers, i.e. spots, ill-health, parent problems and an infatuation with a young girl. “Just my luck, I’ve got a spot on my chin for the first day of the New Year.”

Townsend has chosen to tell her tale in a diary fashion. This is a crucial element in the success of the book. The condensation of a whole day’s worth of activity and emotion into a short one or two paragraph passage reflects a teenager’s simple needs and desires. Often they only remember one or two key occurrences in a day, and how they felt at one particular time in the day about a particular matter.

She uses informal speech throughout the book “If the RSPCA hear about it he could get done”, “The vet showed me a plastic bag with lots of yukky things in it”, “She was dead fierce in the grocer’s”, which helps accentuate Adrian’s age. However he does use quite formal speech compared to most children his age, for instance I doubt many thirteen year olds would say “he was using obscene language”, “I think I’m turning into an intellectual”, or “I would be tall, brown and full of ironical experiences”. These slightly advanced speech patterns he uses and his ostensible superior intellect make him out to be different from his friends � yet another problem for Adrian.

His love for Pandora seems to be his main goal. “Pandora and Nigel have split up! It is the best news I have had for ages.” It is evidently not real love, merely a teenage infatuation, and his immaturity and inexperience with these matters is shown at his happiness of the break-up, regardless of how Pandora or Nigel may feel about the ending of their relationship. This mirrors the widely occurring craze many teenage boys undergo, whereby they obsess over a particular girl for a period of time until they are mature enough to interact properly with the opposite sex.

Adrian has also been greatly encouraged with his studies, he has friendly teachers helping him with work, a wide range of useful subject choices and the confidence to go on and do great things with his life. This is in stark contrast to the frightening teachers, meagre subjects such as sewing and Bible study, and an ominous fate that befalls the children in both Hard Times and Jane Eyre.

Adrian’s dry sense of humour perfectly matches real teenagers. “I shook the vicar’s hand when we were allowed outside. It was like touching dead leaves”. I severely doubt that an adult would describe a vicar’s hands as being like dry leaves. An adult would have to much respect for such a member of the clergy and would probably have forgotten about such an instance. But Adrian obviously found it both quite disgusting and quite amusing. Another astute observation by Townsend as young people often remember things that have amused or repulsed them above all else.

When Adrian writes about the presents he receives on his fourteenth birthday, he does so with joviality and sarcasm, “A Boy’s Book of Carpentry from my grandma Mole. (No comment.) One pound inside a card from my grandad Sugden. (Last of the big spenders.) By saying last of the big spenders, he obviously means the opposite, and is showing his unavoidable disappointment at receiving such meagre presents.

She greatly exaggerates a teenager’s wants and needs, but in an amusing way which many people can relate to. For example, at one point in the book Adrian hasn’t eaten for a couple of hours and complains profusely of extreme hunger and malnutrition, and moments later sits comfortably by a cosy fire eating delicious dripping toast. This is a far cry from the world of Jane Eyre where when breakfast finally comes it is meagre and bland “this morning the porridge was not burnt; the quality was eatable, the quantity small; how small my portion seemed! I wish it had been doubled.”

By saying the porridge was not burnt this morning, Bront� is implying that most days it is burnt. And the short statements “the quality eatable”, “the quantity small” illustrate that the food is both inadequate and insipid. The briefness of these statements may also show that Jane Eyre hasn’t given much thought to these facts, and that she is used to this insubstantial food every day.

Adrian Mole has been so accustomed to a comfortable and relatively easy life that he has taken many things for granted and finds it hard to live without such “necessities” as snacks every 10 minutes.

It is ironic that at one point in the book when Adrian’s electricity has been cut he resorts to reading Hard Times. Townsend is showing that this advantaged child’s last choice activity is to read a classic novel about disadvantaged children.

Sue Townsend portrays childhood as a carefree, humorous experience, free of responsibility. Adrian doesn’t have any real problems apart from his parents threatening divorce, and he greatly overstates minor events to make his life more interesting. One might even go as far as to say that Adrian Mole personifies today’s youth.

Born in 1816 in Haworth on the moors of Yorkshire, the daughter of a strict martinet reverend and without the softening influence of a mother, Charlotte Bront� had a hard life and grew up with a little money and little to do. As she matured she began to appreciate that the world she lived in was very unfair, and especially that there was a distinct difference between the men and women in the world. She realised that women in her time were brought up to be subservient figures, providing entertainment for men. They were made not to think for themselves, but to sew and look pretty. They were not treated as equals even though in many cases they were the intellectual equivalent or superior of the men around them. She was also angered by class issues, whereby if you were not one of the lucky few people in the higher class, then you would be subjected to the kind of bleak life experienced by her characters.

Written in 1847 her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, is about a young girl who is sent away to the boarding school Lowood, and is to some extent based on her own experiences (she was sent away to two boarding schools by her father to get her out of the way). The novel is about a girl growing up, love, and social constraints.

Bront� was trying to create an entertaining novel, but also a suggestive novel, much like Dickens in Hard Times, about the societal problems of her day, particularly the rejection of male supremacy among other themes. She even had to go under a male name � Currer Bell � in order for some of her works to be published; otherwise she wouldn’t have been taken seriously. It remains such a popular novel because it addresses something 150 years ago that is still recognised today (even if it is in small instances) - women in the workplace being undermined by men.

Again, much like Dickens, she makes the reader sympathise with the children. Firstly she chooses a first-person perspective, like Sue Townsend in Adrian Mole. She, through Jane Eyre, is the narrator of the story and tells her tale through the character, not through a third-person’s viewpoint. This helps us to connect and almost bond with the Jane, furthering the reading experience.

She doesn’t go to the extent of Dickens with a boring, endless monotony of suffering for the children, but still show’s that they have a harsh, cruel, loveless upbringing. The children awake to find “the water in the pitchers was frozen”, the severe cold at night had “turned the contents of the ewers to ice”. They had been shivering all night because of the harsh cold and when they get out of bed they can’t even go and wash themselves because the water is frozen. Bront�’s use of the coldness in the night and the frozen water is sharp and adept. When someone receives and/or gives no love or emotion they are often perceived as cold, having a frozen heart of ice. In Lowood the children aren’t even allowed to think for themselves, let alone experience emotion, so their hearts are put to waste, the school itself becomes a substitute for their hearts, and so it is cold and detached.

One of the main themes she promotes is the universal acceptance of woman’s inferiority to man, even though time and time again they prove that they are just as capable academically and as human beings. For example, in one the girls’ lessons, when “most of them appeared unable to answer” the girl known as Burns (who Miss Scatcherd had taken a particular dislike to for no apparent reason) whose “memory seemed to have retained the substance of the whole lesson”, “was ready with answers on every point.” Proving her intellect to match that of Miss Scatcherd’s, her reward was not praise, but a request to go out and collect a painful instrument with which to be beaten with. Then without being told to Burns “unloosed her pinafore” and without question let the teacher strike her a dozen times with a bunch of twigs. Burns accepts that she has out stepped her boundary by showing the intelligence of a man, and seems to be used to the pain as “not a tear rose to Burns’ eyes”.

Jane Eyre suffers a morbid life and harsh punishment at Lowood, but her misery pales in comparison to that of those around her. And by letting us see the injustice of the other children through her eyes, Bront� has emphasised the nationwide prejudice of the lower classes and women.

Charlotte Bront� portrays childhood to be unjust and unfair, and through the eyes of a child shows us what it means to be human, to know pain, alienation and sickness.

For the average child in Britain today, life is relatively easy. Many everyday things such as a warm comfortable home, a loving family, food readily available to eat, and computers and television are taken for granted. Many teenagers apparent “problems” are actually quite laughable when reviewed. This is where Sue Townsend excelled in her comical portrayal of Adrian Mole, after all, heaven forbid a child may go an hour without television or a bar of chocolate these days.

Childhood in the 1th century was a far cry from this. For the unlucky and largest portion of the population (the lower classes) children were brought up without affection or care, to a life of uniformity and ennui. Hence it was often written about as such, to widen awareness of the sufferance of the youth. Even though instances like that still occur today in Britain today, they are considerably less frequent, so novelists such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bront� at least achieved a small victory for their beliefs and the children.



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