chapter  22
10 Pages

GOTHIC CHILDREN

BySue Walsh

Similarly, for Steven Bruhm, twentieth-century Gothic makes visible a contradiction in contemporary ideas of the child because it is there construed both as ‘fully-fledged and developed’ and as ‘an infinitely malleable, formable being who can turn out right if only the proper strategies are employed’ (Bruhm 2006). Though these comments register different constructions of childhood, they also point to a desire to attain a stable answer to an implicit question: ‘What is the child really?’ For its part, the Gothic is a genre that has been discussed as having a preoccupation with uncovering ‘real’ horrors behind surface appearances and proprieties (especially evident in fictions such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1888) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)), or with establishing the reality of the supposedly supernatural (as in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); see Punter 1996: 48). Thus, when the ‘child’ enters the fray it is implicated in a structure of critical thinking which focuses on ‘the spatial metaphor of depth from among the Gothic conventions, taking that metaphor to represent a model of the human self’ (Sedgwick 1986: 11). In such critical models the child is produced as a certain version of the unconscious, the ‘“irrational” . . . locus of the individual self’ concealed and repressed by ‘superficial layers of convention and prohibition, called the “rational”’ (11). This can be seen in David Punter’s discussion of The Turn of the Screw (1898), where he reads Henry James as interested in childhood ‘first as a time when lies may originate and control future development, and second as a symbol of the locked room of the unconscious’ (Punter 1996: 48). Here then, childhood, as a ‘symbol’ of a spatial metaphor for the unconscious, becomes part of a psychological model in which the ‘primal’ or ‘irrational’ is understood by most critics as the truth of the self, which therefore ‘could or should pass to the

outside’ (Sedgwick 1986: 11). As such the unconscious is figured as ‘the site of some irrational truth’ (Rose 1994: 13-14) and childhood is produced as the talisman of that truth. Therefore, despite Punter’s claim that The Turn of the Screw calls into question ‘the relation between surface and hinterland’ (Punter 1996: 48) that the Gothic traditionally relies upon, there seems no real doubt that for him there is after all a ‘surface’ that is distinguishable from a ‘hinterland’, and his reading precisely reinstates such a structure, since childhood is still positioned as the point from which ‘lies may originate’ (48).