‘The Man Who Loved Children’
Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children is one of the most eccentric, painfully honest and humorous novels of the 20th century. Its underlying feminist theme is embodied in the character of Louisa, an overweight and unattractive young girl, whose desire for her father’s love and acceptance is undermined by his childlike persona and abusive, controlling manipulations. She resists her father’s mercurial ideas and psychological browbeating, finding solace in her diaries, poems and a language of her own invention. After the family’s dissolution, which includes Henny’s suicide, Louisa survives and escapes her tortured environment.
Keywords: Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa, 20th century.
It has been said that Christina Stead’s eccentric novel is remarkable for not having been taught in women’s studies programs. One explanation for this could be that Louisa’s story, which addresses the question of femininity, is obscured by the outsized character of her father Sam, the tragic-comic relationship between Sam and Henny and the tortured dynamics of Louisa and Sam’s father-daughter relationship. Yet Louisa’s plight, and her struggle to escape Sam’s shadow and find her own identity, reflects the archetypal feminist journey of self-discovery. Stead infuses this compelling theme with affecting and offbeat humor and, in Louisa, has created a character that embodies the emotional torment of growing up in a dysfunctional family. She is an unlikely heroine in the guise of an ugly duckling. As Jonathan Franzen wrote in his 2010 New York Times review, “you can’t help being dragged along through Louisa’s bloody soul-struggle to become her own person, and you can’t help cheering for her triumph” (2010). As Stead’s narrator pithily explains, “That was family life” (Stead, 50).
In reading The Man Who Loved Children, one has the feeling that Louisa and her siblings have done well merely to survive in such a toxic environment. Stead grew up in Australia, the daughter of a family whose patriarch was narcissistic and domineering. Clearly, Stead had a larger-than-life example to draw on in David Stead, with whom Christina shared “a very close bond” occasioned by the death of her mother when Christina was two and a half (Stead, 1995). But like Louisa, Christina’s relationship with her father deteriorated into a form of psychological warfare. The experience stiffens Louisa’s resolve and helps her find inner reserves of strength. But for Louisa’s stepmother, it leads to suicide. This may seem an unlikely environment for a feminist awakening, and yet it was under such stifling conditions that feminism emerged from the shadows of male-dominated society. As such, Louisa’s odyssey, her personal growth,
may be said to parallel the emergence of feminism.
Of course it is Louisa’s intelligence, her innate ability that truly matters, not her weight or her slovenliness. She writes poems and plays, even invents her own language, ostensibly to win her father’s approval and admiration. When Sam mocks and belittles Louisa for her diaries, it becomes evident that her creative impulse is a form of self-actualization, her form of resistance to Sam’s emotional tyranny. The question of whether Louisa will survive her father’s browbeating is a question of confidence. It’s a 50-50 proposition: whereas Louisa will survive and escape, Evie remains psychologically ensconced in the unique prison Sam has created for them all. Louisa will win her independence in much the same way that feminism emerged as an expression of women’s struggle to be recognized as unique individuals with their own intrinsic value.
And Sam is a formidable challenge. “Dogmatic, insensitive and articulate,” he creates an environment that Henny finds “unbearably sordid” (Apstein, 1980). He knows where Louisa is vulnerable and how to take advantage of that vulnerability. Sam makes Louisa a subject of ridicule, reading aloud her love poems to Miss Aiden. His mastery is emotional manipulation and his aim is to use that ability to make sycophants of his own children, particularly Louisa, “foolish, poor little Looloo,” whose spirit he pledges to break (Stead, 512). Sam expounds at length on the subject of harmony and the creation of a new form of altruism, which will someday benefit all mankind. “My system, which I invented myself, might be called Monoman or Manunity!” To which Louisa replies, “You mean Monomania” (Stead, 48). Louisa, he insists, will be a scientist and join him in his neurotic fantasy. When she objects, Sam tries to intimidate her by claiming to have direct access to her thoughts. As her father, as a man, he will have complete control of her mind, body and soul. One has the sense that the Pollitts are like rats caught in a claustrophobic maze.
Louisa’s torment is not limited to her father’s persecutions. She is caught in the crossfire between her warring parents, paying an emotional toll that Sam nor Henny are both oblivious to, caught up as they are in their own power struggle. When Henny submits a note to Sam, in which she demands money for a servant to help manage the household, it is Louisa who is forced to serve as the go-between, actually repeating her stepmother’s demands to Sam. “She said to go to her Daddy; she said she won’t come up. She said she couldn’t walk upstairs,” Louisa explains to Sam. “Don’t shout at her Daddy” (Stead, 119). Sam, reacting in fury, takes his anger out on his daughter, taking a verbal swipe at her appearance. “Go and look at yourself in the glass! You’d better clean up your face” (119). In this unfortunate and unwanted role, Louisa is burdened with her parents’ shortcomings. She is the unwitting bridge between an aloof, detached mother and a domineering, uncompromising father.
In this appalling scenario, Louisa has no alternative but to grow and develop as a distinct human being with her own hopes and dreams. Caught between a spoiled mother and a father who has co-opted their childhood, the Pollitt children have no opportunity to be children. Sam’s kids “are allowed no privacy, no thoughts or will of their own because the real child is himself. If this were a contemporary novel, he would be secretly raping his daughters and maybe his sons as well” (Slate.com, 2001). Indeed, there is a lingering, hovering aspect of “weird sexuality” at work between Sam and his daughters; Evie, for instance, is forced to massage Sam’s scalp as he lies in bed (2001). The exploitation of females within the Pollitt family is discernible, if not overtly in evidence.
Stead’s story is equal parts horror story and birth control pamphlet. Pregnancy is the weapon by which Sam has trapped Henny, as though begetting children through her is a form of gender-based oppression. Indeed, in a feminist mindset, reproduction is a form of control, a way for men to possess women in a profoundly personal manner. This could be said of having had one or two children, but caring for seven has made a slave of Henny, whose only recourse, her only means of expressing disgust at her powerlessness is to sequester herself physically from Sam. It is for Louisa to assert herself, to defend her individuality, which her intellect and ability make possible in a way not open to Henny. Stead, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has produced a feminist’s nightmare.
It is a story with traditional gender roles that are belied by a spectacularly non-traditional family environment. Sam has his career, which takes him places – literally. As the provider, Sam has that degree of financial control that men have so often used as leverage against their wives and children. Henny’s lot is purely domestic, a role for which her temperament and privileged background have not prepared her. It is the classic story of the father who has leisure to be something more than a father, who has leisure to indulge his inner child, and the beleaguered wife who has no such leeway. Marriage is Henny’s prison. “Look at me!,” she explodes in frustration in front of friends. “My back’s bent in two with the fruit of my womb; aren’t you sorry to see what happened to me because of his lust?” (Stead, 262). Her rant is the cry of an anguished soul with no hope of escaping her fate. Henny asks Jinny if she, as a mother herself, hasn’t also been victimized by “the horrible thing,” meaning pregnancy, at least three times (262). There is a poignant desperation to Henny that speaks directly to the question of feminism.
It is a remarkable achievement that Stead causes the reader to feel like one of the Polllitt children, caught in the middle of a conflict with no emotional release or resolution. This must be the way Louisa feels. At 13 years old, she is unlucky enough to have been thrust into the position of being responsible for everyone, for having to protect the younger children from the collateral damage caused by Sam and Henny’s verbal skirmishes and the awkward way in which they communicate. It is an uncomfortable situation, given that Henny, Louisa’s stepmother, is resentful and abusive toward her. That Louisa’s father should seek to cow her and break her spirit make it all nearly unbearable. She seeks release in the only ways open to her, by writing and inventing a new language that symbolizes a separate existence, a world of her own creation that only she understands. For Sam, this is unacceptable. It represents more than a defiance of his authority, it is a rejection of him personally, of his “brilliance.” Together, Henny and Louisa present inviting targets for Sam’s misogyny.
Louisa sees through Sam like no one else in the story. He is, after all, a poseur, a phony who inhabits the role of father in form only; his function is to act arbitrarily toward his family to obtain obedience, particularly from the females. Sam is the pater familias, the breadwinner who is ultimately dependent on his father-in-law for his livelihood. When this support is withdrawn, Sam’s means dwindle and the family’s misery only intensifies. The Pollitts are forced to leave Tahoga, which Henny does not inherit, and wind up in reduced circumstances in Annapolis. Louisa is pushed to the brink, and decides to follow a desperate course of action, which leads her to try to poison Henny.
On the surface of it, Louisa simply appears to be carrying her hate and rage toward her stepmother to its logical extension. However, there is a sense that, in trying to kill Henny, Louisa seeks to shed the undesirable aspects of her own femininity, to exorcise her own vulnerability and thereby create a new version of herself. Henny has proven unable to deal with Sam or to resolve an unhappy marriage in a positive manner. In this sense, she is a failure, not strong enough to change or adapt to the needs of her situation. Louisa, on the other hand, knows that she must find a way out of the situation if she is to survive. She is made of sterner material than her stepmother. “The poems and plays she writes, even her diaries, demonstrate the independence of her mind” (De Kretser, 2010). Though she is overweight and unattractive, Louisa’s intellect and inner resources show that, ultimately, this is meaningless. She can be self-reliant. Although she has craved her father’s love and approval, she can make do without it if need be.
This is the final achievement of feminism in The Man Who Loved Children. Louisa survives and finally escapes, giving herself the opportunity to come into her own, to realize her potential as a woman. Her escape is symbolic of feminine evolution and the achievement of feminist aspirations in Stead’s novel. Just as Stead survived her own chaotic and damaged early life, so her alter ego, Louisa, proves worthy of a new start, secure in her own self-worth and demonstrating the determination necessary to remake herself. As such, Louisa’s resiliency and courage represent the fulfillment of the feminist creed.
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