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Eye of the Beholder

Dual Existence: Writing the Conscious Child

Earlier this year, I published a novel called The Mysteries. It combines an omniscient voice with close third person, and dips in and out of the interiority of a variety of characters, some of them adults. The story’s center, though—the character around whom all the drama revolves—is a seven-year-old girl named Miggy. Writing a seven-year-old did not, at the outset, seem particularly challenging, or rather, no more than writing any character. Miggy appeared almost instantly on the page. I grabbed her voice, her attitude, and I thought: I’ve got her.

Think again. It turns out that writing a child, especially a pre-adolescent, requires different considerations from those we bring to writing adults. To make a schematic generalization, we develop characters from two directions. First, there is the outside—what they look like, how they behave, how their world, family, society, politics, weather, terrain, affect them. Then we come at them from the inside—dwelling in their interiorities, listening to them think, wonder, figure, desire, decide, regret. Somewhere in the intersection of these two perspectives, we locate them. We bring to our inventions our experiences and knowledge about life and its vagaries, our understanding, both psychological and empirical, of all the ways in which humans are, well, human. But as much as I thought I had some reasonable understanding of children, I found it difficult to access Miggy in a way that felt entirely credible. 

Why? Well, a few reasons. Children are not busy self-analyzing and they do not always have language to express what’s in their heads. In some fashion, therefore, the narrative has to do that work for them. There is also the issue of time, the consideration of which is elemental to narrative and consciousness. Children’s sense of time is limited because of their relative lack of perspective. The future is near-sighted. Eventuality is what’s immediately ahead, not what’s unseen and unexperienced. The now is urgent, precise, and fleeting. Like childhood itself. Writing my girl, I had so many fundamental questions I could not answer: was her universe self-enclosed and non-referential? Did she make associations? Did she experience nostalgia? Was she conscious of the performance of childhood that adults require of her? Was she inherently moral? Could ideas of badness and goodness exist for her separate from her perception of her parents’ and teachers’ values? 

What were the narrative strategies I could use to create a child who was not simply a projection of my adult ideas about childhood? 

That last question is knotty. When I write adults, no matter how different they may be from me, we share, to greater or lesser degrees, an adult awareness of time, memory, loss, and mortality. But what does my consciousness share with that of a child?  I have memories of childhood but they come filtered through my adult perspective, reflecting less what actually occurred than what I need to create meaning. My memories are symbolic, part of the mythology of me. 

For as long as children have appeared in stories, they have figured as symbols. Think of the naîf, who represents purity and innocence. This child is viewed as mostly passive. She is not considered willful or ill-intentioned—even when her actions lead to challenging outcomes. Often, such children are thrust into a kind of “underworld,” replete with all sorts of adult sordidness; think of Oliver Twist. The child’s innocence, fidelity, and moral neutrality are pitted against the corruption that surrounds them. The result is often a critique of society rather than a fully developed portrait of a child.  

Another symbolic trope is that of the lost child, who encounters the uncanny and must find his way home. Little Red Riding Hood is an example, as is Hansel and Gretel; more modern instances include Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and, in a fascinating twist on the convention, Emma Donoghue’s Room.  These narratives offer a projection of adult anxiety about complexities and corruptions both personal and societal, as well as the yearning for a return to some idealized before

“The [lost] child,” Mark Froud writes in The Lost Child in Literature and Culture, is “always both immanent—ready to be drawn on in various ways—and, at the same time, always representative of a lost realm, lost in the individual past, and in the past of the culture. This split makes the figure of a child into an uncanny double—a double of the adult self but also of the culture and society in which he or she has been produced. The figure of the child is at once ever-present and instantly retrievable, in memory at least, but simultaneously lost forever: the child who haunts history and our self.” The ghost child, the feral child, even the evil child—we see these symbolic configurations across the history of literature. The child as an expression of adult hope, despair, and dread. 

Few would argue that an adult writing a child is guilty of appropriation. Yet childhood is another country altogether. It is a vanishing point, a thought on the tip of the tongue, a dream vivid upon waking that disintegrates in seconds. Memory is illusory. And psychology is reductive in the end. Once again, it all represents the adult view. The child as specimen in a petri dish. What is most marvelous about children, and what is most compelling in writing them, is that we must hold two opposite truths in our minds at the same time. The first is that a child is simply a projection of a series of adult obsessions and, as such, useful primarily to reflect an adult world. The second, is that a child is sui generis, which is to say that she exists apart from the adult imagination as her own, inscrutable being. In Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, Carolyn Steedman describes it this way: “… the historical dilemma … is that children were both the repositories of adults’ desires … and social beings who lived in social worlds and networks of social and economic relationships, as well as the adult imagination.” What this means is that “[i]t is this dual existence … the muddied relationship between desire and social being …” that is at stake.  

Froud’s “uncanny double.” Steedman’s “dual existence.”  As I set about writing my novel, I looked at a handful of authors to see how they negotiated this duality, how they moved beyond the symbolic to delve into a credible and robust interiority of a child. 

In What Maisie Knew, Henry James portrays an innocent in the underworld—and in the process creates, what for many, stands as one of the first modern novels. That’s because in giving his child a complex inner life, he asks that we reimagine what innocence is. Six-year-old Maisie is the subject of the bitter divorce settlement between her parents, Ida and Beal Farange. A judge has decreed that Maisie will move at six-month intervals between the two. This Solomon-like proposal proves complicated as both parents are selfish and spiteful. Although they give lip service to loving their daughter, they are clearly using her. Not only is Maisie passed back and forth, she’s made to carry messages of enmity between her parents, and later, to witness and bear the burdens of their adult manipulations and immoralities. The adults in the novel treat Maisie as an empty vessel, a non-person with no feelings that require attention. They call her “wretch,” “a little monster,” “bad,” and “horrid”: perverse and dehumanizing terms. Often, they refer to her as a “chap,” erasing her girlhood altogether. They want to use her. But what fascinates me about James’s novel is his insistence that Maisie’s innocence is neither fixed nor flat. 

In his notes on the novel, James writes of Maisie, “I should have to invest her with perceptions easily and almost infinitely quickened. So handsomely fitted out, yet not in a manner too grossly to affront probability.” He continues: “The one presented register of the whole complexity would be the play of the child’s confused and obscure notation of it, and yet the whole, as I say, would be unmistakably, should be honorably there, seen through the faint intelligence, or at the least attested by the imponderable presence, and still advertising its sense.” 

You can hear, in these sentences, the author coming up with a strategy to formulate the consciousness of a six-year-old child, a consciousness that receives and processes information as a six-year-old would. He writes: “I should have to stretch the matter to what my wondering witness materially and inevitably saw; a great deal of which quantity she either wouldn’t understand at all or would quite misunderstand—and on those lines, only on those, my task would be prettily cut out.” What’s important is that James does not propose Maisie to be just any six-year-old, a reduced type; rather, she is Maisie Farange, a particular girl with particular powers of observation and a particular way of thinking about what is going on around her. 

Because she is taken for a non-entity and is exposed to sophisticated adult desires, hypocrisies, and venalities, her understanding and attitude become increasingly complex. James resists the imitative fallacy of creating an innocent who knows and thinks and behaves as a generalized ideal of innocence. Her parents conclude that “either from extreme cunning or from extreme stupidity, [Maisie] appeared not to take things in.” But, of course, she does. The great tension of the novel grows out of this duality: the vacancy the adults perceive in her and her very present, watchful and ultimately quite knowing consciousness. 

“Small children,” James writes in his notes for the novel, “have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary. … Maisie’s terms accordingly play their part—since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies … the difference here is but of a shade; it is her relations, her activity of spirit, that determines all our own concern—we simply take advantage of these things better than she herself.” What he is speaking about is the flexible omniscient point of view. The narrative voice acts as a kind of camera. It zooms in close to Maisie’s interior thoughts and feelings, as articulated by an adult mind; it watches her behave, hears her speech, the language of which is purely a six-year-old’s; then it zooms out to the actions and thoughts of the other characters. Finally, it pulls back one step further, providing a distant commentary on the proceedings. 

James announces the terms from the beginning of the novel when, taking the most distant point of view, the narrator says, “It was the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than, at first, she understood, but also, even at first, to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.” The effect is to create a tone that is sometimes ironic and comic. But the judgment of that voice, the satirical edge of it, is always made humane when the “camera” descends from its perch and moves inside Maisie’s mind, a particular consciousness we are invited to know not from an ironic distance but intimately. 

We see the world through Maisie’s eyes. 

Maisie has a first intimation of her consciousness after she “begins to perceive that hers is a world full of the unknown, the mysterious and the clandestine.” In response, she discovers that she too has secrets to keep. “Her parted lips locked themselves,” James writes, “with the determination to be employed no longer. She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted the pleasure new and keen. When therefore, as she grew older, her parents in turn announced before her that she had grown shockingly dull, it was not from any real contraction of her little stream of life. She spoiled their fun, but she practically added to her own.” This awareness of secrecy is essential in James’s rendering of the child’s interiority. In his notes, James writes of his character that “her former unconscious ability to alternate her psychology completely between first one household and then the other gives way to a series of more conscious methods of her psychologically containing the divided reality of her existence.” In other words, part of how he engages Maisie’s interior is by recognizing that her “self” is an ever-changing construct. 

Her secrets are at first passive. She simply keeps certain knowledge to herself. But as the novel progresses, we begin to see her use this hidden knowledge in a way that could be called cunning were it not for the fact that James never lets go of the child in her. From early in the book, Maisie is aware that she is the reason certain interactions have occurred. Frequently—as when Sir Claude meets Mrs. Beale, for instance—she can be heard exclaiming that “it is because of me!” We sense a kind of unknowing wonder in her words. Later in the novel, though, Maisie uses the expression with a different nuance. Wonder is replaced by a kind of insistence, and we start to see that Maisie is not simply aware of herself as a catalyst, but that this recognition affords her a certain agency, which she will, at novel’s end, finally exercise.

One of the most beguiling scenes comes late in the novel, when Maisie’s father approaches her with the news that he is moving to America with a new lover. He then asks if she’d like to come. Maisie is aware that the offer is insincere, but rather than backing down as she once might have, she says that she would very much like to go. Her innocence is part of her impulse: she is a little girl who wants to go where her Papa goes. But the way James structures the dialogue makes it clear that Maisie is turning the manipulative skills she’s observed on her father. She watches as, backed into a corner, he tries to convince her that she doesn’t really want to go with him at all. Although Maisie is never less than agreeable, the comedy of the scene lets us know that she recognizes the irony of the situation. Still, throughout all this, James never loses sight of the fact that she is six. Her knowingness is driven by desires that are believable. She wants love. She wants protection and constancy. She wants to believe that what people tell her is true. 

But she learns that people do not mean what they say and they do not say what they mean.

The great question posed by the novel’s title is, of course, what does Maisie know? By using flexible omniscience, James reveals that what Maisie finally knows is what the novel has insisted all along. As the book ends, she is, for the first time, given a choice in the outcome of her life. She must choose with whom to live.  “Somehow,” James writes, “now that it was there, the great moment was not so bad. What helped the child was that she knew what she wanted. All her learning and learning had made her at last learn that.” She has come to know her self.




James creates a complex innocence by triangulating his three narrative positions so they meet in Maisie’s character. In the novel Shipwrecks, Akira Yoshimura comes at his child protagonist in an almost entirely opposite manner, but the result on the page is a character no less palpable and rich. Isaku is a nine-year-old boy who lives in an impoverished fishing village in medieval Japan. During the months when the villagers cannot fish, they rely on the rice from ships that have foundered on the rocks near their island. If the year is favorable, and there has been a wreck, the villagers will survive the lean season. If there has been no wreck, they are under siege. Food is scarce. Children go hungry. People die. Many adults are forced to cross the mountains and contract themselves as indentured servants. This is the case with Isaku’s father, who has left his wife and children alone. As is true of Maisie, Isaku’s world is entirely about survival, but while Maisie’s survival is emotional, Isaku’s, at least on the surface, is physical. The terms of his life are blunt and brutal. His overburdened mother is a taskmaster, rather than a source of solace. There is no room for sentiment in her life. Isaku’s days are taken up by work. He knows that his family’s survival relies, in part, on him. 

Yoshimura’s third person omniscient narrator could not be more different from James’s. Although it focuses almost exclusively on Isaku for the entirety of the novel, we are offered very little access to the boy’s interiority. The narrative observes him, but it does not, overtly, “know” him. Or rather, it knows him only by his actions, most of which are codified; he is following the dictates of both his mother and the community. Here’s a typical example: “Isaku engrossed himself in catching squid. They would not be eaten right away but would be split open and dried. There were squid hanging everywhere—on ropes, under the eaves of houses, in nearby open spaces. From the water the village looked like a hive of activity.”  The tone and stance reflect that Isaku’s interior life, his desires and emotions, are less important than the needs of the group. The final sentence appears to place the narrator outside the village, perhaps even on a boat looking toward the shore. The tension of the novel, then, derives from the distance between the individual and the group. How will we get to know this boy for whom self-assertion is essentially forbidden? Dual existence once again, the duality always present in the configuration of the child. 

Yoshimura’s masterstroke is that he does not allow the controlled and distant tone to conjure a controlled child who is distant from himself. That would ring false. Instead, we begin to know Isaku not as a boy who has no emotions, but as a boy whose emotions reside deep inside. He is not a vacancy, in other words, but a stoic. If James uses a maximalist approach, engaging with Maisie’s every thought and feeling, Yoshimura’s spare technique succeeds just as powerfully in making Isaku’s interiority present to us. 

The how of it, I think, has to do with Yoshimura’s narrative restraint, his willingness not to show everything that goes on with the boy. This gives surprising power to the few moments when he does offer a glimpse of the character’s inner life. After Isaku’s younger brother Teru dies, the narrator tells us: “Several men and women from neighboring houses gathered, walking behind Isaku’s mother as she carried Teru’s body wrapped in straw matting up the mountain path toward the graveyard. … Isaku looked out to sea, tears streaming down his face. His father had entrusted him and his mother with the lives of his younger brother and sisters, and now he anguished because they had not been able to keep their promise.” The moment lands precisely because we have not been invited into the boy’s emotions in such a way before. The language is unemotional until we get to “anguish” and the heartrending image of Isaku turning to the sea to hide his reaction. He is nine, grieving his brother, but he knows he cannot display his emotions in front of a community that expects him to suppress his private needs and rise to the demands of collective survival.  

We see this again a little later in the novel, when Isaku is, for the first time, given the responsibility of fishing for his family. “Isaku felt himself losing his composure,” Yoshimura writes. “His father was gifted at catching saury, but for Isaku it was a trick he could not master for the life of him. …  This year, he thought, he had to catch some fish, even if it wasn’t a lot, for his family.” Again, the tension between the plainspoken voice and the knowledge that Isaku, like any frustrated child, is trying not to cry. At this fragile moment, he thinks of his father and the wound of his abandonment. That these explicit references to Isaku’s emotions appear so rarely gives them a kind of knock-out power. The combination of what is hidden and what is expressed delivers a credible interior life for this nine-year-old boy. 




In We the Animals, Justin Torres creates interiority for his young characters by making a set of narrative choices entirely different from either James or Yoshimura. Told in retrospect—and in chapters that also stand as discrete stories—the novel charts the early lives of three brothers who live a chaotic, exuberant, often violent life with their parents. The world of these boys is unstable. Their father hits their mother, who alternates between rage and debilitating depression. Money is scarce. A fierce parental love is always twinned with fear. Like Yoshimura, Torres allows us to know the boys through their actions, but his narrative voice is anything but restrained. The tone is kinetic, pulsing. Bodies play a huge role in the narrative consciousness: the boys naked in the tub, being rubbed clean by their father’s powerful hands, peeing outside, witnessing their parents having sex. The brothers wrestle and tumble; they wallow in mud pits, and they run.  When they need to express anger, they hit, sometimes pounding on their father, whom they love and fear. They feel some peace when he leaves, but they are relieved when he returns.  As opposed to Isaku, whose passions must remain largely hidden, these boys’ passion is on full display. They are pure id. 

What fascinates me about We the Animals is the way Torres negotiates two first person voices. Although the book is narrated by the youngest brother, Jonah, he often uses the first person plural, treating the consciousness of all three brothers as one. Bit by bit, he begins to present, and integrate, an understanding of his consciousness as separate from his brothers, not only in our minds but also in his own. This creates a new set of conflicts as Jonah becomes aware that his individuality may imperil his connection to the family.

This, of course, happens over time. The first chapter, “We Wanted More,” exults in the undifferentiated we. “We wanted more,” Torres writes. “We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. … We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” We meet this trio, then, as a collective drive and desire. There is safety in numbers; the we offers protection from uncertainty and violence. 

Yet slowly, the first person singular begins to assert itself. In a chapter called “Seven,” the boys’ father brings their mother home. Her face is swollen and bruised. His unlikely excuse, that a dentist hit her in the face to loosen up her teeth, only affirms that he has beaten her. The chapter begins in the collective point of view. “In the morning,” Jonah tells us, “we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her mouth. Three days ago she had arrived home with her mouth swollen and purple.” As things progress, we learn that it is Jonah’s seventh birthday. The “I” makes its first declarative appearance.  The mother wakes up. “’My beautiful boys,’ she said, the first words out of her busted mouth in three days, and it was too much; we turned from her. I pressed my hand against the glass, suddenly embarrassed, needing the cold. That’s how it sometimes was with Ma; I needed to press myself against something cold and hard or I’d get dizzy.” 

For the first time, we are inside Jonah’s particular experience. His brothers are not included in his I. Torres will return to the we, but now that plurality is distinct from the singular child whose individual consciousness emerges through this deft juggling of first person voices. Torres also hews very closely to Jonah and his brothers’ childlike perspective; they remain unaware of the implications of their actions and impulses. After Jonah sees his mother bruised and beaten, he has the impulse to press himself against something hard. The child’s felt but unanalyzed impulse makes Jonah’s interiority both rich and believable.

A stunning example comes when Jonah’s mother tells her older sons that at seven years of age, they began to move away from her. They became hard, she says, as they began their journey toward the kind of masculinity their father represents. They began to smash things, she says, and the inference is that they will smash the faces of their women, just as her husband has smashed hers. Jonah responds, “I don’t want to smash nothing. … I want to study God and never get married.” He and his mother joke about him staying six years old forever. The appeal of remaining her baby, identifying not with his brothers and father but with her, creates an anxiety Jonah does not understand. “I turned into her,” he tells us, “saw the swollen mounds on either side of her face, the muddied purple skin ringed in yellow. These bruises looked so sensitive, so soft, so capable of hurt, and this thrill, this spark, surged from my gut, spread through my chest, this wicked tingle, down the length of my arms and into my hands. I grabbed hold of both her cheeks and pulled her toward me for a kiss. The pain traveled sharp and fast to her eyes, pain opened up her pupils into big black disks. She ripped her face from mine and shoved me away from her, to the floor. She cussed me and Jesus, and the tears dropped, and I was seven.” The boy acts, but the narrator does not interpret. He leaves that to us and this brings us inside the particular boy that Jonah is.  

In the final, coda-like chapters of the book, Jonah is a teenager. These sections are narrated almost entirely in first person singular. Jonah has fully separated, not one of three but an individual with a private interior life. We learn that he is gay, and that he has been visiting the bus station at night to have encounters with men. When his parents discover this, they send him to a psychiatric hospital. The narrative doubles back to his first sexual encounter. “I was made!” he exults. “I’m made!” 

He is fully and only I.




What is often true about children in a retrospective narrative is that they are instrumentalized by the adult. The configuration of the child character, in other words, is not independent; it is the projection of an adult consciousness. What happens to such a child can be so viscerally summoned that we forget the adult is present in the telling at all—we see this with Torres. But the adult is there, in the tone of retrospection and the use of adult diction and analysis. Additionally, we have access to the adult’s sense of time. Carolyn Steedman writes that “the idea of the child was used both to recall and express the past that each individual life contained: what was turned inside in the course of individual development was that which was already latent: the child was the story waiting to be told.” I think of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  An elderly man recalls a moment when, as a teenager, he ignored a boy he knew in the hall at school. His adult guilt about this encounter leads him to recall his childhood and what created the emotional terms that caused him to ignore his friend. The tone is elegiac. Like many retrospective narratives, it is a story of loss. 

But these retrospective narratives need not always be so wistful. They may offer an elegy of a wholly different—and troubling—kind. That’s what happens in Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, which comes filtered through the barely controlled chaos of a destabilizing interiority. “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago,” the narrator informs us from the outset, “I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent.” The vagueness of the time frame (twenty or thirty or forty years ago) is humorous in its casual disregard for specificity, but it also suggests a callousness of feeling. The insinuation is that the narrator did something bad to Mrs. Nugent, but his adult self doesn’t seem to have much remorse. McCabe’s narrator is placing the present and the past in an amorphous relationship, one in which time doesn’t really matter. We laugh but at the same time, we are suspicious because we know this isn’t true. Furthermore, what kind of mind doesn’t differentiate between two or three or four decades? Who are we at the mercy of?

Quickly, McCabe pulls back from the adult perspective. It does not reappear until the end of the book. Instead, the narrative is handed over to twelve-year-old Francie, and we are plunged into his youthful, close first person stream-of-consciousness. Francie’s voice is marked by a joyful exuberance embodied by very long, run-on sentences, which suggest the uninterrupted thoughts of a boy with a lot to say who wants to get it out as fast as possible so he can move on to the next exciting thing. His diction is full of vernacular and slang. Grammar and punctuation are occasionally present, mostly not. This allows us to experience the boy’s interiority. We hurtle through comma-less space only to be brought up short by an unexpected period. Subjects are missing. Verbs are odd. We don’t always know what the slang means, but we get the sense of it through the sheer zest of Francie’s thoughts. Soon, though, his interiority begins to feel claustrophobic. We are trapped within his limited purview, which lets us experience more viscerally what he feels. At first, this provokes a sense of intimacy and sympathy, but as the narrative progresses, our entrapment begins to feel dangerous. We want to separate from Francie’s limited interiority, escape his troubled and troubling consciousness.

 But we can’t. And, as it turns out, neither can he.

Francie is trying with all his wits to cope with a challenging environment. His father is a rage-fueled drunk. His mother is unstable and later suicidal. Francie seems to survive by being generally ignorant of the implications. His perceptions suggest a tension between the child’s state of unknowing and a kind of self-protective emotional remove. “I didn’t know anything about ma and all this but Joe filled me in,” Francie reports on his mother’s situation. “I heard Mrs. Connolly saying breakdown what’s breakdown Joe. I says, Oh that’s when you’re took off to the garage, Joe told me, it’s when the truck comes and tows you away. That was a good one I thought, ma towed away off up the street with her coat on. Who’s that, they’d say. Oh that’s Mrs. Brady they’re taking her off to the garage.” 

His thoughts often exhibit this uneasy blend of humor, pathos, and a kind of moral disengagement that we accept at first as that of the child who sees more than he understands. Later, however, McCabe alters the tone of this interiority. Francie meets a boy named Philip Nugent whose mother—the Mrs. Nugent from the novel’s opening—refers to Francie’s family as pigs. Francie becomes obsessed with Philip. The brashness of the earlier interiority becomes more disturbing, indicating the dissolution of his moral center. In one scene, he appears at Philip’s house wearing a pig mask. “At first Philip didn’t know what to do,” he recalls, “you don’t usually expect to come out of your kitchen and see a pig wearing a jacket and trousers crawling round your front step. … I looked right up at him. A game of football. Me and you against the rest Philip what do you say? Then I gave another snort and poor Philip didn’t know what end of him was up. Snort. Then off I went laughing again.” 

Francie has turned a corner. Something in him has become unhinged. His antics scale up, becoming more dangerous. He breaks into the house. He defecates on the floor. He has violent fantasies. His interior monologue turns ever darker and amoral. Whatever empathy he might have once engendered disappears. The traumas mount for him, as well. He is sent to a boy’s home, where he is repeatedly assaulted by a priest. But his response is less emotional than coolly pragmatic; he uses the abuse to win his freedom. We are watching a sociopathic mind emerge into its fullness. 

What’s fascinating is the problem of identification. We know how Francie has been wounded. And yet his response makes it hard to feel about him as we might about another child in such circumstances—Jonah, say, in We the Animals. At the end of the novel, we return again to the adult narrator, who reveals more. “That was all a long time ago,” he reminds us. “Twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I don’t know. I was on my own for a long time I did nothing only read the Beano and looked out at the grass. Then they said to me; There’s no sense in you being stuck up in that wing all on your own. I don’t think you’re going to take the humane killer to any of our patients are you? … next week your solitary finishes how about that hmm? I felt like laughing in his face: How can your solitary finish? That’s the best laugh yet.” 

Francie is telling this story of his childhood from what seems to be a psych ward or a prison. He has been imprisoned for the brutal murder and dismemberment of Mrs. Nugent. She called him and his mother pigs, and he butchered her for it. 

The great achievement of a voice that moves seamlessly from childish perceptions to dark humor to affectless dissociation is that it does not allow us to bring our normal pieties to bear. What do we do, the novel asks, when a child proves to be more depraved than anyone? What if the child is not the victim? What if we look for forgiveness in our childhoods only to find reflected back at us someone as terrifying as Francie?  Mark Froud describes “American modernism’s literary efforts to disenchant adult and child readers alike of the essentialist view of childhood as redemptive, virtuous, originary, and universal.” In The Butcher Boy, McCabe has created an adult projection of his child self that flies in the face of every trope of purity and innocence, transforming the retrospective novel from an elegy for loss into an accusation.

In The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevson writes that “Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten.” The challenge and pleasures of writing the child in fiction exists in letting the character loose from that dark cellar of adult memory to bring her to light on her own terms: with the immediacy of felt experience, language resonant enough to capture the complexity of consciousness, and reverence for the mysterious knowledge that even the youngest of us possesses. 



Crimp, Catherine. Childhood as Memory, Myth, and Metaphor: Proust, Beckett, and Bourgeois. Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, London, 2013.

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper and Row. New York. 1989.

Ditlevsen, Tove. The Copenhagen Trilogy. Farrar, Strau,s and Giroux. New York. 2020.

Froud, Mark. The Lost Child in Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan. London. 2017.

James, Henry. What Maisie Knew. Penguin Classics. London. 2010.

McCabe, Patrick. The Butcher Boy. Picador. London. 1992.

Phillips, Michelle H. Representations of Childhood in American Modernism. Palgrave Macmillan. London. 2016.

Steedman, Carolyn. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. Varo Press Ltd. London. 1995.

Torres, Justin. We The Animals. Mariner Books. New York. 2012.

Yoshimura, Akira. Shipwrecks. Harcourt Brace & Company. New York. 1996.

Marisa Silver is the author of seven books of fiction, including the collections "Babe in Paradise" (W. W. Norton) and "Alone With You" (Simon & Schuster) and the novels "Mary Coin" (Blue Rider Press) and "The Mysteries" (Bloomsbury).

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