Sunday, 28 February 2016

Corporal punishment in children's literature - Clementine Beauvais

Over coffee, I was talking to a colleague who is a professor in educational psychology. The conversation drifted towards the subject of corporal punishment in schools: he had given a public talk the day before, about how to help troubled pupils, and a heckler had stood up to say that children are too sensitive nowadays; in the good old days, a clip round the ear, etc. 

This reminded me, for some reason, of the numerous casual representations of corporal punishment in children’s literature. For most British people, Dickens is the first writer to spring to mind when corporal punishment is mentioned; to Germans, Struwwelpeter is an obvious contender. For French people, the most memorable example of corporal punishment in children’s literature is likely to be an episode from the Comtesse de Ségur’s book A Good Little Devil (Un bon petit diable), published in 1865 and still popular (though less than other books by the Comtesse). In the story, the young protagonist Charles, brought up by the horrible, cantankerous and superstitious Mrs MacMiche, keeps getting into situations that lead to him getting spanked by the old witch. One day, with the help of his friend, the servant Betty, he glues to his bumcheeks two demonic faces made of cardboard, which terrify Madame MacMiche when she pulls down Charles’ pants to beat him up. So iconic is this episode that it is often chosen to illustrate the cover of Un bon petit diable in its various editions.

Corporal punishment, isolations in penitence cabinets, and humiliations of all kinds abound in the Comtesse de Ségur’s work, but so do revenges, transgressions and subversions of those punishments.

Still, there’s nothing, of course, actually funny about corporal punishment, and the images that abounded in the books and comics I read as a young child - from the Katzenjammer Kids to Tintin - of adults enthusiastically spanking children would never go past an editor today. It seems difficult now to imagine that normal human beings, otherwise happy in their lives and balanced human beings, might have hit children quite violently as a matter of course in the past. There’s something abject now about the notion of an adult hitting a child, and children’s literature doesn’t display those images in the light-hearted way it used to. Even Dahl doesn’t show adults hitting children, preferring cartoonish punishments - swirling them by their plaits - or indirect physical punishment - a Trunchbullesque transformation of the Iron Maiden, an Augustus-Gloop-Hoover. When realistic corporal punishment appears in children’s literature, it’s now in ‘issue books’ - dark, serious, social realistic stories. 

Yet of course, adult violence against children continues, and children’s literature continues to depict it. Harry Potter’s punishment by various teachers is particularly interesting. Dolores Umbridge is the most obvious torturer of the saga. Harry’s I must not tell lies, drowning his hand in blood, is perhaps the most vivid literalisation in children’s literature of the core principle of corporal punishment: getting the mind to obey by stamping the body with the mark of compliance. But Harry, arguably, is also physically tortured by Snape and even by Lupin, whose secret sessions of ‘training’ - against Dementors, and against mind-reading - often border on the physically unbearable. In those sessions, the educational and the sado-masochistic are constantly interwoven. One moment Lupin gives Harry chocolate to make him feel better; the next, he ‘[taps] Harry hard on the face’ to wake him up. And in the midst of Harry’s intense suffering, Harry himself can’t help wanting to face the Dementor again, to hear his parents’ voices.

As to Harry’s sessions with Snape, there’s no need to be a great hermeneut of suspicion to find interesting, to say the least, the dynamics of penetration and resistance that the educational process involves. Since education is intrinsically dangerous at Hogwarts - every mistake can turn into mauling, hurting, burning or Splinching - the frontier between teaching and beating, and ‘making a mistake’ and ‘being punished’, is very slim indeed. But again, Harry is never physically touched by any of these teachers; it is as if he were tortured and punished once-removed, by invisible agents - including, symbolically, himself. The notion of ‘clean’ corporal punishment reaches it pinnacle with one of the most poignant, asphyxiating moments in children’s literature: the almost-successful severing of Lyra from Pantalaimon, in the sanitized environment of a clinic in His Dark Materials.

Does that mean that children’s literature, following the old Foucauldian mantra, has slid from obvious spectacles of spankings and bloodiness to a kind of mechanized, hands-free repression? Maybe corporal punishment is being displaced in its representations, through eclipsing actual physical contact, or transforming corporal into psychological and emotional violence (which of course, had always existed too). But this claim suffers many caveats. First, unlike public executions, which simply don’t take place anymore, old children’s books, fairy tales and nursery rhymes that depict physical violence against children are still available - and still read, told and sung. Secondly, as with Harry Potter, blood and suffering are by no means absent from punishment in children’s literature. They tend, perhaps, to become disconnected from obvious physical contact between adult and child, but violence has not become solely psychological. We’re not just talking about surveillance; we’re still seeing physical damage. 

And there’s still a weird erotic to corporal punishment. Without taking it into account, I don’t think we can comprehend the deep, fond, almost nostalgic affection that some people seem to nurture for it. ‘In the old days, we were beaten up if we didn’t behave correctly!’, to quote our heckler the other night. Why do they seem to relish the thought so much? some adults seem to secretly enjoy the concept of violence against children - or, at the very least, they enjoy the concept of punishing the younger generations. For those who wish for the return of corporal punishment, it verges on the pathological. But after all, many others, like you and me, enjoy Hitchcock’s Birds, and the old classic film Forbidden Planet. And those are, essentially, stories about the materialisation of parents’ wishes that their children - admittedly young adults by then - be brutally maimed.
At least in those stories the parents are punished; and the stories end well (ish).

Outside fiction, of course, they don't.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.

1 comment:

Catherine Butler said...

I was just at the fag-end of corporal punishment in schools (to coin a phrase) in the sixties and early seventies, but even then its "natural" home seemed to be the pages of the Beano, where in strips like "The Bash Street Kids" it was administered liberally by teachers wearing mortar boards who already seemed marked out as belonging to another era, or to a place where (as in Dahl) the laws of physics have been tweaked for maximum comic effect. I'm not sure I even connected that violence with what occasionally happened at my primary school behind closed doors, which never seemed a laughing matter, issuing as it usually did in crying children. (It happened to me once: I think I was shocked more than physically hurt.)

Sadly, of course, public executions do still happen, even if not in Europe, and thanks to Youtube (other video sharing sites are available) they can be freely watched by children - to what effect I don't think we yet know.