The ancient Greeks with the myth of Oedipus and Shakespeare with Hamlet knew a great deal about what Freud was later to call the Oedipus complex. The contribution of psychoanalysis to critical discourse around literature (or indeed art, film and music) is not therefore to do with the imposition of an alien way of thinking but rather to do with attempts to put into words and find ways of thinking about what is already known to us both in our inner worlds and in our stories.
In this issue Margaret Meek celebrates the reprint of Margaret and Michael Rustin’s seminal study of a number of key children’s novels, Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction*. First published sixteen years ago, this important book was the first to bring together ideas about the evaluation of literary quality with an understanding of sociological issues and of the ‘poetic realism’ to be found in fictional representations of development within characters’ inner worlds. The Rustins’ exploration of ‘emotional resonance’ from a psychoanalytical point of view allows us to give weight and understanding to the symbolic meaning and emotional conviction of good children’s fiction in a way that remains surprisingly underdeveloped in current critical approaches to children’s literature. It also, of course, helps us to understand why certain books resonate so intensely with young readers at particular points in their lives.
But fictional characters are not real as Melvin Burgess points out in his website response to my comments on his novel, Robbers on the Road**. Is there a danger of the ‘ludicrous misapplication of psychology’, as he claims in his letter on page 15 of this issue? Readers of BfK will, of course, make up their own mind both about Burgess’s book and my discussion of it.
The Rustins, however, in choosing to discuss such outstanding examples of children’s fiction as Charlotte’s Web, Carrie’s War, Tom’s Midnight Garden etc, argue that the authors of these books ‘have imagined situations and persons as if they were real. They have made connections between the different events of their story and the feelings of their characters with an intuitive grasp of the way people thus imagined are or would be.’ They add: ‘If (fictional characters) cannot be responded to as plausible representations of some reality, whether internal or external, whether of the writer’s or some other people’s experience, they will seem to have little point of connection with the reader’s world.’
* Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction by Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin is published by Karnac Books.
** Robbers on the Road by Melvin Burgess is published by A & C Black at £8.99.