Christina Stead was preeminently a novelist of character. She identified herself as a psychological writer, involved with the drama of the person. Her stories develop out of the dynamics of characters asserting their human energy and vigor and developing their wills. Stead established personality and communicated its energy and vitality through her creation of a distinctive language for each character. This individuating language is explored in the characters’ dialogues with one another (Sam Pollit talking his fantastic baby talk to his children), in their interior monologues (Teresa Hawkins, walking miles to and from work, meditating on her need to find a life beyond the surface social conventions), and in letters (the letter to Letty Fox from her former lover, who wants his money back after she has had an abortion). The language establishes the sense of an individual person with obsessions and characteristic blindnesses. One gets to know the quality of the mind through the texture of the language. As Christopher Ricks has noted of Stead’s accomplishment, she re-creates the way people talk to themselves “in the privacy of [their] skulls.” Ricks’s phrase gives a sense of how intimately and deeply the language belongs to the person: It is in the skull and the bone.
In her novel Letty Fox, Stead has Letty sum up her adventures to date by saying, “On s’engage et puis on voit.” The statement (roughly translated as “one gets involved and then one sees”) is an existentialist one that reconciles what critics see as two forces in Stead’s fiction: a preoccupation with character that links Stead to nineteenth century novelists and an analysis of social, psychological, and economic structures behind individual lives that links her to her contemporaries.
The phrase “On s’engage et puis on voit” also sums up Stead’s method. First, she immerses the reader in the particular atmosphere of the character’s mind and world; only then does she lead the reader to see a significance behind the individual passion. The phrase implies that one cannot see clearly by being disengaged, looking down on the human spectacle with the detachment of an objective physical scientist. Instead, one must become part of the experience, seeing it as a participant, in order to understand its reality. Some of the constant preoccupations of Stead’s characters include family, love, marriage, money, and individual power.
The Man Who Loved Children
Stead’s masterpiece, most critics agree, is her larger-than-life depiction of a family, The Man Who Loved Children. Out of print for twenty-five years, the book enjoyed a second life because of a partly laudatory review by the poet Randall Jarrell; Jarrell’s review was included as an introduction when the novel was reissued in 1965. The Man Who Loved Children immerses its readers in the life of the Pollit family, in its swarming, buzzing intimacy. The father, Sam Pollit, is a garrulous idealist who advocates eugenics for the unfit but who fantasizes for himself babies of every race and a harem of wives who would serve his domestic comfort. On the surface, Sam’s passions are his humanitarian ideals and his love for his children, but his underlying passion is what Geoffrey Chaucer said women’s was—his own way or his own will. Sam is an egotistical child himself; he sees only what he wants to see. His characteristic talk is his overblown, high-sounding rhetoric expressing schemes to right the world and the fanciful, punning baby talk, whining and wheedling, that he uses with the children.
Henny, wife to Sam and stepmother to Louisa, is Sam’s compulsive antagonist, worn down with childbearing and the struggle to manage her overextended household. Henny’s passion is to survive, to fight dirt and debt and the intermittent sexuality that involves her in continual childbearing. Henny’s characteristic talk is insult and denunciation, castigating with graphic details and metaphors the revolting sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that assault her. Stead emphasizes Henny’s eyes in descriptions of the fierce eyeballs in her sockets and her mouth in descriptions of her incessantly drinking tea and mouthing insults.
Stead’s way of explaining the unbridgeable gap between the minds and sensibilities of the marriage partners is to say that they have no words in common. Sam’s abstraction can never communicate with Henny’s particularity. They have no words that they understand mutually, and so for most of the book the two characters communicate with each other only through messages relayed by the children or by terse notes concerning household necessities. In spite of that essential gap, a sixth child is conceived and born to the couple during the course of the novel, and the resources of the household are further strained, finally to the breaking point.
What brings the family to destruction is a complex of causes, many of which are fundamentally economic. The death of David Collyer, Henny’s once rich father, is a blow to the family’s fortunes. The Pollits lose their home, and Henny’s creditors no longer expect that her father will pay her debts. Collyer’s death also leaves Sam without a political base in his government job, and Sam’s enemies move to oust him. The money crisis is intensified by Sam’s refusal to fight for his job. Instead, he retires to their new ramshackle home to do repairs and to play with the children. Sam grandly waits to be exonerated while Henny struggles to keep the family fed and clothed.
Another cause of the breakup of the family is the birth of Sam and Henny’s newest baby. Part of the trouble is economic: The new child means more expenses when Henny had promised her money-conscious eldest son Ernie that there would be no more children. The birth also brings an anonymous letter charging falsely that the child is not Sam’s because Sam has been away in Malaya for several months. The letter, filled with spite, probably has been sent by one of Henny’s disappointed creditors, but it exacerbates the mutual resentment of the couple and drives them closer and closer to serious violence against each other. (The pregnancy not only invades Henny’s body and multiplies her worries but it also costs her her lover, who deserts her when he hears of the pregnancy. Henny is more than ever in Sam’s power.)
A pivotal character in the fierce struggle between the parents is Louisa, eldest daughter of Sam and stepdaughter of Henny. Louisa’s emergence from childhood upsets the hierarchy of the household. The “man who loved children” does not love them when they question his authority and threaten his position as “Sam the Bold,” leader of the band of merry children. In retaliation, Sam calls Louisa names from “Loogoobrious” to “Bluebeak.” In disputing Sam’s ability to make it rain (his cosmic power), Louisa and Ernie—who is quick to...
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