Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

All the novel’s themes come together in a statement Lilli makes just after she asks Jo to sing a song about accepting the death of a child.I cannot agree that death is where a child belongs, that a child is best out of the world.... We are wandering, we are lost in darkness ... but it is the children who will lead us out of this darkness.... With each child birth, they say, the world begins again....

Incorporated into the novel’s accounts of fantasylike family gatherings full of hope, love, and security are details about the suffering of innocents: several entire fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, the television newscasts about the hostage children, excerpts from Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Children’s Crusade” (an alternative ending to “Hansel and Gretel” in which the children are devoured by the wicked witch in the dark forest), and the pleading letters from Germany. Clearly, the world is dangerous for children, and the very state of childhood is vulnerable in a society that thrives on destroying its magic; if the collage of references to endangered childhood is meant to represent the evil in the universe, however, then the good must be symbolized in the lovingly elucidated details of the everyday tasks and rituals within a family.

Kindergarten is the age-old story of the conflict between good and evil, and as happens in many of the fairy tales quoted in the narrative, good triumphs in the end. Thus, the novel ends in affirmation of the family, with Jo singing quietly to his grandmother as Corrie relives in his mind the last scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-1611), in which a long-dead wife is brought back to life by the love and tears of her family. Rushforth’s benediction is the retelling of the finale of “Hansel and Gretel,” this time the orthodox ending, in which the two children are saved from the witch and reunited with their father, to live happily ever after in the security of a family.