Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Man Who Loved Children focuses on American family life. Stead clearly perceives the Pollits as more typical than extraordinary—despite the novel’s outcome—and she is more concerned with showing how the family works than with drawing moral conclusions about their behavior. She is relentless in the honesty of her portraits. Both Sam and Henny are presented as deeply flawed creatures; both are also presented as unfortunate victims of social and economic forces far beyond their control.

Thus, this novel has strong overtones of Zolaesque naturalism. The world that Stead renders is a world that does not necessarily operate in the fair and righteous way that Sam envisions, yet is in some ways clinically Darwinian: ruthless and cruel, demanding the survival of the fittest, as exemplified in Louie’s horrific yet somehow heroic act. Still, there is much joy in the intricacies of the family’s private world. Sam brings a kind of magical intensity to their mundane and sometimes hollow existence. Henny, when she can permit herself to be engaged by the family, provides an equally dynamic, energizing force.

The strongest implication of redemptive value comes in Louie’s artistic impulses. She uses art, literature in particular, to reshape her sense of the world and then moves beyond passive reception to active involvement in the creative process. Her storytelling and her writing serve to connect her to her siblings and gain for her...

(The entire section is 594 words.)