Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Colette’s sensitive, subtle, and unsentimental perception of childhood, which is evident in her factual stories about her own child, is refined and developed to the farthest limits in “The Sick Child” by her penetration of the mind of a boy brought close to death by poliomyelitis. The delicate borderline that she traces between imagination and reality reflects the boy’s own subjectivity in which his nighttime fantasies become his reality, compensating for the daytime torment of confinement and helping him to make some sense of the pain. In more general terms, Colette is examining the gap that she perceives between a child’s and an adult’s reality.

At first, the deception that mother and child practice on each other seems no more than a form of courtesy. As the narrative unfolds, however, the gap between them is shown to be of more fundamental significance. In a revealing passage expressing his innermost thoughts, Jean ponders over the impossibility of explaining to Madame Mamma that a sick and suffering child can be actually happy: far less unhappy, he reflects, than when he was being pushed about in a wheelchair.

The quality of his happiness (or, more precisely, his lack of unhappiness) is a key to the story’s deepest interior observation. Jean’s dislike of the doctor is associated with the doctor’s patronizing attempt to get him to pass the time by sketching. Jean, although absorbed by reading, which feeds his imagination, has already rejected the idea of drawing; he has found that it demands a daunting revelation of truths he prefers not to reveal or to face. There is a similar train of thought in Colette’s story, “The Seamstress,” about her nine-year-old daughter; the child’s imagination flows freely when she is reading but is channeled into more intimidating areas when social pressures force her to learn to sew.

Jean’s disappointment at the end of “The Sick Child” can therefore be understood not simply in terms of his own loss of imaginative power, or in the more generalized terms of the final paragraph that considers “children whom death lets go,” but as Colette’s bitter protest against the pressures of the adult world that extinguish the free, untrammeled imagination of childhood and alter the quality of childhood perception.