The Kindness of Strangers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The starting point of John Boswell’s study is a scenario familiar, in one form or another, to almost all modern Europeans or Americans. It is the scenario of the abandoned child, of Oedipus or Moses, of Romulus and Remus or Shakespeare’s Perdita. Details vary, but in all such stories much the same thing happens: A child is born, but (because of ominous prophecies, family needs, or orders from above) it cannot be kept. It is accordingly exposed or abandoned, the intention being apparently that it should die, but without its parents incurring the guilt of direct murder. Instead it is found and reared by strangers, only in due course to return and to be made known, for good or ill, to its true parents.

Modern readers, Boswell suggests, make several basic assumptions when they view this scenario. They assume that such events were rare; that in most cases, abandonment led to death; that survival as recounted in such stories was meant to prove the child’s mysterious destiny or the overriding will of the gods. They assume too that no such thing could happen without strong feelings of guilt and criminality. There are obvious reasons for these assumptions. In modern societies foundlings are instant news; in the United States each year some two million potential foster-parents are chasing some fifty thousand children available for adoption. Naturally we take “abandonment” to mean something rare and horrible. But then in our societies, one has to reflect, abortion is relatively safe and largely decriminalized, while contraception is freely available. Perhaps without these differences even our societies would look more like those of antiquity, as regards child-disposal. Perhaps our own prejudices have prevented us from seeing the institution of “abandonment” correctly.

This is Boswell’s basic argument. He suggests that children were very commonly abandoned, throughout classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and that this was in a sense less inhuman than we think. Most expositi (children who had been “exposed”) in fact survived, some to be treated well, some poorly; on the whole the practice was closer to adoption than to infanticide. A basic question, however, must be: “How do we know?” The plots of romances are poor guides to historians, and harder evidence could be difficult to find. Is it not possible, Boswell asks himself, that the whole abandonment scenario is what he calls a “quicksand” motif?

This idea requires a moment’s explanation. In modern fiction and indeed modern film, it is quite common to have characters lost in or rescued from quicksands; everyone knows what a quicksand is, and even how best to escape from it. Practically no one, however, has actually seen one at firsthand, much less been in one. Quicksands are, in short, much more common in fiction than in fact. Could the abandonment of children have been like that, basically a useful plot-device? Boswell asks the question, but notes also that the opposite of the “quicksand motif” might be called the “adultery theme.” In fiction, adultery is nearly always seen as significant, surprising, life-changing, but in fact (as statistics seem to show) it is so common as often to go unremarked. Abandonment could, then, be more like adultery (or abortion) as a literary theme, less like quicksands (or murder). Was it everyday, or was it fascinatingly unusual? To answer this question requires scrutiny of many kinds of evidence: Fiction, certainly, but also laws, sermons, penitential codes, monastic chronicles, rhetorical exercises, and many other types of document which give evidence not only by direct comment but also by indirect implication, by what they assume to be normal.

In classical antiquity, Boswell concludes, the “exposure” of infants was a regular practice which could easily have applied to as many as a quarter of all children born. Classical authors obstinately take what we would regard as a nonmoral view of the practice. In one debate which has been preserved, the case is considered of a man who collects foundlings and cripples them in infancy so that they will be more effective beggars. It is, everyone agrees, a most disreputable trade; but no debater thinks to censure the parents of the unlucky children. Other writers assume that...

(The entire section is 1751 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Boston Globe. January 29, 1989, p.14.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 15, 1988, p.1784.

Library Journal. CXIV, February 1, 1989, p.76.

The New Republic. CC, February 27, 1989, p.31.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, June 29, 1989, p.9.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, March 19, 1989, p.16.

The New Yorker. LXIV, February 6, 1989, p.103.

Newsweek. CXIII, March 6, 1989, p.59.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, April 15, 1989, p.78.

USA Today. March 3, 1989, p. D4.