Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Man Who Loved Children is the tragic story of Sam and Henny’s marriage and the struggle of twelve-year-old Louisa to escape the family. Although the Pollit family lives in a world created by Sam, it is Henny whose individual particularities take on universal significance, so that she becomes an archetype of all women. She struggles to survive in a world defined by the laws men have made. The marriage is portrayed in a series of events that repeat themselves with increasing intensity until they culminate in Henny’s suicide. The second theme, that of Louisa’s struggle to leave the family, is played out in escalating scenes of conflict with her father but ends with her breaking free after a bitter struggle and much misery. Another organizing principle of the novel is the conflict of opposites: Sam and Henny, the Pollits and the Collyers, the female principle versus the male, adults and children, delusion against reality, and what things are as opposed to what people say they are.

The novel opens with enmity well established between Sam and Henny. Although they have managed to produce five children in less than ten years, they are not speaking to each other and communicate by passing messages through the children. When they communicate directly, it is a war between Sam’s self-serving orations and Henny’s bitter tirades. She is incapable of managing the household in the face of inadequate finances and his subversive attempts to undermine her authority.

Henny has a secret lover whom she sees when she is in town and from whom she is not above borrowing money. There is a suggestion that the lover,...

(The entire section is 670 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Critics have had a difficult time classifying The Man Who Loved Children. It was considered “social realism” at its first publication in 1940, while later critics called it an “allegorical-symbolic novel.” Some critics carped that Stead was incapable of writing an American novel because of her Australian birth and upbringing. By the 1970’s and 1980’s, literary analysts had established a feminist framework in which to study fiction by women, and it was suggested that the novel’s style and genre reflect a typically feminine experience. The “typically feminine experience” was Stead’s own, for she has stated that the fictional Sam is based on her own father, Australian naturalist and writer David Stead. Significantly, Sam’s daughter Louisa, who struggles to escape his influence, wins the battle of words and finally breaks free.

A feminist interpretation of the novel is that Louisa escapes from the patriarchal system in which men bond by means of the exchange of women as objects, in expectation of gain. In The Man Who Loved Children, this system is exemplified by the way in which Henny’s father has handed her over to Sam, a man totally unsuited to her. Yet Sam cannot measure up in a world of men; once his father-in-law dies, he cannot even retain his job. He retreats further into the ideal domestic world he has created, but that, too, disappoints, for he must deal with the subversive female elements of Henny and Louisa. Though Henny fights Sam’s domination, she remains trapped by the circumstances that have been dictated by her father and husband, which have distorted her identity as a woman. She is all too ready to seize the poison cup.

It remains to Louisa, a gloomy little girl and budding writer, to escape from Sam’s patriarchal control. Louisa’s victory over her father is merely a sign of a deeper victory—the creation of an autonomous self that transcends the roles of servant, substitute mother, and family clown that she has been forced to play. The linguistic freedom to which Louisa aspires in her art is achieved by Stead in this long, many-layered novel.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Brydon, Diana. Christina Stead. London: Macmillan, 1987. One book in a series on women writers, Brydon’s work examines the growing worldwide popularity of Stead and the elements of her fiction that relate most immediately to women. It includes an excellent chapter on The Man Who Loved Children.

Lidoff, Joan. Christina Stead. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. This book studies Stead as a woman writer and describes her style as “domestic gothic.” Lidoff points out that feminist demand led to the revival of Stead’s work in the 1970’s, yet Stead herself had no interest in feminism.

Sheridan, Susan. Christina Stead. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Sheridan’s volume joins other books in the Key Women Writers series that includes works by Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Walker, and Rebecca West. The strongest chapter in this thin book discusses The Man Who Loved Children. Sheridan sees Henny and Sam as the embodiment of contradictions that are typical of modern middle-class nuclear families, and she uses a patriarchal model to study the novel.

Williams, Chris. Christina Stead: A Life of Letters. London: Virago, 1989. This excellent biography by an Australian writer delves at length into the autobiographical underpinnings of The Man Who Loved Children. Carefully documented with letters and family records of Stead’s Australian childhood, it reveals a distinct personality.