The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

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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 respect and admiration at her school, which would have been impossible for her without her art.

The book also speaks with much conviction on the theme of money, or the lack thereof, and its impact on daily life and on the very souls of men and women. Money, according to this novel, is crucial. All of Sam’s optimism and philosophizing fall limp and pallid when he cannot properly feed and clothe his family. Henny’s desperation and anger spring, in large measure, from her inability to live within her means. In a very real way, her aspiration to wealth is parallel to Sam’s aspiration to moral perfection.

Clearly, in this novel, any such obsessive aspiration causes more destruction than benefits. Both parents lose sight of their proper role as parents and force their children to be victims of their private obsessions. On the other hand, the children’s relative strength and well-being attests the awesome power of any sort of love,...

(The entire section is 594 words.)