The Railway Children

by Edith Nesbit

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The Railway Children is a straightforward narrative of what happens when a family is disrupted by the absence of one of its members, and E. Nesbit uses the disruption to examine the responsibilities that people have to one another and themselves within the English class structure. The book conveys the basic sense that people and the world are largely good; although the children’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned, justice does prevail in the end. Dr. Forrest appears to treat family members for a minimal fee, if any, although he is poor himself. The children avert tragedy several times and are rewarded for it with the friendship of the rich old gentleman and a poor barge worker, among others. When they do wrong, they are forgiven—and learn from their mistakes.

This theme of goodness, however, is closely tied to self-sufficiency. While Nesbit makes it clear that the children can and should help others, they are not expected to receive charity themselves. Bobbie’s entrance into the adult world is marked by a transition from asking for help to learning to help herself and others. At the beginning of the novel, she joins in asking the old gentleman for food and pleads with Dr. Forrest about his fees. By the end of the novel, she is capable not only of keeping her father’s condition a secret from the other two children but also of sitting in a dark railway tunnel and comforting the injured Jim. The need for self-sufficiency rather than charity becomes clear when Mother is upset about the children asking the old gentleman for food, and Nesbit reinforces the theme when Perks is greatly offended at his birthday party because he thinks that he is receiving charity that he does not need. He comes to understand, however, that people gave gifts out of genuine friendship for him, what the village clergyman calls “loving-kindness” and what Nesbit seems to value most highly.

The kind of assistance that the adults provide to the children and one another is based on such loving-kindness, rather than the charity of an upper class to a lower class; in the case of the Russian prisoner, for example, Mother takes care of him partly because she respects his writing and partly because she compares him to her own wrongfully imprisoned husband. The old gentleman provides financial assistance in return for Mother nursing his grandson. The release of the children’s father comes about through the efforts of the old gentleman, but such efforts have been spurred on by Bobbie’s friendship with him. Nesbit suggests that loving-kindness and friendship cross economic lines.

The great accomplishment of the novel, however, is to present these themes of loving-kindness and self-sufficiency without preaching. Bobbie, who is taking on more responsibility and beginning to understand that the adult world is difficult and painful, can still quarrel with Peter only a few days after Mother has praised them for not quarreling. The children grumble and struggle with their schoolwork when lessons resume. The girls say nasty things about boys, and Peter disdains the girls. While the children are essentially good and their mother seems almost unbelievably perfect, the characters are still capable of sharp words and mistakes.

Nesbit also briefly raises the issue of gender roles. Before Father is taken away, he declares that girls can do anything that boys can, and Mother supports herself and the children through writing. Although the children have stereotyped views of marriage and Dr. Forrest at one point tells Peter that girls need to be protected so that they can have babies, both Bobbie and Mother are strong, capable, and intelligent. When the old gentleman provides money for Mother to nurse his grandson and hints that, because he is trying to free Father, she may not have to write anymore, Mother quickly responds that she loves writing, an unusual attitude for women of that era. Nesbit’s theme of self-sufficiency in place of dependency is essentially a humanist one, applying to both men and women.

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Critical Context