The Railway Children Critical Essays

Edith Nesbit


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 672 words.)