The Wild Boy of Aveyron

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Harlan Lane’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron is, essentially, two books in one. It is a narrative of the discovery, capture, and subsequent treatment of a twelve-year-old child who, having been abandoned by his parents, lived in the forest from his fifth to his twelfth year. It is also a meditation upon the meaning of the narrative, as it traces some developments in educational theory and methods, in the treatment of deaf-mutes, and in philosophical conceptions about man’s nature that arose from the diagnosis and treatment of this unusual child. The two sections of the book are, unfortunately, sometimes intermingled so that the reader is often frustrated by shifts in time and perspective. However, the book as a whole is fascinating; it is useful in its resurrection of reports and letters connected with the capture of the wild child, and, above all, historically imaginative in seeing future benefits from the probings of scientists, philosophers, and medical men of the early nineteenth century who came in contact with this child.

The narrative is likely to interest the common reader most; it is a compelling story dominated by the struggle of the child to return to society, and it is told with sympathy and no little drama. Lane begins the book by introducing us to the two main characters, the wild boy and Dr. Itard. They are not to meet until a year after the child’s capture, and they could not have been more different. The child was left to the mercies of the forest and grew up with only animals for his companions; he was an outcast whose condition is almost impossible to imagine today. Itard, however, was the son of a loving father and rose rapidly in the flux of revolutionary France. He was a social man who was blessed with opportunities and benefactors. There is little doubt, however, that although Itard had great affection for the child and worked with him closely for more than four years, he must have seen the child as a challenge and another opportunity to advance and to make a name and a career for himself. After this brief and dramatic introduction, the focus shifts to the capture and description of the child.

The child was seen a number of times in the area of Aveyron during an extremely cold winter, and he was finally captured by some hunters. The boy ran very fast on all fours; he ate only nuts, vegetables, and potatoes, and he managed to survive in the most severe winter in memory virtually without clothing. He was a phenomenon, an event, and word of his capture spread rapidly. He was an important discovery not only as an object of revolutionary charity but also because it was felt that the wild child would supply data that would help settle the debate over man’s nature. Was he a noble savage? Did he possess innate ideas? Was he a statue that could be made to speak and reason once he entered society and received the blessings of civilization? The first step was to assign the child to a competent observer. He was placed in the care of the Abbe Bonnaterre, and he was brought to Paris where he contracted smallpox as his first benefit from civilization. Bonnaterre treated the boy very kindly and left a lengthy description of his condition soon after he was dragged from the forest. Lane has managed to find this document, and it is reprinted here for the first time in English. The most significant aspects of the report concern the boy’s deprivation of speech and his lack of any signs of affection: “he loves no one; he is attached to no one. . . .” But in spite of these central deficiencies. Bonnaterre ends the report full of hope for the future: “Go forth, poor youth, on this unhappy earth, go forth and lose in your relations with men your primitiveness and simplicity!”

The great hopes that Bonnaterre and others had for the wild child were, however, soon dashed. The distinguished teacher of the deaf, Abbe Sicard, reached a diagnosis of idiocy after failing to train the boy. Pinel, called by Lane the founder of psychotherapy, compared the boy to other idiots he had examined and was certain that the wild child was uneducable. At this point Dr. Itard and the wild child were united. Itard felt that the boy appeared to be an idiot because he had been so completely isolated from society rather than that he had been abandoned because he was an idiot. Itard was a follower of Condillac, who did not believe in innate ideas but felt that man needed language, which the boy obviously lacked, in order to rise above an animal level. Itard, then, attempted to supply the missing...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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Book World. May 2, 1976, p. L8.

Contemporary Psychology. XXI, August, 1976, p. 601.

Human Behavior. V, July, 1976, p. 74.

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New Yorker. LII, June 28, 1976, p. 90.

Science. CXCIV, October 15, 1976, p. 311.