Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Great Character Makes The Allegory Go Down Easier

I had totally forgotten that Roger Sutton mentioned Gossamer by Lois Lowry in his recent post about allegory. Fortunately, A Fuse #8 Production reminded me just in time for my own musings on Lowry's newest book.

First off, Roger defined allegory (for which I thank him very much) as "the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form." He also suggested that Gossamer, as well as The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, are allegories and that they have "inspired strong reactions." He wonders "if there's something in the nature of allegory itself that prompts the strong response."

Personally, I don't find allegories very subtle. They tend to have lessons, as Roger also mentioned in his post, though his definition doesn't come out and say it. With allegories, I don't get to work out the lesson for myself the way I do in most fiction. Instead, I get hit over the head with it. It's almost as if the author is saying, "Okay, in case you don't get it, what I mean is..." So I think the reason many people have trouble with allegory is because allegory makes them feel as if they're not being treated with respect as readers. They're being treated as if they can't figure out meaning on their own.

Allegory in children's books also tends to be a little sappy. At best.

Now we come to Gossamer. (Once again, I couldn't upload the cover.)

You could say there were two storylines in Gossamer, a fantasy storyline and a very realistic storyline. The realistic storyline is very predictable, one we've seen many times before--an unhappy child comes together with a lonely, elderly person and both their lives improve. There's an instructional, social commentary aspect to their story because the boy (and his mother) are the victims of an abusive father and husband.

The fantasy storyline--about a child being who brings dreams to humans--is another thing entirely. It brings novelty to the book. This is where the allegory comes in. The little dream giver learns that we must all change, change is painful, etc. And, yes, it was a little unsubtle and syrupy.

Here's the thing, though: that child dream giver, Littlest One, is just a marvelous character. She is chatty and giggly and caring and not at all human. She is childlike while at the same time not like any child you know. She is a marvelous creation.

I suspect that kid readers are going to skip the instructive, realistic portion of this book and shoot right for the parts that deal with Littlest One.

I came up with another question while I was writing this post. Roger said that these allegorical books had "brought the knives out." He meant, of course, among adults who read children's literature. What about child readers? Are they bothered by allegory the way adults are? Or do they like having the point of stories underlined for them?

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