The following is from an email I sent to a professor several years ago (in 2009). The professor taught a literature class on Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll; imagining a “childlike woman” was an ideal (and perhaps an obsession) for both authors. Here, I shared some reflections on childlike virtues, love and infatuation, the Byronic hero, and why the nice guy finishes last. I’m not sure I would still agree with everything I said then, but for the record-books, here’s my (slightly disorganized) collection of thoughts:
I am particularly interested in the concepts of love relationships and childlike virtues, and luckily so, as Dickens seemed to be preoccupied with these very ideas to the point of obsession. It is clear that there is a small (or large) glorification of the pure and glowing childlike woman (the “child-wife,” as Dora would have it). This is not singly characteristic of Dickens. In the long course of history, and in other works of literature penned by other hands, there appears some elevation of the moon-faced female, slim and docile and pretty and pure of heart. I wonder at the reasons for this. Perhaps it is an attempt at transfiguring spiritual beauty into a physical manifestation, the latter of which is readily identifiable to most people; in this instance, prettiness acts as a signpost of virtue, and it becomes easy to conflate one with the other. The Bible gives little physical description of the Virgin Mary, but innumerable artistic renderings through the ages show us a woman whose countenance is as immaculate as her spirit. I suppose something similar could be remarked on the prevalence of a pale complexion in beauty standards across time and cultures: a face clean of blemishes hints at an unsullied character beneath. The child’s complexion is almost wholly free of these bothersome spots and boils until the advent of adolescence, when a surge of hormones accompanies the beginnings of many things – rule-breaking and independence and sexual awareness, among them. It is comfortable for us, then, to associate certain childlike physical features with a childlike character, and then a childlike character with a sort of prelapsarian goodness, absent of things like sexual desire. (Note, too, the impression that spiritual advancement comes after a rejection of bodily desires, thereby making physical purity a prerequisite to some higher purity – it is a return to a childlike state.) Hence, perhaps, the inclusion of several childlike features – including clear skin, large eyes, soft lips, rounded contours of the face – in common criteria for feminine beauty. But why does this constellation of traits prove so irresistible? Perhaps there is room for a biological explanation: the appearance of youth suggests a vigor and health that would be advantageous in evolutionary competition. Yet, the picture of an innocent female is frail, more often than not, challenging the connection between youth and vitality, youth and fertility. This is the paradox that arises from the male’s desire to take a waiflike female as his own; he seeks the innocent manners of a youthful girl but, the relationship being fundamentally romantic, he also has a sexual desire – and this latter cannot be satisfied by a prepubescent physicality. The same is true of childbearing desires: recall David Copperfield, who thought his marriage troubles might disappear, if only Dora could bear a child. But Dora is a child-wife rather than a wife proper – and thus unfit, physically and mentally, to enact the role of mother. She is sweet and gentle, but her tenderness is not touched by the maturity that characterizes a mother’s. To have a child would be, for Dora, more to keep likeminded company, than to develop a protector-protected bond.
The innocent girl-figure is good-natured and inoffensive, and it is easy to take a liking to her. But in many ways she is an abstract conception, an archetype, rather than a person of flesh-and-bones (as far as novelistic creations will permit a picture of fleshiness). It is simple and admirable, perhaps, to trumpet a fondness for the little girl, just as it is easy and good to tout the estimation of virtues like love and truth and beauty. But there is a disconnect between the abstract concept and the real-day living. We might even say that interacting with a person as if she were an Ideal Incarnate has something obscene in it; for most likely the Ideal is better called an idealization, and the act of idealizing denies the girl some humanity in the process. Possibly there is something very selfish in the man’s pursuit of the “good girl”: just as the man who is self-consciously humble is not truly humble at all, so too may a man embrace a virtuous girl, not for love of her, but because he feels noble and paternal as a result of the association. According to traditional gender roles, the male has been the strong provider, and perhaps there is something self-gratifying in playing the protector – and surely there is much protecting to be done if one’s wife is a child-wife.
This view suggests that Dickens’s protagonists pursue romance out of self-satisfying motivations, and therefore that their love is impure, subpar, not real (because “Love is patient; love is kind… it is not self-seeking”). But I am not so certain that this is the case. Dickens gives us a portrait of obsessive love, certainly, but we must be careful to remember that obsessive love is separate from infatuation – the former has the word “love” in its name, after all. I do not have a nice way of parsing the two terms, nor a way of justifying my conviction in logical terms; for what it’s worth, I have only some gut impression that what Dickens felt in his own life, and what he allowed his characters to feel, does approach, and sometimes constitute, love proper, even if is a form of love not yet heavy with wisdom. Although love is a pure virtue, and uplifting, I do not know that we can rule out the existence of love in a relationship that is not wholly pure – can we not consider, instead, that love is indeed present, but mingling with some other, more grossly human things?
It was asked in class, as around the world: Why does the nice guy finish last? The question further points to the incongruity of falling in love. We often become enamored of someone we would not count as a friend (“I don’t like you, but I love you”/“I don’t want you, but I need you,” as The Beatles sing) – perhaps because the act of befriending is a largely conscious one, a decision based on sound observations (“we have similar values,” “we enjoy the same pastimes,” “she is smart and makes good conversation,” “he is kind and generous”); whereas falling in love has much illogic and instinctive emotionality in it. There are theories about why “the nice guy finishes last,” and though they must be a far cry from being complete, they are nonetheless worthwhile to examine. As an example, let us look at the immense attractiveness of the Byronic hero, established as an archetype in literature by Lord Byron in the 19th century. The Byronic hero, in brief, is desperately handsome, cynical, rebellious, brooding, navel-gazing, shrewd, arrogant, domineering, self-destructive. A relationship with him is likely to be tempestuous, tossed between extremes of passion and dejection; he may be physically or emotionally abusive, and prone to intense changeability of mood. From a place of distance, we can remark, “Oh, it is a very unwise idea, getting into a relationship with this man. It is bound to end up badly.” But logic alone does not govern our minds (and hardly our hearts), so we end up with an enduring and unexceptionable attraction to the Byronic figure. I admit that I myself am hopelessly in love with this very ideal, and sometimes I feel rotten at the thought: instead of rebuking a flaw in the Byronic-type (a flaw I would find reprehensible in myself or considered in the abstract), I almost delight in it. It makes for a terrible predicament of self-questioning: am I a hypocrite? am I, at the core, a bad person? am I elevating senseless love over principled and long-cultivated friendship? I wonder at the reasons for this. Some say a girl is convinced that a heart of gold resides deep down in the under-layers of the Byronic hero, and it becomes her mission to exhume it. Some say a girl derives pleasure at the thought that she could be “the chosen one” to a man so highly selective in his affinities: it is a sensation of feeling rare and pursuing the hard-to-acquire. Then there is the law of attraction of opposites, easy to verify in chemistry, but complicated to decipher in human relations. Perhaps a good girl, so called, lives vicariously through a Byronic-type, who trades stability for imbalance and seeks adventure and reaches dark insights inside a dark and brooding mind. Perhaps there is a perverse pleasure in being spurned – there is a spirit of competition (“Can I prove myself worthy of regaining his affections?”) and of piety (“I will be steadfast and quietly keep my devotion, even if he is erratic”); is the root feeling narcissism? Why does everything seem to return to the self? Friendship transpires often among likeminded, like-tempered people; whereas love seems to favor a relationship in which basic similarities exist in company with a few very salient differences. The volatility of strong emotion might help to explain the dipole phenomenon of “opposites attract.”
In these scattered thoughts, I haven’t much more to say, but for a few words on curiosity. I think the childlike character that Dickens has developed and extolled is remarkable for the code of virtues it implies. Chief among the childlike virtues is Curiosity. Dickens thinks it is good, and I think it is good, to preserve a childlike wonder at the world: curiosity takes away the dullness of life and increases the compassion of the person who protects it. It is appropriate to remember how distinct Dickens is for (1) the poesy of his prose and (2) the precision with which he gets at a character’s fundamental being. These are evidence of a poet’s soul. Curiosity marks the poet, and makes him attentive and understanding of the world; this is why he can communicate the essential tenets and experiences of human life with a sincerity that gives us pause. It is good to be like the child even as we age, if we learn to assimilate the goodness of childhood with the goodness of maturity – a yoking of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we forgo the latter, we are childish, not childlike, and what have we left to learn? We are keeping ourselves in the past and denying our nature, rather than bringing along a past (and pure) perspective, so useful in framing experiences that lie ahead. To which Carroll, or Alice, might remark: “Curiouser and curiouser!”