If Charles Dickens was alive today, I think he would agree: childhood doesn’t have to be
the best time of life
People like to think that childhood is the best time of life. They see children as being carefree and happy. This has always made me uncomfortable. As I read the first chapters of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, I couldn’t help but thinking that many people have forgotten how painful, frustrating and disempowering the life of a child can be. In the opening chapters of Dickens’s story, Pip, a 6-year-old boy, steals food from his own family to fulfill a promise he was coerced into making by an escaped convict. Dickens does a wonderful job of depicting the first-person experience of Pip’s anxiety as he unwillingly commits the crime. Pip—like most children—is fully aware of the difference between right and wrong and yet he has no power to decide for himself, as we see in this passage from Dickens:
Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers [the stolen piece of meat], it is (as I can testify) a great punishment. The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe [his sister]… almost drove me out of my mind. Then, as the marsh winds made the fire glow and flare, I thought I heard the voice outside, of the man with the iron on his leg who had sworn me to secrecy, declaring that he couldn’t and wouldn’t starve until to-morrow, but must be fed now. At other times, I thought, What if the young man who was with so much difficulty restrained from imbruing his hands in me should yield to a constitutional impatience, or should mistake the time, and should think himself accredited to my heart and liver to-night, instead of tomorrow! If ever anybody’s hair stood on end with terror, mine must have done so then. But, perhaps, nobody’s ever did?
Pip’s problems, both real and imagined, are all real to Pip. Maybe adults, in thinking of childhood, forget that children’s problems are real to them. Maybe nostalgia is just that: forgetting the first-person experience one had. But wouldn’t it be better to begin taking childhood—and every other stage in life—for what it is? As one anonymous blogger put it, “chances are you faced frustrations and anxieties then, just as you do now.”
—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor
Illustration for the Guardian by Neal Fox, “Digested Read: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens“