Agony Column Literary Criticism


Little Children: Rooted in the Classics
The Agony Column for July 5, 2004
Commentary by Katie Dean

'Little Children' and the author Tom Perrotta.
Book two of Tom Perrotta's novel, 'Little Children' is subtitled 'Madame Bovary' and takes Flaubert's classic novel of that name as its reference point. This begs a very obvious comparison, but in actual fact, Perrotta's novel shares its inspiration with a host of classic literature. This article aims to point out some of the shared concerns and themes in order to inspire anyone who has enjoyed 'Little Children' to take another look at some of the classics.

Many people tend to avoid classic literature, imagining that it is stuffy, difficult to read and irrelevant to society today. It is true that the language of the classics is the language of past centuries. In some cases this can mean very long sentences, full of parentheses, requiring a determined effort of concentration by the reader. Some classic literature also utilises language that is no longer current today, the common misconception being that the reader will be submerged in 'thee' and 'thou' rather than 'you' and 'yours'. Yet much classic literature is not subject to these disconcerting tendencies. Those who are daunted by 'the classics' tend to forget that they are for the most part, at bottom, extremely good stories, packed with truisms that apply as much to society today as they did at the time of publication. It is the universal truths in which they deal, that have made them literary classics. Whilst social standards and economic conditions may change, the human beings that make up society today remain in essence identical to those who lived hundreds of years ago; humans still love, hate, fear and hope.

'Little Children' is in essence a story of ordinary individuals living their lives, seeking success and happiness, but all the while constrained by social expectation. Its appeal lies in the fact that the reader can understand and identify with the emotions and situations experienced by Perrotta's characters. It is also a reflection of the society in which we all live, so we are able to understand the restrictions placed upon the characters by social expectations. Exactly the same arguments can be made for the literary classics with which 'Little Children' can be compared.

Madame Bovary and her creator, Gustave Flaubert
Perrotta himself acknowledges his debt to Gustave Flaubert's most famous novel, 'Madame Bovary'. One of Perrotta's key themes is the frustration and dissatisfaction that marriage can create when it is coupled with external social pressures. Todd is a house-husband, looking after his young son whilst his wife earns the money to support their family. Supposedly Todd is studying for law exams so that he can ultimately become the main family breadwinner. Sarah is a housewife, also with a young child and a husband who seems to have little time for her. These two characters are thrown together and a mutual attraction develops based on their shared boredom and frustration with their respective lives. This storyline is essentially that of 'Madame Bovary'. Emma Bovary is a young wife married to a respectable middle class gentleman who can offer her a decent lifestyle, but nothing in the way of love or excitement. Bored and frustrated by the position in which she finds herself, she enters into a series of affairs. In both novels, the theme of adultery is viewed as a response to dissatisfaction with a social situation. The key difference lies in the changed social standards. Emma Bovary's adulterous behaviour is regarded by society as being absolutely unforgivable and the consequences for her are disastrous. In today's society, adultery is not to be condoned, but it is recognised that it does happen; the consequences for Sarah and Todd are much less severe, although no less painful.

Leo Tolstoy (top), Boris Pasternak (bottom). Intense young men write ageless novels.
'Madame Bovary' is not the only piece of classic literature to deal with the theme of adultery. Two of the greatest Russian classcis, 'Anna Karenina' (Leo Tolstoy) and 'Dr Zhivago' (Boris Pasternak) also explore this moral problem. Anna, the heroine of Tolstoy's great classic, is trapped in a loveless marriage. Like Perrotta's character Sarah, Anna's husband is much older and more concerned with his own life and career than with his marriage. Anna feels stifled and dissatisfied and finds herself unable to resist the temptation to follow her heart and begin an affair with a man whom she truly loves and who returns her love. Once again, this is a novel set in the nineteenth-century and, despite defying social convention, Anna's story is ultimately one of tragedy. Like 'Anna Karenina', 'Dr Zhivago' is a love story. Yuri Zhivago, the main character is not oppressed by a loveless or unsuccessful marriage. In fact he adores his wife, but he is also in love with another woman, Lara. This story needs no introduction – it is one of the classic romances, immortalised in film, but, like Perrotta's novel, it is not just a love story, but a brilliantly drawn record of the time and society in which it is set. Since both these novels were originally written in Russian, modern English translations tend to make concessions to our modern language, offering thoroughly readable and compelling stories.

A new novel about Henry James by Colm Toibin ensures renewed interest in 'The Master'.
In a related vein, 'Portrait of a Lady' (Henry James) deals not only with married life, but with the choices that lead up to that marriage. Isabel Archer, the heroine, like the other heroines discussed above, is ultimately unhappy in her marriage. However, Henry James concentrates much of the novel on the courtship process. Isabel is a strong-minded, independent woman who refuses to be guided by others in her choice of husband. However, in the last resort, the man to whom she finds herself married is very different from the man she thought she was marrying. The reader is forced to watch Isabel become a very different woman as she is oppressed and made miserable by her marriage. In this respect, comparisons between 'Little Children' and 'Portrait of a Lady' can also be made; Perrotta's novel may be set after the fact of marriage, but there is still a strong sense that his main characters are also disappointed in their choice of partner. This fact is a strong driver in the adultery that forms the main theme of Perrotta's novel. If this kind of storyline is to your taste, George Eliot's 'Daniel Deronda' offers a similar subplot with a strong-minded heroine determined to marry the man of her choice and later forced to repent her decision.

'Middlemarch' and author George Eliot.
'Little Children' is not only about love and adultery, but also weaves a tale of modern society. The subplot focuses on the social politics that result when a paedophile moves into the quiet suburb in which the novel is set. This exposes all kinds of moral complexities and cleverly illustrates the highly political atmosphere of suburbia when it is riled. Once again, this is a plot that shares much with the classics. George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' is perhaps one of the greatest descriptions of middle class suburbia ever written. It details the small town politics of the fictional town of Middlemarch and its surroundings. Like Perrotta, Eliot focuses on two married couples, both of whom marry in haste in the heat of love, only to be faced with the reality of married life and to feel the dissatisfaction that it can bring. Eliot's dissatisfied couples do not turn to adultery, but they are constrained and frustrated by social expectations. Against the stories of these four lives, Middlemarch life is brilliantly portrayed with all the social snobbery, petty concerns and rivalries that are to be found in a suburban middle class society.

If social commentary is what appeals in Perrotta's novel, then there is no shortage of classic literature that employs this theme. Jane Austen is a favourite author with many and is certainly very accessible. Her popularity comes as much from her witty style as her subject matter. She had an incredible gift for observation and for turning the people around her into larger than life characters. All her novels provide a fascinating, humorous insight into nineteenth-century suburbia and the moral judgements and petty concerns that drive people. They also have the added bonus of including romance and always providing a happy ending.

Many, many more examples of literary classics could be highlighted to illustrate the rich heritage into which 'Little Children' fits. Hopefully this selection is sufficient to induce anyone who enjoyed Perrotta's novel to reconsider our literary heritage. It is something to be enjoyed for its enduring message and continued relevance today, not something to inspire trepidation or suffer from the barrier imposed by literary snobbery.