There is a vast amount of literary technique to be learnt from writers of children’s literature: how to condense character, how to form intimate adventure, how to elucidate on complex issues with simple yet profound illustration. Regarding the symbolism of seasons, in external and internal frames, the following excerpt from Virginia L. Wolf’s article considers what we can learn from their use in classic children’s narratives.
The Cycle of Seasons: Without and Within Time (except)
Virginia L. Wolf
“Seeds grow to plants, yield their harvest, and die, the earth lying dormant and barren until the cycle begins anew. Within a year an animal may also progress from birth to full maturity, producing its own offspring. Similarly dependent upon the natural cycle, people find in the seasons multi-leveled and universal symbols. We see spring as childhood, summer as adolescence, fall as maturity, and winter as old age. On the religious or mythic level, the cycle of the seasons becomes the birth, death, and return of a divine being. In literature, according to Northrop Frye, there are mythoi, or generic plots, associated with the seasons—comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, and irony with winter (162). The full cycle may suggest permanence, promising transcendence as spring follows winter or threatening endless repetition as summer leads to fall. Or, it may capture continuous change as each season offers new and unique experiences.
“In a children’s novel whose primary setting is home, formal requirements often necessitate the use of the cycle of the seasons. Novels using this setting differ enormously, depending on their individual content, especially the age of their protagonists, but besides their use of the seasons, they share other characteristics. Typically, they concentrate on a very small setting, introduce very little conflict, and celebrate a way of life. They may seem a collection of episodes with no clear-cut order. But, as I intend to demonstrate, the cycle of the seasons gives them form and, in the process, meaning.
“Four such novels are E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Part I. All four are relatively stationary in space, focusing on their respective protagonists’ homes, and all four have a strong female emphasis. None of them, furthermore, introduces serious conflict. On the other hand, there are many differences among them. Charlotte’s Web runs from spring to spring, The Moffats from summer to summer, Little House in the Big Woods from autumn to autumn, and Little Women from winter to winter. Also differing are the seasons emphasized, Charlotte’s Web and The Moffatsstressing summer and Little House in the Big Woods and Little Women stressing winter. The most significant differences, however, are those created by the age range of the protagonists. Wilbur is one at the end of Charlotte’s Web, Laura six at the end of Little House, Janey nine at the end of The Moffats, and Jo sixteen at the end of Little Women. The age of the protagonist is, of course, an essential factor in determining the age of the child reader of a novel and the form this novel can take. In their similarities and differences, in other words, these novels should provide the critic with the opportunity for increased understanding of the ways children’s novels vary for the sake of audience.
“At the same time, they also reveal the potential of the cycle of the seasons for structuring children’s novels set in homes. In Northrop Frye’s terms, Charlotte’s Web and Little House in the Big Woods are romance, both very nearly becoming myth, and The Moffats and Little Women are comedy. Frye uses the term myth to refer to a communal vision controlling a work of literature. “Undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons” (139) he sees as the center of all literature, which often displaces, or adapts, myth to varying degrees for the sake of plausibility. To the extent that the techniques of mimesis—verisimilitude, fullness and accuracy of description, for example—characterize a literary work, in other words, myth is displaced (51, 139-140, 365-367). Romance Frye defines as “the mythos of literature concerned primarily with an idealized world” (367), and as the one which least displaces myth. Both similar and different, comedy is the mythos of literature in which myth is greatly displaced, resulting in romantic comedy to the extent that the ending represents an ideal, and ironic comedy to the extent that it does not (163-186).”
- Wolf’s full article can be found in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 10, Number 4, Winter 1986 through subscription to Muse.
- A condensed overview of Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archetypes can be found here, and his full work, The Anatomy of Criticism, here.