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Heidi and Pinker

I re-read _Heidi_ recently (by Johanna Spyri; trans. Helen Dole.) It was still fun, though on the border of sentimental twee and piously didactic. But since I'm also reading a book on human violence, I was struck by something one normally wouldn't be, unless perhaps one read Dickens at the same time.

It's a very non-threatening story. IIRC, not even Peter the goatherd gets threatened with a beating, though he probably implicitly fears one. Heidi, a troublesome orphan in a strange household with a hostile governess, is not spanked, not even threatened with being sent to her room without supper. The worst thing that happens is confiscation of some belongings, and more out of arrogance than malice, and a kindly servant rescues them anyway.

Peter hits the goats, until Heidi makes him stop.

This probably doesn't seem like much, to us in 2012, when hitting children and animals is out of fashion. But this is a book published in 1880; actual children were getting regular beatings well into the 1950s, and some corporal punishment is hardly entirely verboten today. And hitting goats with a stick to keep them in line is very mild compared to what's been done to animals historically, like burning them alive for fun. Other fictional orphans get nearly fed to witches, beaten, starved, taken in by criminals... Dickens is full of this, and those are the good endings.

So Heidi stands out as part of what Pinker calls the Civilizing Process and the Humanitarian Revolution. Lessons of self-control and kindness and literacy and piety for the kids, and modeling an idyllic peaceful kind and non-violent world where not even goats or bad boys get thwacked.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
bemused_leftist
May. 5th, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)
Same ethic in Baum's OZ, and iirc in Burnett's THE SECRET GARDEN.
mindstalk
May. 5th, 2012 02:12 am (UTC)
Never read Oz, though I've got a library copy of Garden waiting around for me. Adventures of Remy aren't in the public libraries here, though.
bemused_leftist
May. 5th, 2012 02:54 am (UTC)
Remy?

In UNDERSTOOD BETSY, nobody got smacked (or misbehaved) and it sounded sort of didactic toward parents. But there was a lot of emotional manipulation.
mindstalk
May. 5th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
Remi, my bad.

Haven't heard of Betsy.
harimad
May. 5th, 2012 03:09 am (UTC)
Hadn't thought about this in Burnett's work. I'd expect beatings more in The Little Princess than The Secret Garden and you're right - just tain't there (much? - I'm working off memory).

Cool. And another thing to think about when reading old books.
heron61
May. 5th, 2012 07:32 am (UTC)
Fascinating, I've not read Heidi, but I have read a fair amount of fiction from the late 19th & early 20th century, and it does sound quite unusual.

So Heidi stands out as part of what Pinker calls the Civilizing Process and the Humanitarian Revolution. Lessons of self-control and kindness and literacy and piety for the kids, and modeling an idyllic peaceful kind and non-violent world where not even goats or bad boys get thwacked.

And thus, in many small and slow ways was the world made a vastly better place. It's very heartening to think just how much books, and later movies and TV shows have constributed to this process.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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