Posted by: corri23j | December 12, 2015

Edward Gorey & Unsettling Children

In class we’ve been talking about the visual depictions of children in the Victorian Era – both of real kids (some of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs, “ghost mother” portraits, etc.) and of fictional ones (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). I find each of these subjects to have a certain element of the surreal or unsettling about them. Clearly Carroll’s intentions were to create a bizarre, nonsensical world for children to explore, but for the photographic examples the source of their vaguely disconcerting aura seems to stem more from the eyes of the viewer than the creator. In the case of the ghost mothers, shrouded figures or disembodied hands haunt the backgrounds of portraits of children – a fairly conventional method at the time, only creepy to our modern eyes. In class, some of us found a certain unsettling element to Cameron’s portraits The Double Star and The Bereaved Babes / The Mother Moved! – perhaps due to the enigmatic nature of the children’s facial expressions. All three subjects share a common theme: the absence or removal, to some degree or another, of the parent or the mother within the frame of the portrait or story.

I saw parallels with this association between the unsettling or surreal and the distance between children and parent in probably the most famous work of one of my favorite writer/illustrators, Edward Gorey. His drawings often depict vaguely dismaying and macabre scenes in Victorian-ish settings, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies is no exception. Twenty-six different children are on the brink of twenty-six untimely deaths, all without a responsible adult in sight (except if you count the Grim Reaper guy on the front cover).

What’s perhaps most horrifying is that though the text describes exactly what befell each poor child, the images only set the stage for the tragedy to come. It’s the viewers’ imaginations that must fill in the pieces, completing the actions to end up at each frightful conclusion. I also see echoes of the ghost mother pictures in that they were often taken to capture portraits of small children that would not live to see adulthood, much like these kiddies. Though they are depicted when still alive, death is lurking – here in the rhyming couplets, there in the shrouded-in-black mothers who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Grim Reaper.


Interestingly, the collection that Tinies was first published in was subtitled by Gorey Three Volumes of Moral Instruction, certainly a tongue-in-cheek designation that was perhaps along the lines of Carroll’s aim in Alice in Wonderland – to create a children’s story free of heavy-handed morality lessons. Gorey’s art shares a lot with the genre of surreal literary nonsense occupied by Carroll and Edward Lear – his stories are often filled with non-sequiturs that free themselves from the dull bounds of “standard” logic. The Object-Lesson, for instance, makes absolutely no sense, but it still forms an absurd yet somehow coherent narrative that ascribes to some form of logic right out of Wonderland.

Gorey’s work has other, more direct connections to what we’ve read in class as well – he provided illustrations for an edition of Bleak House (you can see that iconic, atmospheric bleakness in his art style, certainly), as well as famously creating the eerie animated introduction for PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, where many Sherlock Holmes stories were performed.


In light of next week’s class on Dorian Gray and its dark, gothic themes, here’s what Gorey had to say about the intersection between gothic imagery, nonsense and children: “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children — oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”


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