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The Child’s Story Summary

Summary and Analysis of The Child's Story by Charles Dickens

Published in 1852, “The Child’s Story” is a short story in the form of a parable that describes a traveller on a ‘magical’ journey that symbolises the cycle of life.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in English literature, Charles Dickens was a celebrated Victorian author, editor, journalist and social critic, and one of the central figures who contributed to the development of Literary Realism in Britain and English literature. His works primarily focused on the struggles and hardships of the poor, working-class masses of England, and the author himself was a champion of social reforms favouring the poor in society. Dickens’ writings display a keen sense of humour, irony, wit, and social satire, earning international recognition during his life and beyond.

The Child’s Story | Summary

Using a third-person omniscient narrator like most of Dicken’s other works, the story begins like a fairy tale, describing a traveller on a magical journey that seemed ‘very long when he began it, and very short when he got halfway through. He travels on a dark, lonely path for some time when he unexpectedly encounters a beautiful child. Upon asking the child what he is doing in such a dark, forested path, the child answers, “I am always at play. Come and play with me!” Happily, the traveller joins the child in his play, playing along joyously all day. The beautiful spring weather echoes the joy and wonders in their hearts, and everything in nature, the sky and the sun, the birds and the bees, appear to be of unparalleled beauty, filling the child and the traveller with a sense of wonder. They also have a magically plentiful supply of the finest toys, storybooks and playthings, and all the stories of princes and princesses and beasts and wizards they hear are true.

One day, suddenly, the traveller is unable to find the child. Going in search of him on the path that he travelled through, he encounters a handsome boy after some distance. He asks again what the boy does here, who says, “I am always learning. Come and learn with me.” As with the child, the traveller joins the boy in his pursuit of knowledge, learning all that there is to learn. In this process, however, there are wonderful breaks and holidays full of fun and games, feasts and adventures, and most importantly, friendship. Amidst all these pleasures, one day, the traveller loses the boy. He again goes on in search of the boy along the road and encounters a young man at some distance. As he repeats the question that he asked the boy and the child, the young man answers, “I am always in love. Come and love with me.” This time too, he joins the young man in his search for love, and soon they encounter “one of the prettiest girls that ever was seen – just like Fanny in the corner there”. The girl, we are told, resembles Fanny to a great extent in her appearance and behaviour, and the man falls in love with the girl, just as “Somebody” did with Fanny. It is important to note here that Fanny was the name of Dickens’ elder sister, Frances Elizabeth Dickens, who the girl is modelled on. The “Somebody”, then, would likely be a reference to her lover and husband, Henry Burnett. The young man continues with his tryst with the young girl, and they are to be married soon, just like “Somebody” and Fanny. However, history repeats itself once more as one morning the traveller can’t find the man again.

As he walks down the road in his fruitless search for him, he encounters a middle-aged gentleman who is always busy, and he invites him to ‘be busy’ with him. They start working together all day, accompanied by the gentleman’s wife and children, and the traveller notices that the wood through which he has been travelling all this time, is dark green now, like in the peak of summer, with some trees starting to brown. He remembers that when he started his journey, the woods were in spring, bright and blossoming. As they continue working hard and carrying their burdens, another child, the youngest yet, joins them, symbolising another birth.

At one time, the road led them to a point with multiple avenues emerging in front, and each of the children go forth on a different one, taking different journeys in life as they grow up. One dies and ascends to Heaven. While each farewell is accompanied by tears and sorrow, the gentleman and his wife, now showing grey specks in their hair in the setting sun, carry on, continuing to remain busy all the time. The leaves now brown and falling, they reach an avenue darker than the rest, and the lady takes her leave from her husband this time, joining her first child in Heaven as her husband helplessly looks on.

As the traveller and his friend reach the end of the woods, seeing the sunset beyond, the gentleman is lost again, and the traveller sees a lonely old man sitting under a fallen tree. This old man says “I am always remembering. Come and remember with me!”. As the traveller joins the old man to reminisce about their past, they are surrounded by the friends that the traveller found on his journey – the child, the boy, the young lover, the husband and the wife, as if he has lost nobody. The old man and the traveller are patient with and kind to everybody, who in turn love and honour them. At this point, the narrator, who turns out to be a child, tells his grandfather, that this traveller must be him, as this is what he does to them, and what they do to him.

The Child’s Story | Analysis

The story, in its language and structure, resembles a fairy tale beginning with the classic phrase, “Once upon a time…”. Keeping in line with the conventions of a parable, the story has characters who are all symbolic of a certain age, accompanying the traveller on his journey through the cycle of life. In each part of the journey, the traveller and his companion engage in actions and behaviours almost exclusively associated with that age, like playing with the child or remembering with the old man. Nature as well as the day also echoes this cycle of life and death, the seasons beginning from Spring and ending at the end of Fall, and the day beginning with sunrise and early morning, and ending with sunset. As death is not directly portrayed in the story except for the deaths of the gentleman’s wife and child, winter and night, both symbolic of death, are not shown directly but are implied.

The story also contains biographical references to Dickens’ own life, with references to his sister Fanny and her husband. The frame narrative of a child telling a story to his grandfather, revealed only at the very end of the story, can also be interpreted as the grandfather narrating a parable to his grandchildren, one of whom identifies him with the traveller, as it is unlikely that a child who has not seen most of the stages of life would be able to come up with a story that accurately describes each age, along with natural symbolisms that reflect the cycle of life.

The Child’s Story | Themes

The Cycle of Life and Death – The primary theme of the parable is the cycle of life, each character symbolic of a certain age and its associated characteristics. This cycle is echoed by the nature as well, through the change in seasons from spring to fall, and the passing of the day from sunrise to sunset. The story, thus, also reflects the rotation of the earth around the sun, as well as a complete revolution that brings about the change in seasons, all echoing the cycle of nature.

The Child’s Story | Characters

The Traveller – The traveller, who the child identifies with his grandfather, is out on the magically symbolic journey of life, passing through each age accompanied by a character belonging to that age, who can be interpreted as his various alter egos in each age.

The Child – Symbolic of childhood, the first stage of life, the child is always at play, displaying characteristics that are conventionally associated with childhood, like innocence, wonder and joy. In the fairy-tale world of the parable, all the child’s desires come true, there is an endless supply of toys, and all the fairy tales that they read are true.

The Boy – Belonging to the age of adolescence, the boy’s primary occupation is learning and education, with occasional breaks and holidays that involve friends, sports, adventures, travels, festivals and feasts, all part of the charms of boyhood. The boy is curious, eager to learn, energetic and light-hearted.

The Young Man – Fitting into the stereotypical portrayal of youth, the primary pursuit of the young man is to love, dream, fantasise, and romance his beloved all day. He displays the characteristics of a lover.

The Middle-Aged Gentleman – The gentleman symbolises adulthood and middle age, full of hard work, responsibilities and burdens of maintaining a family. This age is the first time the story darkens, alluding to death, separation from children, and ageing. The primary characteristics of the gentleman are diligence and hard-working nature.

The Old Man – Having reached the end of the cycle of life, the old man’s only job is to remember the past that has gone by, reliving his memories as he prepares to let go of all of them in death. Patience, forbearance, and kindness are the characteristics of this age.





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